"Of the gladdest moments of human life, me thinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands”
Sir Richard Burton
Sir Richard Burton
With Thailand all but shutting down for Songkran, April 2011 offered us the opportunity head a little further afield and to a place and a continent that we had been dreaming of traveling to ever since we were young, North Africa and in particular Morocco
23th to the 26th of April 2011
We landed in the iconic Moroccan city of Casablanca and, much to Belinda’s dismay, immediately hopped in a taxi and left! After three hours we pulled to the side of the road in a small trading town. While the driver took a break we strolled along its dusty streets and found a roadside restaurant cum butchers shop for lunch and our first taste of Morocco’s wonderful hospitality and amazing street food. After a tasty lunch of beef patties, simply grilled over coals, served with salad and flat bread and washed down with sweet mint tea we continued on our way to Essaouira.
We finally arrived in the small port city in the late afternoon. We met our Rihad hosts at the gate to the old city and followed as they guided us through the pedestrian allies of the Medina. Like most of the Rhiad’s the XXXX was small but welcoming with generous hosts and a wonderful roof top terrace.
I’m not sure why we decided to go to Essaouira. we new very little about it, only that it was a small port town and had a UNESCO listed Medina. It certainly wasn’t as famous as it’s tourist rivals of Casablanca, Marakesh or Tangiers. Our lack of expectation made discovering this fabulous little city a wonderful experience.
We enjoyed our few days here wandering through the spice-scented lanes and palm-lined avenues of the fortified medina, browsing the many art galleries and boutique or strolling along the walkway of the Skala du Port overlooking the activities of local fishermen and boat builders.
The fishing harbour remains rather small yet both genuine and quaintly picturesque. The catches, including sardines and conger eels are surprisingly abundant due to the coastal upwelling generated by the powerful trade winds and the Canaries Current. A string of restaurants offer this fresh seafood, simply grilled on wood fires, to the passing tourists (at inflated prices) but great with a cold beer.
Outside the Medina is the modern city of Essauoira overlooking the expansive bay renowned for its excellent wind and kite surfjng, we strolled along the beach watching the locals enjoying typical beach-life.
Essaouira (previously Mogador) has long been considered as one of the best anchorages of the Moroccan coast. The Carthaginian navigator Hanno visited in the 5th century BC and established a trading post. Essaouira was re-built during the mid- eighteenth century by King Mohammed III in an attempt to reorient his kingdom toward the Atlantic and increase trade with Europe. From this time, until the end of the nineteenth century, Essaouira served as Morocco’s principal port, offering the goods of the caravan trade to the world.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed Medina of Essaouira is a excellent example of a late 18th-century fortified town. It’s design was transferred to North Africa by European colonists and is protected by seafront ramparts called the Skala de la Kasbah.
Leaving Essauira in one of the ubiqutous mercedes taxis we headed east toward Marakesh passing extensive Argan groves. Argan oil has become increasingly popular in the west for both culinary and cosmetic uses. The oil is generally produced by womens coopertatives using traditional methods. Employment in the co-operatives provides women with an income, which many have used to fund education for themselves or their children. It has also provided them with a degree of autonomy in a traditionally male-dominated society and has helped many become more aware of their rights. At present, its production supports about 2.2 million people in the main argan oil-producing region, the Arganeraie. Environmentally, the argan tree provides food, shelter and protection from desertification. The trees’ deep roots help prevent desert encroachment. The canopy of argan trees also provides shade for other agricultural products, and the leaves and fruit provide feed for animals, including tree climbing goats!! Culinary argan oil is used for dipping bread, on couscous, salads and similar uses. Amlou, a thick brown paste with a consistency similar to peanut butter, is used locally as a bread dip. It is produced by grinding roasted almond and argan oil using stones, and then mixing the argan oil and almonds in honey. Various claims about the beneficial effects on health due to the consumption of argan oil have been made. A research article published in 2010 found that argan oil contained higher levels than other oils of γ-Tocopherol, which possesses strong chemopreventive and anti-inflammatory properties.
27th to the 29th of April 2011
According to the Telegraph, “Red baked-mud medina palaces beneath the snow-capped High Atlas and a powder-pink ring of ramparts around 19 kilometres of seething souqs, Marrakech is Morocco’s most memorable experience”. Bollocks
“But Marrakech isn’t some petrified piece of history that tourists come to gawk at, it’s bursting at the seems with an intense density of life and a modern entrepreneurialism that puts Manhattanites to shame.”
more like “Tourist come to be harrassed... bursting at the seems with tourist crap and the intensity of Disneyland”
Ok this maybe a little harsh on a city that is inundated with thousands of tourist day in day out and has had to learn how to deal with it and make money from it but after Essouira it felt less genuine. This is not to say we hated it, wondering the souqs enthralling . Founded almost 1000 years ago on the edge of the Sahara, this southern market town grew to become one of the great cities of the Maghreb.
Arguably one of the most well known squares in the world Jemaa el-Fnaa is famous for its enormous, and UNESCO listed, food market that sets up every evening. The UNESCO listing provided it with protection from economic development pressures, recognizing it as an internationally important place of cultural expression and traditions.
The square is edged along one side by the Marrakesh souk, a traditional North African market catering both for the common daily needs of the locals, and for the tourist trade though the tourist appear to be engulfing the locals. On other sides are hotels and gardens and cafe terraces, and narrow streets lead into the alleys of the medina quarter. During the day it is predominantly occupied by orange juice stalls, water sellers with traditional leather water-bags and brass cups. Unfortunately there are still kids with chained Barbary apes and snake charmers despite these species being protected under Moroccan law. As the day progresses, the entertainment on offer changes: the snake charmers depart, and late in the day the square becomes more crowded, with Chleuh dancers (boys as it would be against custom for girls to provide such entertainment), story-tellers (telling their tales in Berber or Arabic, to an audience of locals), magicians, and peddlers of traditional medicines. As darkness falls, the square fills with dozens of food-stalls as the number of people on the square peaks.
29th to the 1st of May 2011
Having had a gut-full of the of Marakesh we jumped in the back of another desert camel and left the city and its tourist laden allies in our dust...literally. Our next destination was the old Moroccan capital of Fez, 7 hours drive north. Fes largely consists of two old medina quarters, Fes el Bali and Fes Jdid, and modern urban area of Ville Nouvelle constructed during the French colonial era.
Arriving late in the evening, we were once again dropped at the medina gates and walked the last few hundred metres to xxx Rhiad.
Fez was all together a different experience to Marakesh, it felt... genuine.. the lanes, shops and souks appeared to be there for the convenience of residents not the tourist.
The Fez Medina is listed as a World Heritage Site and is one of the world’s largest urban pedestrian areas in which 90,000 people still live. Throngs of locals compete with the donkeys carting goods down warrens of seemly blind alleyways leading to squares with exquisite fountains or streets bursting with aromatic food stands and tireless artisans working in stooped doorways. While some visitors may recoil at the pandemonium we fell in love instantly.
This not to say there weren’t tourists or seriously important sites, Fez is home to the University of Al Quaraouiyine which, founded in 859, is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. It also has Chouara Tannery from the 11th century, one of the oldest tanneries in the world.
To us Fez has learnt how to live with tourism rather than from tourism.
In its heyday, Fez attracted scholars and philosophers, mathematicians and lawyers, astronomers and theologians. Craftsmen built them houses and palaces, kings endowed mosques and medersas (religious schools), and merchants offered exotic wares from the silk roads and sub-Saharan trade routes. Although Fez lost its influence at the beginning of the 19th century, it remains a supremely self-confident city that beguiles visitors with its cultural and spiritual lineage.
2nd to the 4th of May 2011
After a wonderful few days in the Fez it was time to continue north through the xx, past teh El Wahada dam and into the Rif mountains and Iconic Blue city of Chefchaouen.
The beauty of Chefchaouen’s mountainous surroundings are enhanced by the contrast of the brightly painted medina (old town). It is this beauty and the relaxed atmosphere of the town that makes Chefchaouen so attractive to visitors.
Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 in the Rif mountains by Jews and Moors fleeing Spain. we have heard many different theories about why Chefchaouen is blue. The most popular are, that is was painted blue by the Jews who settled there after fleeing Hitler, or it’s to keep the mosquitos away, other just say it represents the colour of the sea.
The main square in the medina is lined with cafes and filled to the brim with locals and tourist mingling easily.
4th to the 7th of May 2011
While Chefchaouen was our last stop on our Moroccan adventure we still needed to get home and that meant getting back to Madrid.
Two options- Back to Casablanca and fly or... keep heading north to the Mediterranean and taking a boat to Spain then the train to Madrid.
Well only one choice really so the next morning we hopped into a another clunky old Mercedes and heading to the port town of Ceuta.
Ceuta is an 18.5-square-kilometre Spanish autonomous city on the north coast of Africa, separated by 14 kilometres from Cadiz province on the Spanish mainland by the Strait of Gibraltar and sharing a 6.4 kilometre land border with the Kingdom of Morocco. It is a quaint town on a rocky outcrop, which we unfortunately, after clearing customs, we had no real time to explore. We headed to the ferry terminal which, like terminals around the world, managed to let down the culinary reputation of its host, this time both Morocco and Spain.
The two hour ferry trip carried us the 30 kilometers across the famed straight of Gibraltar to Algeciras.
Algeciras is primarily and unashamedly a port and industrial centre, sprawling round the far side of the bay to Gibraltar. When Franco closed the border with “the Rock” at the nearby La Linea, it was Algeciras that he decided to develop to absorb the Spanish workers who used to be employed in the British naval dockyards and in order to break the area’s dependence on Gibraltar.
Now Spain is somewhere we have grown to love and...well... it’s tapas culture in particular. So after checking into our small boutique hotel over looking the Plaza Alta in the Picturesque old town we headed out to indulge!!
The next day, after a late start (possibly related to the night before) we took a stroll around the town past the famous and iconic Reina Cristina hotel to the port. In the afternoon took the train through the rugged but stunning heart lands of Andalucia and La Mancha to Madrid, and after a final couple of days of tapas and sightseeing and tapas we headed to the airport and back home to Bangkok.