Nightfall in Casablanca

The sky resembled a mammoth bruise as night fell on my last evening in Casablanca.  A city that is nothing like the 1940’s movie of the same name, Casa instead resembled many of the cities where old stands comfortably juxtaposed with new.  Here the 5-star Hyatt Regency vies for the title of downtown landmark with the Clocktower at the busiest entrance of the old Medina.  I know which I prefer 🙂

the-streets-of-casa-40-of-40-2

Postcards from the Todra Valley

Captured in the Todra Gorge, a canyon in the eastern part of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco and in El Khorbat, an ancient fortified village in the valley.

In the Gorge, massive, sweeping cliffs surround small family allotments filled with birdsong and fig, pomegranate, olive and almond trees, alfa alfa and vegetables. Nearby the women were washing clothes in the river while goats nimbly scaled the cliffs overhead. Lunch was broad-bean soup and Berber pizza – a flatbread with mince filling which made for a very different Christmas Day:-)

dades-valley-6-of-9 el-khorbat-3-of-5-2

el-khorbat-1-of-5

It was icy in the Gorge in the mornings. With three tour groups staying in the hotel at the same time, they did good business selling bottles of red wine to the tourists in the evenings and some of my travelling companions were noticeably absent from breakfast first thing in the morning.  Even those that were always ravenous ones.

One morning we took a two-hour walk in the date Palmeries along the river so no surprises that there were dates for breakfast.

By then we were halfway through our travels around Morocco and most of the group couldn’t face another Tagine or more couscous. The fresh orange in the morning was still very welcome though and the coffee is quite good wherever you go In Morocco. Consequently the other South Africans hijacked one of the hotel kitchens and the smell of Durban curry filled the air:-) 🙂

The Leather Tanneries of Fes

They hand you a sprig of mint to take the edge off the odour as you enter the building, but nothing, in my view, can disguise the smell of Fes’ tanneries.

You first get a sense of the magnitude of this industry as you approach the tannery complex – literally hundreds of damp and recently dyed hides laid out to dry in the sun wherever there is free space.

fes-tanneries-1-of-4

But the real action is in the dyeing pits in the Medina, the subject of many photographs from travel books on Morocco, where dozens of men stand knee deep in the pits of pigeon poop and natural colors in the hot sun, dyeing hides before they are fashioned into jackets, handbags and other commercial products.  Work in the tanneries hasn’t changed for centuries and this is the place to go if you want to experience the real authentic Fes.  Be warned though – the stench really does take your breath away.

fes-tanneries-3-of-4 fes-tanneries-2-of-4

And all around the tanneries, that all too familiar sight – the satellite dish 🙂

fes-tanneries-4-of-4

Trekking in Merzouga

It’s a few days before Chrismas, I’m in the middle of nowhere and my transport for the next 24 hours has a top speed of about 20km/hour when in a hurry. The tag on his ear identifies him as No. 2588 and I’m grateful for the warmth his body emits after the initial shock of being catapulted back and forth when he gets up and down. Apart from that, the ride is pretty rhythmic and exciting.

sahara-camp-10-of-21-2

I’m camel trekking from Merzouga to a sea of wind-swept dunes call Erg Chebbi, undulating crests and valleys of orange sand, and a camp about 8km from the Algerian border where I will overnight in a simple tent with nothing but blankets to keep warm.

sahara-camp-4-of-21-2

sahara-camp-8-of-21-2

sahara-camp-21-of-21-2

Unbeknown to me, I’ve decided to visit Morocco during the coldest winter in a decade.  It is icy outside and the wind whips around the tent all night, flapping at the entrance and keeping me awake, but I have seen more stars in this remote part of Morocco than I have ever seen anywhere else at one time.  Think Sossusvlei in Namibia meets Sutherland in South Africa’s Northern Cape.  Outside the camels sleep on the open ground, their grunts drowned out by the whistling wind.

Before daybreak I force myself from the pile of blankets to watch the sun rise and am treated to small trains of camels on the dunes in front of me as the sun’s rays tickle the earth – the photographic highlight of my trip so far.

sahara-camp-18-of-21-2

The Sahara is cold but exhilarating and although I’d give anything for a bath right now, I am ever so grateful for this amazing experience which I won’t forget in a hurry.

“Balak, balak” in Fes

Said to be the spiritual heart of Morocco, Fes is one of the world’s best preserved and captivating medieval cities.

Our walk started at the Gates of the Royal Palace located by the Jewish quarter.  Built in the 17th century, this palace is still used by the king of Morocco when he’s in town, but it’s closed to the public, so visitors have to be content with the outside.  There is plenty of detail to photograph, from the ornate metal doors, arches and delicate mosaic work.

fes-1-of-1-2

Equally intriguing was the Bab Sammarine, a gateway into Fez el-Jdid (New Fez), dating back to the 13th century.

fes-2-of-12

And then on to the souks in Fes’s ancient Medina…..

In short they are exhausting. A winding labyrinth of damp and dark alleys that never seems to end,

fes-8-of-12

with laden mules and donkeys passing by where you can barely swing a scrawny cat, their owners yelling balak, balak” – move out of the way or “watch out”.  The first two balak’s are a caution – on the third “balak” you are practically bowled over as the stream of traffic through the narrow alleyways forges ahead.

fes-12-of-12

Inside the souk, the harassment and banter alone leaves you feeling like you’ve done a triathalon. The camel’s head dangling from the eaves in a butcher’s shop took my breath (and appetite) away and, and so did the strench of the leather tanneries where pigeon poop is used to fix the dye. And then a co-traveller ordered pigeon pie for lunch, can you believe?  (I didn’t photograph the camel’s head by the way – I hurried past as fast as the oncoming stream of jellaba-clad merchants with carts of oranges or heavily laden donkeys would allow).

fes-10-of-12

Founded in the 9th century and home to the oldest university in the world, about 1.1 million people live in Fes, where the ancient Medina has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

fes-3-of-12

 

 

The Roman ruins at Volubilis

A day trip from Meknes and about 3km from Moulay Idriss, Volubilis was one of the Roman Empire’s most remote outposts.  Developed from the 3rd Century BC, extensive remains of this archaeological site survive, surrounded by a fertile agricultural area.

volubulis-6-of-6

Included in these is the Arch of Caracalla, situated at the end of what was the city’s main street.

volubulis-3-of-6

A breeding pair of storks that has taken residence atop one of the columns and the moody winter skies made for great photographs.

volubulis-1-of-6

The hillside hamlet of Moulay Idriss

Although Moulay Idriss is an important religious site in northern Morocco, what I loved the most is the way the town tumbles down two hills and how, traversing a winding labyrinth of alleys that lead to spectacular vantage points from the top, it appears that life in this picturesque little hamlet hasn’t changed for centuries.

The town is the final resting place of Morocco’s religious and secular founder, Moulay Idriss el Akhbar, a decendent of the Prophet Muhammad who brought Islam to Morocco. It is said that five pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss are the spiritual equivalent of one to Mecca, earning it the nickname the poor man’s Mecca.  Until 2005, non-muslims were not allowed to spend the night in town.

Here, as in many other hillside settlements where space is tight, the humble donkey is the only way of getting things up or down the hill.

meknes-moulay-ismail-11-of-13
 meknes-moulay-ismail-7-of-13
meknes-moulay-ismail-10-of-13
meknes-moulay-ismail-13-of-13
meknes-moulay-ismail-5-of-13
meknes-moulay-ismail-8-of-13
meknes-moulay-ismail-6-of-13
meknes-moulay-ismail-12-of-13
Moulay Idriss is an easy day trip from the Imperial city of Meknes and close to the Roman ruins at Volubilis, an archeological UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Granaries of Meknes

Although Meknes is overshadowed by Morocco’s other Imperial cities, it’s an amazing place to visit, just to experience the excesses of Moulay Ismail as 17th century governor and Sultan.

A contemporary and admirer of France’s Louis XIV, Ismail set about building an imperial city to rival the Palace of Versailles.

Reputedly a ruthless tyrant with a harem of hundreds of wives and concubines with whom he fathered hundreds of children, I’m in awe that he had time to realise his grandiose plan, which included 24 royal palaces with mosques, barracks and ornamental gardens, all set within defensive walls

The massive Heri el Souani granary – which also served as a feed store for the adjoining Royal Stables for 12,000 steeds – is an architechtural wonder.  Standing inside these immense vaults (beautifully preserved and restored) is breathtaking and humbling.

meknes-moulay-ismail-2-of-13-2

It was raining when we visited, so I didn’t venture beyond this door leading from the granary complex to the stables, but the arches of the stables can be seen in the background.

meknes-moulay-ismail-4-of-13-2

To end off this incredible experience in Meknes?  A camel burger in a crowded, muddy souk, while my trainers stayed behind at the Hotel Oasis Tafilalet to dry after the downpour in Rabat. The countryside surrounding Meknes is green and beautiful and ….. there’s a wine region here 🙂

 

A Country of Cats

Morocco is full of cats. You notice it straight away, along with the ubiquitous satellite dishes and drying washing.

There’s no escaping them, so much so that on my first night in Casablanca, I was woken by the cacophony of wailing alley cats having a huge scrap outside my hotel.  Probably a turf war, as the streets are full of strays who sleep anywhere they find a space.  When they’re not sleeping, they’re sunning themselves.

In Casablanca, it was on the top of a car.

casa_8859conv

In Marakech a motorbike was more appealing.

marakech-3

In the picturesque hillside hamlet of Moulay Idriss, one of the locals wanted me to pay for photographing this cat sunning itself on a doorstep.  I dismissed him by mumbling and a side-step that would have impressed a rugby player.

moulay-ismail_9046conv

In the seaside town of Essaouira, the cats seemed generally fatter, healthier and better cared for than their cousins across the rest of Morocco.  “It’s the fish”, somebody speculated, gesturing towards the harbour area where the local felines compete with the seagulls for scraps.  We also often saw people leaving leftover food outside for the street cats.

img_9679conv-2

img_9903conv-2 img_9910conv-2

Dogs are noticeably scarce across Morocco, the result of a rabies epidemic a while back where many dogs were killed.  I did find these two gorgeous ones sunning themselves in Essaouira though and by the look of the last one’s teats, there are a couple of babies running around 🙂

img_9830conv-2essaouira

img_9895conv-2-essao

 

The Great Divide

On reflection, I think my issue with the lavishness of the Hassan II Mosque began in downtown Casablanca when I happened upon a rubbish heap on an open plot, smack bang in the middle a residential-cum-business district.

In the background, the imposing minaret of the mosque towered over a jumble of plastic – bottles, crates, bales of bags, you name it – and rusty satellite dishes scattered across the unpainted, raw plaster walls of the dwellings.  It seemed telling that my first glimpse of this famous landmark was in stark contrast to the surroundings.

the-streets-of-casa-23-of-40

And then I saw her.  A woman of indeterminable age, she was dressed in black from top to toe, pulling a shopping bag on wheels as she picked her way across the dumpsite.  When she began rummaging through the detritus, I was stunned.  I had assumed she was taking a shortcut through the open lot on the way to the Medina a few blocks away.  Instead she was scratching through what looked like scraps of plastic sheeting.

casa_8802conv

casa_8804conv

Even coming from a country where millions of taxpayer’s money is wasted on renaming streets after Apartheid Struggle heroes rather than uplifting previously disadvantaged communities and tackling poverty and unemployment, I still really battle to get my head around extremes like these – in this case the need to rummage through a dumpsite that shouldn’t be in the middle of a city in the first place, while millions of dollars were spent building a work of art like the Hassan Mosque a few streets away.

A little overwhelmed, I moved on before she noticed that I had noticed her.