It has been almost two weeks since we returned from Morocco and we have had two or three warm sunny days. The rest of the time, the days have varied between monsoon rain and grey dull depressing cloud, and the euphemistic ‘sunny periods’. We felt luckier after watching the UK weather forecast for the last two weeks. The UK is having an Ontario style winter, and they are just not equipped to cope with such conditions. There are some scientific explanations for the freezing cold i.e. the lower Jet Stream and warming Arctic Ocean but there is no hope for warmer weather in sight, and we are already passed the Spring Equinox. I think we had the same problem last summer (when it rained for 8 weeks) – hence I think I am truly the Rain Queen.
I must correct my last post about Morocco, one of our readers who obviously knows this area, wrote to tell me the Spanish city was Ceuta not Cueta as I had written (spell check didn’t tell me – duh). My Spanish phonetics are obviously not up to scratch as the pronunciation of Ceuta is “thwayta”……….. go figure!
We drove along the coast on a very modern highway south from Rabat turning inland to Marrakesh (which can be spelt in a variety of ways), a long journey of about 4 hours (singing the Crosby, Stills Nash and Young song in my head…. ‘Road to Marrakesh’).
Morocco was very green fields, forests and full rivers. As we were driving down the coast on a new highway I noticed some very very tall palm trees, only to find when we arrived in Marrakesh were in fact that these were disguised cell phone towers – a good effort to stop visual pollution.
Martin and I were a bit dubious about going on a bus trip, but we did not have much time and the price was right. The travel was quite good fun as the group gelled into a cohort of European travelers lead by Mohammad (our Moroccan guide – not the other guy). We were composed of a Welsh couple (Mike and Angela), four older women transplanted to Spain from Britain (Jill, Judy, Marty and her daughter Clare), a jovial Scottish couple (Archibald and Lilias), who were also their way to Canada for another holiday in May, and their friends, another transplanted British couple, Jeff and Marion, plucky Iris (who did the whole trip in her wheel chair in some serious pain), her husband Ron and her sister Jean (again transplanted Brits), a very nice man from Madrid Sr. Jeronimo, a lovely couple from Argentina (Oscar and Elsa), an interesting very poised lady from Miami (Colette) who was traveling with her old/renewed friend John (a retired judge from Albany NY, snowbirding in Spain), two fun California guys; Phil and his buddy Dyer, who were touring Spain visiting family and old haunts, and the Anglo-Canadians – Martin and I. The crowd was mostly retired and many of them were high flyers of one sort or another so the conversation was very intelligent and the members of the group all had good stories to tell.
I think tours like this are an exercise in timing as when we take 20+ people on a bus and arrive at a hotel – the hotel must be ready. We took a detour through the Palm Gardens and the camel park (as in camel parking lot) before arriving at our large quite deluxe hotel. We all hit a problem (for Europeans) at the hotel – no alcohol on the premises – not a drop in sight. It was a problem as the hotel was a bit out of town and there was nowhere to buy wine. Martin and I headed off down the road to the local IBIS (a chain of French hotels) where the bar was open and we could have a glass of wine before dinner (which was served in our hotel sans wine). Other people headed off in different directions – some by taxi downtown, some down the road to another bar, some to their room with a bottle of illegal gin and cans of tonic they had brought with them.
The owner of hotel was quite religious – no alcohol or pork, but cigarette smoking everywhere (such a Canadian offence)! I observed that women were quite liberated in Marrakesh – a notable lack of head coverings, very few in burkas and many of them smoking cigarettes publicly. Our guide explained that the full covering of women, within Sunni Islam, meant they were married and that their lives (and faces) had become private. I did wonder about this explanation, but as a guest in Morocco I did not challenge it and left the topic alone.
Our day in Marrakesh was full of tours of the French part (the new city) with it’s long wide boulevards, and the ancient palaces and mosques around the Kasbah and Medina. I was surprised that Marrakesh is 500 m above sea level and very flat – I had a vision of a city built on hills (like the rugged terrain of Spain). Secondly the whole city was a terra-cotta colour: all the buildings, roads, soil, walls, markets – everything. It looked very dramatic, but Marrakesh is a dramatic city; full of history and even today is the winter home of many famous people.
Our trip to the olive groves and the water source that fed it reminded us of proximity to the Atlas Mountains to the south. Water (the source of all life) was piped down to the city from the 4000m Atlas Mountains, where Moroccans can actually ski. This allowed the oasis (and its 340 days of sun) to grow into a city of 1.6 million that is both vibrant and mysterious. Olives I discovered were different colours depending on when they are picked (unlike grapes that are grown a different colour). Black olives are the last to be picked, so I will always think of Marrakesh (and heat) when I eat cured Moroccan black olives. Weatherwise we had a cloudy day, almost as if it was trying to rain……
Our guide took us to the old city, where the ancient Mosques and palaces highlighted the 500 year history of this place. He took us into the Kasbah, which also housed the old Jewish Quarter. Our guide was at pains to tell us that Morocco is a very tolerant society with all religions living together, and that Jews who had left Marrakesh during the early Palestine wars were now returning, as they still owned property and businesses in the old city. The winter palace was a calm serene place – very different to bustling Kasbah.
Our tour took us to an apothecary where we listened to a local herbalist who sold us lots of potions, creams and spices like saffron, nigella, argane oil, spikenard and jasmine oils. It felt a bit like the scene out of ‘The English Patient’ when the old Bedouin with his coat carrying oils and creams came to administer salve to the patient’s terrible burns. Needless to say – I did a bit of shopping. Having an interest in aromatherapy and cooking gave me a sense of the value of these treasures.
After the herbalists shop we had some free time to go into the Kashab and the Djemaa el Fna Square where we watched the snake charmers and transvestite dancers, the bands and other entertainers, shopped for leather and enjoyed our two hour Kodak moment of colour.
We also visited a Moroccan government store, where the prices are fixed, unlike the Kasbah where Martin was in his element bargaining with (beating down) the local traders. In the store we were very dismayed to find ivory on sale – very openly. Martin challenged the store clerk – with the words that this was illegal and contraband in Europe, Canada and the US. We were assured that no-one would know and they could send it anywhere in the world. WRONG ANSWER. I had to leave the shop before I got myself into trouble.
We now need the Queen of Thailand to write to the King of Morocco and ask for help to stop this terrible trade. There must be a network of monarchs around the world and a word from one of them would help stop the ivory trade. Perhaps even King Carlos of Spain could become a real Penitent (as we are in Holy Week) and redeem his own reputation after he was caught elephant hunting in Africa a couple of years ago. A letter from him to the King of Morocco to stop this abomination would go a long way to raising consciousness in both countries. (Rant over)
In the evening of our visit to Marrakesh we went to a spectacular ‘cultural’ show in a restaurant/resort just outside of town. The location was a fantasy Disney style complex in the shape of Arab tents, Ali Baba’s cave and a desert fort. This place puts on a show for up to 5000 people almost every night of the week during tourist season (Feb – June). We had a meal of a variety of Tagines (very meaty), vegetables, fruit, bread, sweets, wine etc and then we were treated to a display of desert horsemanship and visits from a variety of representatives of the tribes singing and dancing. It was an evening to remember with lots hoopla, gunfire, fireworks and local colour. The bus group had a lot of fun as we were all seated together and could share what Martin characterized as a bizarre cultural experience.
The next day we set off for Casablanca, another long bus journey to the Atlantic coast and warm beaches of this fabled city. Casablanca is the city of white houses (duh), with a population of 7 million is largest city in Morocco and the second largest in Africa (after Cairo). It is the summer home of many of the royal houses of the Arab world. Our first stop was downtown for lunch – Martin and I and our American pals got lost and missed the bus for the tour of the Hassan II Mosque. It was actually a bit of shame because the outside of this Mosque was very impressive, so we can only imagine the inside.
The Hassan II Mosque is located on the waters edge and a monument to the belief and faith of Muslims in their god, their prophet and their king. This beautiful building is the largest mosque outside of Mecca, with a 200metre minaret. It was built between 1987 and 1993. The 1200 volunteers and workers created an exquisite example of Arab art and architecture that was breathtaking. Like the Familia Segrada, this place of worship embodies love and beauty. The Hassan II Mosque houses tradition and modernism in Islam; a Muslim theological school and a modern art gallery (which had an exhibition of women’s art at the time of our visit) in a gorgeous setting.
After our serene visit we went to the hotel, another non-alcohol place. So some of our party went in search of Rick’s Bar (yes the Rick’s bar), but found it was closed until later in the evening. We headed to the bar across the road from the hotel, we were ushered inside – not allowed to drink on the patio or walk around with our drinks (sounds like the BC rules on alcohol consumption).
The next day we headed out early to the picturesque town of Asilah on the Atlantic coast and then drove to Tetuan a former Spanish fortress and trading town on our way back to Ceuta.
Our visit to Tetuan (which is also the location of one of the king’s palaces) our guide took us through the old town and the local Kasbah and medina. The tour was much less touristy than other places, where we could see how many Moroccans still live in poverty and with a lack of public hygiene. The markets were full of people and goods, veggies, live chickens, bakers, jewelry, and textiles. Our guide told us that the city was 75% Berber, 25% Arab. As a part of show and tell he dressed one of our party in the Berber costume, which included a gag over her mouth. (hmmmm).
We had lunch in Tetuan at a local place and then set off back to Ceuta and our ferry to Algercias. Did I mention that it rained most of the day on our return trip from Casablanca to Ceuta? Being back on Spanish soil felt like coming home – but we have had lots of homes recently.
We arrived back quite late on St Patrick’s Day but we did not celebrate – not a big event here. And the last week has been a bit of bust weather-wise –lots of rain. We are now celebrating Semana Santa with the Spanish people who have a week or so holiday and seem to flocking to the coast. More on Semana Santa and our drive back through northern Spain, back via ferry to the UK for my mums 86th birthday in the next blog.