Posted by: lindsaygoes | May 25, 2011

Moroccan Madness

Sunset over Marrakech

So after my last email from Jerez in Spain we travelled to Morocco. After missing the train the day before in Seville those of us who had skipped the winery were pretty keen to be on time, so we grabbed a taxi to the bus station and then waited…and waited. Three minutes before the bus was due to leave the others arrived – and then the bus was late, so no problems, until we had to change buses and the new bus driver thought there was something wrong with our tickets, so our group leader had to run to the ticket office and get everything sorted out. The rest of us were standing by the bus, looking at our luggage in the hold and hoping the bus wouldn’t take off without us. But we made it in time and then caught the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and then we were in Africa! Less exciting than we’d hoped because it was another three hours to our destination of Chefchaouen. But we got there eventually.

The next day we were supposed to start a tour at 9am, but we were on Morocco time, so by the time we were all ready and had eaten our breakfast (that was the bit that took the time) it was 9:30am before we headed out, but our tour guide didn’t seem to mind too much. Our guide said he was planning on running for Mayor in the town in 2015 so he did a bit of meeting and greeting as we wandered around. Chefchaouen is a lovely small town in the Rif Mountains of Morocco, and quieter than other areas we visited. It’s a hilly place, full of narrow, winding streets lined with houses painted various shades of blue as well as a river running through it where you can watch people washing their clothes. We visited one of the obligatory handicraft co-ops on our tour and everyone in the group went a bit crazy. I bought a woven ‘cactus silk’ (also known as rayon) bedspread, which is very nice, but I stayed away from the carpets and rugs. In the afternoon we had some free time so we walked up to an abandoned mosque in the hills above the town. Chefchaouen is the centre of the marijuana growing region, and we did notice groups of men hanging around the mosque suspiciously (as it’s no longer used for religious purposes, it’s really only visited by tourists, and I guess people trying to sell tourists drugs) and checking us out, but we glared at them and they left us alone. Unfortunately we didn’t have a great view of the town as it was very misty, but still a nice walk. Once we got back to town it was time for a bit more shopping. We had been told that there was only one place in town licenced to serve alcohol (so I don’t think many people in my family will be rushing to visit) but as we walked past restaurants we did get offered ‘Beer, Wine, Smoke?’ but declined (we didn’t think he was talking about cigarettes either).

We had a free morning the next day, so just lazed around and then had a long drive to Fes, through the rain. Once we arrived in Fes though, we realised how bad the rain had been as the hotel was flooded. My room was on the second floor and the water was deep enough to float my thongs/flip flops/jandals (take your pick). We worked out that the water had been coming in from the terrace (I’m not an engineer, but a few basic modifications/holes could have reduced the problem significantly), but decided the best option would be to leave our bags on the bed and leave while they cleaned up. Luckily, the floors were just tiled and not carpeted. So we had some of the ubiquitous Moroccan mint tea (main ingredient – sugar) and then a walk in the medina. The medina in Fes contains 9000 streets, and by streets they are actually narrow alleys with shops on the side and a combination of people, donkeys, mules and motorbikes in the middle. Although we managed to not get lost.

I suppose one thing that helped us not get lost was having a guide for a day tour the following day. As well as our guide we had a new tour leader, who was from Morocco as our old one had to do an exam. We started off driving around to a few spots outside the medina (cars can’t fit in the medina), visiting the old Jewish quarter, the Royal Palace and then another co-op, a ceramics factory this time. It was interesting to see how they made the mosaics, first by cutting the tiles into shape and bevelling the edges and then arranging the tiles from the back before applying cement. Our next stop was a view point where we could see the different sections of the town. It was amazing to see the number of satellite dishes on all the rooftops. After that we left the bus and headed into the medina properly. We visited an old madrasa/koranic universtiry and then the tanneries. We were given some mint to hold in front of our noses to hide the smell of all the vats below us, and it’s definitely somewhere I’m happy not to work. We spent the afternoon walking around the alley ways, the buildings shadowing the twisting paths, shops selling an enormous range of goods on either side, the smells of various spices generally hiding more unpleasant smells (the garbage collectors were on strike), the sounds of arabic conversations echoing around, as well as the occasional shout of ‘Balek! Balek!’ telling everyone to move out the way of a donkey and invitations to look in every shop. We visited another weaving shop where we all had scarves draped over ourselves in various forms of head-dress, a spice and oil shop (far too expensive as I later discovered, luckily I didn’t buy anything!) and a metal working shop. After our tour we had more time to wander around the medina, and we still managed not to get lost! But I did buy a few more things.

We had an early start the next morning the next day for our eight hour train trip to Marrakech. It was as fun as it sounds, but once we arrived we could explore the town. It was getting a bit late, so that evening we just headed out to the main square, Djamaa El Fna, and headed to the markets around there before having a delicious Moroccan dinner for the final night of our tour.

The next morning I got picked up for my cooking class, where I turned out to be the only student. We were walking around the markets, buying ingredients when these two other travellers came up to us, and this guy kissed my guide and myself on the cheeks. The guy was Italian, and didn’t speak any English (not quite sure why he kept talking to me, when I could understand one word in twenty) and he was travelling with a Spanish girl, who did speak English. Bizarrely they kept following us around while we walked around the markets, bought all our ingredients and then headed back to the Riad where I was doing the cooking, where the guide had to tell them that we were now starting our cooking class. The guy was pretty weird and kept trying to talk to me, and the girl was trying to hang around other people because he was a bit weird. Not really something I wanted to get involved with on my trip. But once they’d gone I made a lovely chicken and lemon tagine, although too much for me to eat myself. After that I had to move from my hotel with a swimming pool to a hostel, which wasn’t as difficult to find as I’d feared! Then I had some more mint tea and then walked back to the Djamaa El Fna square for some more walking around markets and alleyways.

On the following day I did a day trip to the Ourika valley. Our first stop was a Berber house, where we watched how they traditionally made bread, learned how to make the mint tea (like I said before, mainly sugar, plus some green tea and fresh mint), and had breakfast. Our second stop was a short camel ride, which was bumpy but fun. Onwards we went to another spice and oil co-operative. This one was a bit more interesting as they had a garden which demonstrated all the plants that they used, and we also got to see how the famous Argan Oil (also known as Moroccan Oil) is produced. Then we arrived at the main stop for the day, the hike to the Ourika falls. It was a bit of a strange hike, the initial terrain was kind of what I expected, fairly rocky, hilly and uneven…but with restaurants on either side. Once the restaurants finished though, I was a little surprised at the difficulty of the hike, I hadn’t realised my shoes were going to get quite so wet as we crossed the river several times, scrambled up rocks and clefts and finally reached the waterfall. And then we had to head down. Being a Sunday, the whole place was also filled with locals on a weekend break, so in some narrow points it got rather crowded with people trying to go up and down at the same time. So a little scary, but lots of fun. Our final stop was a late lunch (at about 4pm) where we had tagines and cous cous which were very nice! That evening we decided that we didn’t need dinner, but walked back into the square, because it changes quite a bit at night, having a more festive atmosphere.

The next day was my day to explore Marrakech, and at 40*C it was quite hard work. Also, for some reason, all of the sights seem to be quite difficult to find, which may explain why there are so many people who make their money by directing tourists. Unfortunately we had to use some of them…although they weren’t particularly happy with the amount of money we gave them. So we found the Saadian Tombs (surprisingly only rediscovered in the 20th century), the El Badi Palace (unfortunately stripped to build other things), the Bahia Palace as well as a few museums in the North of the City. After that we definitely needed a rest from the heat so had a bit of lunch and then went back to the hostel before heading to the square in the evening for a meal in one of the stalls. The meal came with a two year guarantee, but as they were also advertising air-conditioning and a swimming pool in the tarp covered stall we weren’t quite convinced. It was fun anyway, and no after effects.

So that’s it for this trip, and now it’s on to a new job in Norfolk.

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