Sunday, October 31, 2010

Magical Marrakesh 

25th-26th October 2010

Returning to Marrakesh in the late afternoon, our driver dropped us off at the Raid Chtouka, a small guesthouse inside the walls of the Medina. Run by a French family it was a real gem in the heart of the bustling city.

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After checking in we dropped our bags and headed out to explore the old town and the busy central market place, the Djemaa El Fna. This square with it’s many foods stalls and maze of souks really comes alive in the evenings. Locals and tourists come to watch street performers, snake charmers, musicians and dancers or to simply soak up the legendary atmosphere that is the essence of Marrakesh.

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The souks were like an Aladdin's cave selling anything you can imagine, rich textiles, leather handbags, shoes, pottery, olives, nuts and the list goes on.                                                                                       IMG_1255   IMG_1256  

Meanwhile out in the square, food sellers  prepared their displays for the onslaught of hungry patrons, and the food was excellent. We tried several dishes and it was a much better option than sitting in a stuffy overpriced restaurant. As dusk fell and the mosques rang out their haunting call to prayer, the air filled with a haze of smoke and the smell of barbequed meats, turning the whole place into a huge open air restaurant. It was wonderful.                                          IMG_1242                       IMG_1249   


The following morning we once again ventured out to explore the streets and souks. The daylight hours gave a totally different feel to the Medina. Abuzz with everyday Moroccan life, children scurried through the cramped streets on their way to school, busy abaya-clad women went about their shopping and butchers hung their meats on hooks for their discerning buyers to inspect.

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Wandering back up to the towards the souks we popped in and out of of a variety of shops, marveling at the array of pottery, carpets, lamps and shoes on offer. Although the souks may look like a huge jumble of wares they are actually organized into sections and each section has it’s own specialty. So  once you get the hang of it, shopping becomes a bit of a breeze  as all the pottery is in one section and all the shoes etc in another. We bought a couple of little things but to be honest, if we weren’t living on a boat there would have been a lot more coming home with us that day.   IMG_1252

We filled in the afternoon taking in lots of street sights and the Koutoubi  Minaret and Mosque, along with it’s manicured gardens. Built in the 12th century it is the tallest building in Marrakesh and dominates the skyline.

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We also made a quick stop at the Saadian Tombs. These tombs of the Saadian royal family were discovered in 1917 and are located in an enclosed garden overlooked by two mausoleums . There are over 100 mosaic - decorated graves here, some  inside and some outside in the courtyard. The mausoleums had beautiful domed ceilings and intricate  gilded marble pillars. Finally it was time to head back to our riad, gather up our belongings and go to the station for our train ride back to Rebat. We really enjoyed our few days of inland adventure, but as always it would be good to get back to our floating home.



Friday, October 29, 2010

  The Sunburnt Sahara: days 2 & 3 

23rd - 25th October 2010

Following our night in the Bedouin tent, our guides had us up early as we had many miles to cover before  nightfall. The sand tracks crossing the dunes wended their way through the desert landscape and past the military outpost village of L’Mhamid. Lying only 40 miles from the Algerian border this small village is the start and the end of paved roads in this part of Morocco.


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From here our next stop was to buy some pottery pieces from one of the many clay factories along the way. Morocco produces beautifully coloured pottery in all shapes and sizes and we just couldn’t resist taking some home.


The scenery in this part of the country continued to amaze us.The contrast of colours between the desert and it’s rock formations were just incredible.


Along the way we had a brief stop in Zagora. This town, the last of civilization before the vast reaches of the Sahara Desert, is known as the gateway to the desert as beyond it’s gates there is only blazing heat and blowing sands.There’s not much in Zagora really but the town does have a famous sign depicting a a camel caravan and the sign reads “52 days to Tombouctu”, and that’s by camel or on foot!.

A few hours later we stopped for lunch at the 16th century mud brick Ksour (fortress) of Tamnougalt, one of the oldest Ksours in Morocco. The walls  are 10-12m high and would have been very imposing to any invaders. As with many of these ancient towns much of them are underground and are a labyrinth of tunnels and pathways with long shafts leading to the outside world to allow air and light to those who dwelled below.


From Tamnougalt we drove along some very rough mountain roads, through narrow fertile valleys, over small streams their banks draped in date palms and on to the town of Ouarzazate where we were staying for another night in the Pearl Hotel where we’d stayed on our outward journey. But before we were dropped at the hotel we had to make the obligatory “tea and chat stop” at our guides’ brother’s carpet shop, not that we were in the market for anything.They just didn’t grasp the concept that we lived on a boat and couldn’t take the whole shop with us.Eventually we escaped their clutches with our wallets intact. 

Day 3

Our last day in the desert was like our first. It was a long one. Leaving the hotel in Ouarzazate we travelled 30 klms and arrived at the Unesco heritage site of Ait Benhaddou in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas mountains.


Dating back to the 17th century this spectacular mud brick Ksour sits across a small stream from the tourist village near the main road. But to get to the prize you first have to negotiate the many stall sellers peddling their wares of everything from wooden carved camels to watercolour prints. Next were the donkey handlers who told us that it was too dangerous to try and walk across the stream and far safer to take a donkey over for $10 US dollars! Ha. Being the adventurous types we decided to risk life and  limb and tackle the ranging torrent, not, and cross under our own steam.The water was pretty cold due to the melting snow in the distant Atlas mountains but it was only about one foot deep.Glad we kept our money in our pockets.

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The Kasar, which is a spectacular example of southern Moroccan architecture, is a collection of dwellings, some large and some small, inside high defensive walls. It was once one of many trading posts on the ancient route linking Sudan to Marrakesh.These days it features in many Hollywood films,usually portraying Jerusalem. Ten movies have been made here including Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. Once inside we spent a few hours exploring the many small alleys and climbing up the different levels, as well as looking at the gladiator memorabilia The views from the top were breathtaking with snow covered peaks one direction and desert in the other

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Leaving the Kasar it was time to head back to Marrakesh. The drive would take us back over the scenic Atlas mountains, passing  many small villages where women did their laundry in the flowing streams and draped it over large rocks in their backyards to dry. As the road traversed the high peaks and hairpin bends where sheer cliffs fall to the valleys below we were glad that  this time we were in the comfort of a 4X4 and not in the clapped out old taxi that we’d been in a couple of days earlier. As we neared to Marrakesh the traffic slowly became heavier and we were glad to arrive mid afternoon.



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Sunburnt Sahara : part one 
21st –22nd October 2010 
Budgeting on two weeks in Morocco we planned an inland trip for a couple of days. Three would be spent in the Sahara Desert and one in  the ancient city of Marrakesh. One thing to remember about Morocco is that although the population is Arabic the main language spoken is French and we don’t speak much of either. 
Arriving at the train station all the signs and announcements were in French, but we overcame this little hurdle with the aid of our Lonely Planet and our trusty use of sign language. The four hour train ride to Marrakesh, yes this was the fabled Marrakesh Express was interesting, especially when our locomotive gave up the ghost on route and we waited over an hour for a replacement to arrive and push our train the remaining 70 kilolmetres. to the station!
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Finally the spare diesel arrived. Everyone was ushered back onto the train and we started our painfully slow journey onward to Marrakesh. Arriving at the station a couple of hours later than schedule was not looking good for us.The afternoon  sun was already starting to disappear behind the high hills With a decent journey still ahead of us we had two options. To buy a spot in a shared taxi if one was going our way, which not many were, , or rent one by ourselves .After negotiating a price,and probably paying way too much,we piled into the very old beaten up Mercedes taxi and off we went, literally into the sunset. 
IMG_1026                                                                                    Driven by a “pseudo fangio” the hairy three hour, 260 klm drive took us over the winding roads of the Atlas Mountains. We were ever so glad to arrive at the town of Ouarzazate  still in one piece! After meeting our guide and checking into the hotel we headed straight for the bathtub with a soothing glass of wine in hand. It had been a bloody long day. Next morning we awoke to wonderful views out over the desert landscape and breakfasted on tasty Moroccan morsels by the swimming pool. Around 8am our guide and driver arrived in the new age ship of the desert, a very comfy Toyota land cruiser. Way better than doing the whole trip the way the Bedouins used to on camels.
During the next two days we drove through spectacular mountain scenery, and down into the lush date tree lined Draa Valley. Wadi’s snaked their way through the valley floor giving rise to fertile crop land in what was otherwise desolate surrounds.

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Stopping for lunch was a real treat. The food was absolutely mouthwatering. An array of tagines, traditional clay serving pots, were set down before us full to the brim with curried goat, fragrant vegetables and fresh salads. Liam did struggle with the lack of bee,r though there were plenty of soft drinks and flavoured teas on offer. A six piece band provided some lively  Moroccan music to munch by as well.
After a couple more hours drive through desolate countryside, where the flat plains and mountain landscape gradually gave way to the orange sands of the Sahara,we arrived at our Bedouin camp for the night.


The set up was pretty good.There were six canvas tents all with single beds, wash basins, running water, ( well a hand pump), and a small sitting area.The mattresses and pillows were firm to say the least, no duck down feathers out here, and the floors were covered with camel hair rugs. Communal showers with solar hot water and loos were just a stroll away. After settling in and taking a break for some refreshing mint tea  and watching dinner being prepared in the tradional way it was time to hit the camels, well not literally, and ride them out into the sunset on the shifting sands of the dunes.
Not the most comfortable animal to mount or ride we spent about an hour or more taking in the sights and watching the colours of the dusk sky change from soft pinks to deep blues. Dinner that evening was shared with some other guests who arrived at the camp a little later than us and this was followed by a musical get together around a warm camp fire under a carpet of twinkling stars in the clear desert sky.
Retiring to our tent with tummies full, the quiet of the desert was all consuming. We’d had a jam-- packed day and there was more to come tomorrow, but for now it was time for sleep.