22 July 2014

Morocco day 6: The Middle Atlas Mountains and Berem

We left Fes at 9am for a long day of travel, but with lots of interesting stops.

We climbed up and through the Middle Atlas mountains, covered in cedar trees – some up to 300 years old – and Holm oaks, which are native to these parts. Our first stop was at one of the many mountain lakes, a picturesque spot, with lots of water birds and dragon flies, nice reflections in the water, and enterprising locals looking to make a dirham or two by allowing visitors to pose for photos on their colourfully bedecked horses. Even though we deliberately parked a mile or more away, they quickly came galloping over.

Our next stop was for drinks and cakes at Ifrane, a little slice of Switzerland transplanted to Morocco. The town is popular with people from Fes seeking to escape the 40 degree summer heat, as well as for those wanting to trek and partake in winter sports. As it snows there in the winter, rather than the usual flat roofs, the houses are tall and peaked and look more European, especially with the huge stork nests propped against roof peaks and chimney stacks. The town also sports a large statue of a lion, a Barbary lion – yes, they did once have lions roaming these mountains and, though now extinct in the wild, some still survive in captivity. The Barbary Lion Project aims, eventually, to breed enough lions to release back into the wild.

As well as the Barbary Lion, there is also a Barbary Ape or Macaque, and we saw lots of these little critters by the roadside as we continued our journey. People feed them so, naturally, they come to the roads to scavenge and beg for food. As you can imagine, we all took lots of photographs, as they were very cute.

The Middle Atlas are big mountains and the countryside is quite rugged and barren. Still, in places we saw donkeys standing by the roadside. Their owners had caught passing taxis and buses to the weekly market in their nearest local town and would return later in the day to load their purchases on to the donkeys for the journey home – not much in the way of local roads here. And this is also an area where nomads roam, grazing their flocks of sheep and goats in one place for a few days before moving themselves, their tents and their animals on to the next plain or valley. It’s a way of life that has continued for centuries in these parts.

We descended through a dramatic gorge at 2000 metres absl and continued across a high plateau at 1600 metres absl where we stopped at a local town for lunch. Both the goat and the sheep tagines were delicious – parts of the goat, including its head, were still hanging up in the butcher’s stall just outside the restaurant so we were reassured that the meat was fresh that morning!

Our last stop of the day was at Atelier Kasbah Myriem, adjoining the Monastery of Notre Dame in the Atlas. Franciscan nuns established a convent in this place in 1926 and, in an enlightened example of inter-faith cooperation, began teaching the local girls and women how to embroider. Though only two nuns now remain – and they are too old to teach, and the convent has become a monastery for Trappist monks, the embroidery and weaving workshop continues, allowing local women to pass their skills on to the next generation and to earn some money from their exquisite work. Shopping!

It was a short drive from there to our overnight accommodation, in a Kasbah just outside Berem, a small town about 6kms west of Midelt. We got settled, then Issam led us on a walk to see the dramatic river gorge where the old part of the town sits. The younger Intrepid travellers were scampering along the edge like mountain goats but not me … it was steep and the rock crumbly … better to be safe than sorry. 

As we walked through the ancient town of mud-brick houses, we met a local grandfather who Issam knew and were immediately invited into his family’s home to share mint tea and bread. He, his daughter and grandson were very welcoming and it was wonderful to hear him speak (with Issam translating) of his life as a nomad sheep herder. He had only recently bought the house, for his family and his old age, but still missed the nomadic lifestyle. It was a wonderful way to bring another great Moroccan day to a close.

19 July 2014

Morocco day 5: Fes

Fes is Morocco’s third largest city, with a population of about 1.2 million people, and is made up of three quite distinct areas. Fes el-Bali (the old Fes medina) is one of the largest living medieval cities in the world, a walled maze of 9400 streets within an area of about 280 hectares that was founded in the 9th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. West of the medina is Fes el-Jdid (new Fes), an extension to the old medina built in the 13th century, and the third main area is the Ville Nouvelle, with wide boulevards full of shops, cafes and restaurants, built in the 1920s. You can move from an early medieval bazaar to an air-conditioned super-modern shopping mall is the blink of an Arab eye in Fes.

Though our hotel was in the Ville Nouvelle, we spent most of our time in Fes in the old medina, on a full-day walking tour. However, our tour started with our local guide, Fatimah, showing us the beautiful gates of the king’s local palace, then we boarded our trusty minibus to drive to a viewpoint high above the city, where we got a really good idea of how extensive the city is. It was an impressive sight, both for the 365 minarets within the old medina and for the sea of satellite dishes on every rooftop!

From there, we drove to a ceramics and tile factory, for a tour and shopping – this was definitely a day when you could have spent a small fortune on the most exquisite examples of local craftsmanship – how I resisted most temptations I still don’t know! At this first factory, we received a guided tour and explanation of how the goods were made, were able to photograph the skilled artisans at work, watch them chipping coloured tiles into the shapes required for intricate mosaic patterns or chipping away the fired colour to make relief patterns or painting complex designs onto ceramic wares. Exiting through the gift shop, I had a serious case of plate envy when Rhonda bought a beautiful blue and white and silver plate but the shipping cost as much as the plate and I certainly couldn’t have carried it around for the rest of this trip – so I resisted.

Next, our medina tour started for real. We were warned of two things before we started walking: first, keep up and keep an eye out for the other group members because if you got lost, you could be in serious trouble and, second, remember the word ‘ballac’ (not sure that’s the right spelling) – it means ‘get out of the way’ or ‘watch out’. The medina streets are so narrow that small wheeled carts and donkeys are the only way to transport goods in and out, and the donkey stops for no one!

We saw so many different sights during our walk that day that it’s hard to remember everything so here’s just a small selection …

We got a good view of the famous Fes tanneries from the top floor of a leather shop. The smell was quite powerful so we were all given a sprig of mint to wave under our noses while we shopped. From leather purses and handbags to slippers and jackets, the selection of colourful items on sale was enormous. I resisted!

At left, our guide Fatimah, with a couple of the group

At the lantern shop, there were lamps and lanterns of every conceivable shape and size, for use with electric light or candle power, and casting the most lovely shadow patterns on surrounding walls and ceiling. I resisted!

Left, peparing to dye the silk and, right, weaving it
The weavers’ workshop was interesting as they make fabric using strands of ‘silk’ beaten from the fibrous leaves of the agave plant. Here, we were all dressed up in head-gear for a fun group photo. Here, too, I resisted the bed linen and large throws but I did buy a couple of scarves – ‘small, easy to pack, always useful’, I told myself. I couldn't resist everything!

We also visited the Koranic university, saw the oldest minaret in the medina and the oldest mosque – currently being refurbished, and we stopped often at small shops along the way for explanations about the things we saw: the furniture used in wedding ceremonies, the use of henna to paint designs on hands and feet, for photos of camel heads at the butchers and sharks heads at the fishmongers, and much more besides.

Our guide Issam resting his weary feet while we looked around the university
The sights, sounds, smells, colours of that day were almost overwhelming – it was a fabulous insight into local life and into how that life had been lived for centuries past. A Fes of the heart!

17 July 2014

Morocco day 4: Meknes and Volubilis and Fes

Though it’s difficult to compare days that were each very different, looking back now I think this was probably my favourite day in Morocco.

It started with breakfast at the hotel in Meknes, then Rhonda and I set off in a little blue taxi to the Granaries of Moulay Ismail, which were supposed to open at 9am but didn’t, for no apparent reason. Thinking we didn’t have time to hang around, we had a look at the adjacent Agdal Basin, a huge reservoir built for irrigation and as a pleasure lake by Moulay Ismail, then set off to follow the self-guided walking tour in our little Intrepid brochure.

It was a walk of perhaps 30 minutes from the granaries to the Mausoleum of that same Moulay Ismail, past impressively high walls guarding, on one side, the Royal Golf Course and the local Palace (there seems to a palace in every city) and also past the remains of the Old Imperial Palace, with the ubiquitous storks nesting on the high parts and small birds of prey roosting in the holes in the walls.

At the mausoleum we were highjacked by a wonderful old character called Mohammed, who said there would be no charge for his guiding services but, of course, it later turned out that there was. For a small fee, we saw the sarcophagus where the sultan is buried and, as always in these places, the decoration was superb: stucco incised with verses from the Koran, wonderfully carved cedar-wood panels, columns of Carrera marble (exchanged years ago with Italian merchants – 1kg of marble for 1kg of sugar), and intricate tiling.

Across from the mausoleum was a series of shops where Mohammed steered us next to see the metalwork being done by Berber craftsmen – tin inset with silver decorations – gorgeous work, which was demonstrated for us by a local man, first incising the design on the metal, then beating in silver thread with a small hammer, followed by various firing processes to seal and fuse the two. We each bought a plate for a relatively small amount sum, considering the amount of effort involved in the making.

Next, we passed through a fancy gate and into a square where we visited the underground Prison of the Christian Slaves, a series of vaults covering seven hectares lit only by the light that filtered down from holes in the square above. Various movies have featured scenes set in this atmospheric place, apparently. And then we climbed up the steps again for a quick look at the Koubba el Khayatine, a reception hall decorated with tiles and used for to greet ambassadors visiting the royal court.

We thought we still had some walking to do to reach the main square where we were to meet our Intrepid tour leader Issam and the rest of the group but, when we passed through the next set of gates, we realised we had arrived at our destination, the Place el Hedim, a large square bordered on two sides by stalls and cafes and with entrances in to the covered market. We had time to spare so explored the market, then ventured further, into the medina itself.

These places are almost overwhelming in their assault on the senses – huge stacks of the incredibly sweet confections made especially for Ramadan, which was to start in a few days, the sweets covered in bees attracted by the cloying smell of the honey; a butcher’s section which was not for the faint-hearted where we saw a rabbit being skinned, a chicken having its neck wrung and bloody goats' heads lying on the floor (I’ll spare you any photos of those, though I do have some); huge mounds of fresh fruit and vegetables, some recognisable, some not, all looking succulent and tasty. The sights and smells hadn’t put us off our lunch so, once the group had assembled, we headed in to the medina for our lunchtime 'real life experience’ of camel burgers. Delicious!

Afterwards, our new transport, a large mini-bus, and our friendly and very competent driver Jamal collected us and our luggage and we set off once more into the countryside. Our next stop was Volubilis, the largest Roman ruins in Morocco, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a fabulous place for a Classics scholar like myself. This largely unexcavated 42-hectare city contains a section of the Appian Way lined with the remains of arcaded shops and their pictorial advertising signage, many in situ and very splendid mosaics, many standing columns and a huge archway, amongst other things. It is to be hoped that UNESCO’s recognition of the site’s importance will bring the money for further excavations and for preservation.

Though the site was quite simply amazing, the most memorable part of our visit was the huge thunderstorm that swept through as we explored the site with a local guide. This sent us scurrying for columns to shelter behind and bent over to try to protect our precious cameras from the driving rain. Our cameras may have stayed dry but most of us got totally soaked in the process – but, along with the thunderclaps, wild winds and horizontal rain, there was hysterical laughter and complete enjoyment of the drama of the situation. An experience never to be forgotten!

From Volubilis it was two more hours to Fes, through rolling fertile hills patch-worked in golden harvest colours, interspersed with the precise lines of the olive groves and with the whole irrigated by water from one of the huge dams that has recently been built as part of a scheme to ‘Green Morocco’.

Fes is an enormous city, which we would see more of the following day but this evening we were to experience just a little of its culinary perfection. In their residence in the city’s medina, a local family have created a restaurant where the excellence of the food is matched by the splendour of the decoration. The mother of the family was responsible for the taste sensations and one of the sons, working with a team of 15 craftsmen, had spent a whole year designing and creating the most breathtakingly beautiful ceilings in the series of dining rooms. The combination of the two, together with the good company and stimulating conversation of our group, created the perfect end to a truly incredible day.