Essaouira

I fell head over heels in love with Essaouira, the gorgeous seaside town that was the repite from the chill of my sojourn in the High Atlas Mountains and where lunch came straight out of the ocean.

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I could happily live in Essaouira with its orderly Medina and lovely eateries tucked away in the side streets. And the gelato sold on the Square, where I had the closest thing ever to Bangkok’s famed coconut ice-cream.

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The quaint harbour reminded me of Kalk Bay back home, but with a North African backdrop 🙂  It’s little wonder that Essaouira was chosen as a location to film Game of Thrones.

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I could do without the seagulls though.  Their loud shrieks throughout the night kept me awake. So did the accoustics in the Riad where the one towel they gave me was so thin it was fraying.

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Four years ago I made a rule that I will never visit the same place on my Bucket List twice because there are so many other places I still want to see.  I made one exception after visiting Chobe in 2015.  And I will make another for Essaouira 🙂

 

The history of a city in its doors

Travelling through Morocco you soon sense that the architecture is a cosmopolitan cultural blend reflecting the country’s long and rich history of rulers and invaders – both Arabic and European – and that the doors in particular are very much a gateway to another world.  In Essaouira, once you are able to take your eyes of the array of blues, there’s some incredible history to discover.  And not all of it is blue.

For centuries Moroccans of Jewish and Muslim decent lived peacefully side by side in cities such as Essaouira, Fes and Marrakech, which is evident in the hallmarks on their doors.  These range from unique patterns and symbols to Jewish stars, some of which are even dated and evoke centuries of history.img_9908conv img_9907conv img_9906conv

But many of these Jewish familes fled the mellahs – the Jewish district in Arab cities – for Israel following the Six Day War.  Some have never returned and many houses like the one in Essaouira pictured below are locked up and have been left to deteriorate.  (Note the Star of David in the plasterwork above the arch, alongside the fading mosaics).

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Other more modern doors bear Moorish style motifs, delicate mosaics and ornate and interesting door knockers.

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Whether they are made of wood or weather-beaten steel, they all add to the charm of Essaouira.

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Then if you can drag yourself away from the doors for a few minutes you will find yourself in the middle of a typical street scene that could be anywhere in Morocco – the inescapable washing and arches and cats and faded reminders of a byegone era.

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The ubiquitous blue doors of Essaouira

There is something magical about Essaouira that sets it apart from other Moroccan cities.  From the palm-lined avenues of the fortified medina with it’s orderly labyrinth of alleyways, to the tranquil harbour where you can watch fishing nets being mended and traditional boats being built, to the most amazing sunsets, all while indulging in the best gelatto in Morocco. In winter 🙂

And then there are the doors – in every hue of blue you can imagine.  I found them absolutely captivating.

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Jude, who blogs at https://smallbluegreenwords.wordpress.com/ is passionate about doors, especially blue ones.  Jude, this post is for you 😉

 

 

 

In the shadow of Mount Toubkal

The most challenging part of my travels around Morocco was the homestay with a Berber family, who live tucked away in the middle of the High Atlas Mountains. 

Most of the group had bailed, put off by the thought of a tough uphill hike at altitude, followed by basic overnight living arrangements during an icy Moroccan winter.  Instead, they headed for the creature comforts of a 4-star hotel in Marrakech, but I was determined to give it my best shot.  Authentic adventures in a foreign country aren’t designed to be comfortable, but they are very real.  So real that at the highest point for the day – 2 260m above sea level – my feet felt like blocks of ice.

My wiser travelling companions paid 100 Dirhams to hire a mule in Imlil (below) rather than hike, but I forged ahead (with my camera bag on my back!!) on foot.  For a while two other mule handlers hung around as I battled uphill, hopeful I would change my mind , but they gave up halfway and disappeared.  Short of breath from the thin air and sweltering under the 4 layers I was wearing to stave off the cold, I resembled a puffing beetroot, but I made it to the Gite* on foot, stripping off a few layers of clothing along the way.

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The tiny village of Imlil is the centre of mountain tourism in Morocco, a base for those wanting to summit Mount Toubkal, which is the highest mountain in Morocco and North Africa. In Imlil you can hire virtually anything associated with snow and the mountain.

But we were headed for Aremd near the ski resort, which looked delightful covered in a sprinkling of snow.

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And then the end was in sight where the dirt road stopped.  It really was one of the most arduous things I have done, but I’m glad I persevered.  I survived the walk into the hills and then the cold by piling blankets on. It was in fact the bed that was the bigger killer – two bases on top of one another rather than a base and mattress. The hardest night’s sleep ever ever 🙂 🙂  Little wonder that none of us showered the next morning and couldn’t wait to get to Essaouira on the coast for some warmer weather and some seafood – without couscous 🙂

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* guesthouse

Doors across Morocco

Morocco is a photographer’s dream.  There is so much to capture, especially the architecture that reflects Morocco’s rich cultural and historical heritage.  The French, Moorish and Islamic influences are very evident in doors across the country, whether they are heavily embellished horseshoe arches or simple wooden doors with peeling, decades-old paintwork and simplistic latches.

In Ait Benhaddou:

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And in Casablanca:

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In El Khorbat in the Todra valley:

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In Fes:

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From Marrakech:  The first, brightly coloured door is in the Jardin Majorelle, the twelve-acre botanical and artist’s landscape garden, owned by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé.

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From the hillside hamlet of Moulay Idriss:

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And I haven’t even got to the port city of Essaouira yet 🙂

Aït Benhaddou

As an unabashed Game of Thrones fan, I had been itching to photograph the earthen clay architecture of Ait Benhaddou, the famous Kasbah town along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech, which has also formed the backdrop of blockbuster greats such as Gladiator, Alexander, The Sheltering Sky and Black Hawk Down.

But even without the impressive CV, tucked away in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas mountains in Ouarzazate, the movie capital of Morocco, Ait Benhaddou is gorgeous.  The russet clay houses huddle together within the defensive walls which are reinforced by corner towers, and are a striking example of the architecture of southern Morocco and days of yore.  Interestingly, eight families still live within the city walls.

But first the snake man who holds court about 5km from the most famous and photographed ksar in the Ounila Valley, who makes a living posing for tourists adorned by snakes.  He was most upset because I didn’t pay to photograph him. The truth is I’d left my bag on the bus otherwise I would have.  That aside though, only minutes before a travelling companion had very generously lined the snake man’s Djellaba pockets with Dirhams, moved in close and handed me his iPhone to capture the encounter. My photos were basically an extension of that photo op, but the snake man unleashed a vitriolic stream of Arabic in my direction as I boarded the bus.  Tourists, I knew by now, are fair game at every possible opportunity.

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From a rooftop terrace overlooking Yunkai * (Ait Benhaddou in real life), it’s easy to fall in love with everything about this picturesque place and while it was remarkably cold, the snow on the High Atlas Mountains added to the charm.

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And then we crossed the river on stepping stones, entered the city walls and climbed to the citidel atop, where the sweeping views were equally breathtaking.

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*   Yunkai is the smallest of the three cities in Slaver’s Bay in Game of Thrones.  Scenes from Pentos, the biggest of the Free Cities, were also filmed in Ait Benhaddou.

 

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 🙂

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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:-)

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.