Travelling Hopefully

13 February

And I have arrived in Casablanca. It's raining.

Okay, shouldn't complain. The trip out was pretty straightforward. I finished work, rushed home to change out of priestly gear, and headed off in the car to Heathrow. I'd booked into 'Purple Parking' and it was pretty easy to find them, drop off the car, and use their minivan to get to Terminal 4. An unexpected bonus on the three hour flight is that we had a meal. The meal almost resembled beef in rice. Well, I think that's what it was. I spent most of the trip listening to some audio 'Doctor Who' adventures (produced by Big Finish and jolly good) and also talked a bit to the woman next to me. She's also on the trip and has turned out to be my room mate.

We were met at Casablanca airport by our guide, and we were taken to our hotel. There are thirteen of us on the trip, a nice number, lucky for some! The hotel is basic but functional. We have breakfast at 7am and our briefing at 8.15am, so off to bed! 

What I find really weird is that Morocco is on the same time zone as the UK. It seems strange not to reset clocks when going abroad.

14 February

Not a bad night's sleep, although we were all awakened at dawn by the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. My subconscious tried valiantly to fit the chanted singing into my dream but it didn't work. I woke up.

After a breakfast of coffee and bread (there were salads of raw, salted carrots and olives on offer but I declined) we headed out in our minivan. We visited Hassan II mosque, and I took great delight in wearing my penguin scarf over my head to go inside. As members of our party commented, it felt like being in a grand cathedral. Um, the building, not the scarf.

We left Casablanca behind (no one would join me in singing 'As Time Goes By') and headed into Rabat. At Rabat we were taken to the major sights--outside the King's palace (seems he's also the religious leader of the country, and will ride his horse from the palace to the nearby mosque to lead prayers), the unfinished Hassan mosque and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. Afterwards we went on to the Oudaia Kasbah. The Kasbah was a charming place of narrow, cobbled streets. The walls were painted blue halfway up, then white. The blue is supposed to keep flies away. We ended up on a lookout point which gave us views over the city and the ocean. On the sand below a form of football was being played. Well, there was a ball being kicked around but the teams and the rules appeared to be flexible.

In Rabat we had to endure numerous attacks by the Henna People. Women with large, needleless syringes who do their best to squirt brown gunk on your bare skin. Squirt first, charge money later. I had to dodge one very determined woman whilst trying to get photos of the mounted guards. Finally a firm 'I said no' snarled into her face did the trick. I only have to be nice when I'm wearing my dog collar...

I had fried sardines for lunch--very nice, almost but not too spicy. And a beer, of course! The evening meal was at another restaurant--no alcohol, though!

15 February

Not a good start to the morning when I found out that I couldn't get this site to upload--password had been wiped and I just can't remember it. So people will have to wait until I get home...

We had a free morning in Meknes. After breakfast a group of us walked to the medina, the old city. We were trying to find the souks--the markets--and headed in through one of the gates in the old city walls. And so we started an hour of being lost, being lost, and then being more lost. Our group expanded and contracted as we lost each other as well. The group I was in enjoyed the narrow streets for awhile, but the lostness began to pall. A young man offered to lead us out, obviously wanting money in return. We gave in and used him to get back into the open.

We fetched up at the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. For less than a pound apiece a man showed us around the lovely outdoor and indoor courtyards. Then on to again look for the souks. After more trial and error, mostly trial, we finally got to the square and the souks behind.

Some of the market could have been places in London, with cheap clothes and cheaper toys. But other parts had items for sale which--okay, vegetarians in the audience should skip the rest of this paragraph and go straight to the next one. I'll give you a moment... For those who are reading on, we went through the meat section. Carcases hanging down, blood on the floor, cages of live chickens and rabbits. I saw live chickens being weighed, and the stall next door took care of the slaughtering and plucking. Even I averted my eyes. Another stall had offal. I recognised the kidneys, livers, and lungs, but other coloured bits--well, I haven't a clue. 

After wandering for awhile I struck out on my own. I wanted to sit in a cafe and have a beer. Well, it's a Muslim country, so I had to have a rather nice glass of mint tea. Hot water was poured over a large number of fresh mint leaves, and I sipped as I people watched.

Several of us caught a taxi back to the hotel. I managed to have a quick beer before we boarded the mini bus to go to Volubilis, a Roman city dating back to the 3rd century BC. The skies were growing more and more grey as we headed into the mountains. At the city a guide showed us around the extensive ruins and the many mosaics which are, sadly, left exposed to the elements. And the elements came upon us quite ferociously near the end of the tour. Rain pelted us as we hurried back to the mini bus and off to Fez, where we will be staying for the next two nights.

Four of us went out for dinner together, slogging through the rain and stumbling upon a rather nice place. All of us were quite excited when we were offered beer! I had a delicious beef kebab, the other three had pizzas. Back to the hotel for one more beer and chat before heading off to our rooms.

16 February

A day in Fes but, disappointingly, I didn't find any Fes hats for sale. Actually, things were a bit quiet today. It's a religious holiday, the date of the Prophet Mohammed's (Peace be upon him) birth. Kids were off from school and various shops were shut.

We had a local guide for the day. We started at the gates to another palace of the King, then headed into the Jewish quarter. The streets were narrow and large balconies hung over us high above. In total contrast we then drove up to a viewpoint overlooking the old city. The wind was quite fierce. Actually the weather spent most of the day changing its mind, although it never did quite rain.

A pottery welcomed our party. We watched a man working with clay, and then a workshop in which tiles were carefully chipped into different shapes for mosaics. Of course the tour ended in a shop, but I did not succumb to temptation. 

Back into narrow streets as we drove back to the old city and went into the medina and the souks. As we stood outside one mosque, peering in, we had to squeeze out of the way as a funeral went past. Men were singing a melodic chant as they carried a cloth wrapped body on a high stretcher. Only men go to the funeral. The women visit the grave on the second day. 

The old streets and many shops were fascinating. We went into a tannery, and watched men cleaning hides and dying them below. The terrace was within a shop, but again wallet stayed in trousers. The smell wasn't too bad, but that might not be so true in the height of summer--we were given sprigs of mint on entry which we could hold to our nostrils as necessary. We also visited a weavers, and the many scarves fascinated the women but seemed to leave the men bored rigid.

Our last stop was at a supermarket. Alcohol was not for sale--due to the religious holiday--but I bought items to have a simple evening meal in my hotel room. Lunch had been a nice three course meal and I still felt rather full!

17 February

A day of much travelling and great contrasts.

We started off at 8am from a somewhat cloudy Fes. As we headed off into the mountains the clouds became thicker, turned to rain, sleet, then snow. The tyres of the mini bus grappled bravely with the built up slush and we looked out in amazement at trees and towns covered with several inches of snow. Just when all seemed clear again we had to turn around. The road ahead was shut. Rather alarmingly our driver used a map which one of our party had on hand to plan an alternative route to our destination.

We came into more snow again later. But once we got over the mountain pass we were in dry desert and bright blue sky. When we had a short walk along a gorge in the afternoon it was hard to believe that we'd been through a snowstorm only a few hours earlier.

We had a few short stops, including one for lunch. It seems this area is known for fossil and mineral finds. I was very pleased to buy an entire geode (which can be opened up to see the crystals within). But otherwise it was a long day in the mini bus. We pulled into our accommodation at 7.30pm, an auberge in the middle of nowhere at the edge of the Sahara desert.

After dinner the men at the auberge pulled out drums and gave us an hour long show of drumming and singing. Those who were willing (and some who were not) were also pulled into dancing. 

18 February

Up before 6am to walk into the desert to see dawn rise over the dunes. Three men met the three of us and we slid up and down dunes for 30 minutes to get to the look out point. The sun rose and turned the dunes into shifting colours of pink and red. Upon our return the guides showed us the fossils and geodes they had for sale, and we all bought some in return.

After breakfast and a couple of hours to relax we were taken into town. The walls are made of mud and straw and we wandered through the dusty streets. We were taken into a large building full of carpets and other items for sale. A number of people bargained hard for carpets (usually obtained for around half the price originally quoted) and then we had lunch there. Lunch was a sort of pita bread filled with vegetables and meat. 

We had time to relax at the auberge, then in the afternoon we packed overnight things (and sleeping bags) and rode out on camels into the desert. I've never ridden a camel before, and it is rather unlike being on a horse. Much taller, and a far different gait. Plus no stirrups! Uphill isn't too bad but downhill was rather alarming.

We reached the camp after about an hour. Sunset was somewhat disappointing--a haze had built up during the day. After sorting out that the right hand dune was for the boys and the left hand for the girls (work it out...) we settled in. Dinner was soup, a beef stew, and orange slices, followed by mint tea. No alcohol. We then had a couple of hours around a fire whilst the men drummed and sang. We had a full moon which lit up the area quite well, very helpful when visiting the girl's dune.

19 February

I decided not to get up for dawn, and just as well. The haze had remained, so I'm very glad I did the dawn photography the day before. After a visit to the girl's dune we packed up and headed off on our camels. 

When we got back to the auberge we had time for showers and breakfast. Then a drive south, through more dry countryside. We stopped at a rather disreputable looking shop which sold alcohol and stocked up on beer and wine. I bought a Moroccan red wine to sample.

The area continued to be dry and increasingly dusty. We stopped to view a series of ancient wells. There was a time when many people lived around them, but of late the water has run dry. 

Later in the afternoon we walked along an irrigated area which included a number of date palms. This has been cultivated for centuries, and people live in towns nearby. We had a local guide, who regularly told off the children who came running to either sell palm leaves or to simply beg for money. 

We reached our auberge in the afternoon, tucked away in the Todra Gorge. No wifi, electricity on from only 5pm to midnight, and very cold showers! So after dinner in the restaurant we went off to bed.

20 February

The bed was very hard but I still slept well. My room mate got up first and stumbled around by torchlight to get dressed. I got up and flicked on the light switch--electricity! 

After breakfast we headed off for our five hour walk. We climbed up out of the gorge on a, at times, rather steep path. We passed goats and donkeys on the way, and people who live in the area and offered to pose for photos in return for money. I was very glad that I've been exercising regularly. By the time we'd finished coming back down I was ready to stop. 

We had lunch at a local restaurant, then walked back to the auberge. We've had the afternoon free, so a number of us sat outside and drank coffee. They've finally guessed what I do for a living!

21 February

We had breakfast and left the gorge around 8am. The landscape was still dry but the colours began to change. Hills took on colours of red, green, and tan, and scrubby bushes appeared. We followed the 'Route of the Thousand Kasbahs'--old villages made of clay bricks which cling to the hillsides. Below, in the valley, are cultivated areas of vegetables and almond trees. The latter are currently in bloom, the white flowers bright against the green.

We stopped for lunch in Ouarzazate. This town is home to a number of film studios. The desert landscape has been used for a number of productions, including 'Gladiator.' Afterwards we walked up to the top of Ait Benhaddou, a well preserved ancient kasbah. After too few minutes to enjoy the views we headed back down. Several people were thrilled to find ice cream for sale, the first time this holiday.

A little later we stopped at a shop selling spices and herbal remedies. A man demonstrated various items on us--creams and a sample of almond oil. 

Back into the minibus for several more hours' travel. We stopped at a drinks supermarket to buy supplies for the next couple of nights. And then into the High Atlas mountains. Our gite was a 5km walk up a rough path from the main road. Our bags were transported on a van whilst we walked. It was a slice of real village life. We passed goats, made way for heavily laden donkeys and mules, and were greeted by the village children. Only one begged for money. The setting sun made the hills and village houses glow around us. 

The gite is more like a youth hostel. Mattresses on the floor, toilets and showers down the corridor.  Dinner was soup, followed by spaghetti, and then bananas for dessert. As the sun set the air began to cool--we are 1800 metres high. We spent some time on the terrace, admiring the view of the Milky Way and spotting shooting stars. No light pollution in this valley!

22 February

Breakfast was porridge! With a dark and lovely Moroccan honey. Coffee however was powdered, as was the milk.

There was an opportunity for another hike this morning. Most of us declined. We sat out on the terrace, enjoying the sunshine and the views. Some people took the opportunity to do some washing and to hang clothes out to dry. Others decided that 9.30am was a good time to start drinking, with Coke and vodka the mix of choice. 

In the afternoon we visited a local family. We got to see the old ovens in which bread is baked (meals are now cooked on a modern stove) as well as the area behind the house in which the animals are kept. Sheep, a cow and calf, chickens, and a mule co-existed together. We also admired the large satellite dish.

Afterwards we were served delicious Berber coffee and some nice cake in the front room. A very pregnant cat kept begging for scraps. Dinner at the gite consisted of chicken and couscous, and after admiring the starscape one last time I headed off for an early night.

23 February

The walk from the gite back to the minibus was easier than the walk in--mostly downhill. Again our bags were transported for us. We passed children on their way to school. They wore traditional clothes but carried modern backpacks.

A short drive brought us to the crumbling palace of Telouet. There was enough to show that this had once been a beautiful building. Then we drove up into the mountains. We went over the pass of Tizi'n'Tichka, which at 2260 metres is the highest road in Morocco. The views were spectacular, bordering on the frightening, and I was glad that someone else was doing the driving. The roadside was lined with small stalls selling minerals and fossils. We got out at one point to walk a section and were accosted by various salesmen. The prices asked dropped dramatically as one walked away.

The land flattened and became rather monotonous. Late afternoon we stopped at a co-operative which makes cosmetics and oils from a local tree, the argan. The co-operative is run by women who are divorced or single mothers.

Our stop for the night was Essaouira. We had dinner at a fish restaurant and I think I made the mistake of having the prawns...

24 February

The morning started well. I walked to the old town of Essaouira with several others. We admired the long, sandy beach on the walk in. The harbour is still used by local fishermen, who have small boats and fish the local waters. A market in the town sells their catches, and there are plenty of restaurants offering their wares. Walls enclose the town, and the area has the feeling of gentle decay, like an old lady who has seen better days but cannot bring herself to regret the past. 

The streets inside the walls were wide and lined with shops. Essaouira is known for the work which done with a local hardwood called thuya. Many objects are made from the sweet smelling wood, both plain and inlaid with marquetry. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Many pieces were for sale outside stalls, but the best quality were often inside shops and cost several times more. I bought a tray out of gnarled wood, the perfect display surface for the two geodes I purchased earlier in the holiday. 

Lunch was at the outdoor fish grills. You pick the fish you want from the display, and it is grilled for you. The prices are lower than that of a restaurant, but there are disadvantages. Utensils and glasses were a bit scarce. I asked one man for glasses a couple of times so we could drink our water. When he finally had some to wash up from customers who had just left, I caught his eye and we shared a grin. Forks and knives arrived along with our fish. I had red mullet, very tasty, although I avoided the head.

Unfortunately, I started to feel somewhat uncomfortable as the afternoon drew on. We stopped for a couple of beers at a beach side cafe, and fed a watchful seagull with some of our olives. He did not look particularly grateful. As we walked back to the hotel a wind started to pick up. When I got back to the room my guts were definitely unhappy and I couldn't get warm. Yes, indeed, as the evening went on I realised that I had food poisoning. Fortunately, I suppose, it only affected the latter end of the digestive process, so I was able to drink water. I crawled into bed and stayed there until we had to rise the next morning.

25 February

After a fitful night, including terrible muscle cramps, I went down for breakfast and ate some bread and drank juice and coffee. I also took tablets in preparation for our minibus trip back to Marrakech. Our guide had had very late night and was a bit late out of his room!

Much to my relief we checked into our hotel and had free time until early afternoon. I decided to skip lunch. This hotel offered a bath, and a hot soak was great. I also took a short nap.

I was determined not to miss the afternoon tour of the city. We were taken to several local sights, accompanied by a local guide. The Koutoubia Mosque (which featured boys playing football in the ruins of the original mosque), the Saadian Tombs, and the beautiful but decaying Palais Bahia (with a whole area given over to the King's concubines--in previous centuries I hasten to add, as the current King has only one wife and no concubines). 

From the last site we walked to the famous square, Place Jemaa el-Fna. It was fascinating. Full of sellers, people bearing monkeys and snakes who wanted to charge you for photographs, fortune tellers (who surely knew in advance who would want their services?), horse drawn carriages plying for trade, motorbikes and scooters vying for space with donkey-drawn carts. The food grillers were getting ready for evening business. And lots of musicians, playing in hope of getting paid.

I had a coke in a terrace above the square for a better look. Afterwards I stayed for awhile to enjoy the atmosphere. Then, however, I had to catch a taxi to return to the hotel. I packed and then it was to bed between trips to the loo. It was a bit of a sad way to miss out on my final evening, and I had to ask my room mate to say my farewells for me.

26 February

A slightly better night. I got up just after 6am to shower, finish packing, and catch a taxi to the airport.

Things did not go smoothly. My main complaint is the lack of information. The 10.50am flight never showed a departure gate, and by 11.30am we worried passengers had found each other and started trading what information we had. No information was forthcoming from anyone at the airport and the help desk was, unhelpfully, not staffed.

Finally at 12.30pm we had a boarding gate. At 1pm we took off, the captain welcoming us on board but not saying a word about the delay.

Although we knew that the flight was 'via Casablanca' we had been told that we would stay on the airplane for the short stop. What happened instead is that everyone got off. Not that we had any such notice from the crew--the message just filtered down. A bus took us to the terminal entrance and left us there, without any comment or instruction. 

One person found out from the 'transfer desk' that we were to go through security and into the building, which we all did. Once inside the terminal we were without a clue what to do next. A couple of people headed off to try to find someone to ask. I looked at the departure board and saw our flight number listed with 'London' and a departure time of 12pm (it was now 2.30pm) and a departure gate. We managed to call back the others and headed down to the departure gate, which rather confusingly had 'Madrid' listed as the destination. Which is why one young man almost got onto our flight instead...

At 3pm we took off. Again, no explanation, no apology. When we finally landed at Heathrow, over three hours late, the captain had the gall to say 'We hope you enjoyed your flight today.' I snorted in derision and felt a stern letter coming on. So it was 10.30pm when I finally got into my house. I took a shower, brushed my teeth, and went to bed!

On a plus point, the guts have just about stopped aching, and I managed to have some lunch. So the day wasn't all bad.

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