Marrakech - Sunday 10th April
Having travelled from Gatwick midday Saturday, we arrived at the Hotel Atlas at around 8.15 p.m. and had an evening meal before a relatively early night.
Following a fairly indifferent typical hotel buffet breakfast, the next day (Easter Sunday), we had a brief introductory talk by the two Jules Verne guides who were to be with us for our tour of the Royal Cities of Morocco.
We took a brief tour around some of the walls of the city before entering the old part to visit the tombs of the royal family of the Saadians who ruled in the 16th century. On our way we saw huge nests of the stork which favours the highest buildings. We also saw one or two in flight but were unable to adequately catch this on the camera.
Two features of the buildings were immediately evident - the elaborately carved stucco work made of gypsum and ground marble, and the mosaic tiles on floors and walls. There were also the keyhole shaped doorways typical of Islamic buildings.
We then rejoined the coach with the other 37 passengers and moved on to the Palace Bahia. This royal palace dates only from the 19th century and was built by two Grand Viziers. It is apparently huge but visits are limited to a courtyard and six rooms. Again there was the stucco work but this time also elaborately painted wooden ceilings. Cedar wood is widely used as it repels insects and is not prone to rot. Where not painted in Moroccan buildings it is elaborately carved. We saw the Secretary's room and others belonging to the favourite wife and concubines.
Another ride and then a short visit to the Koutoubia Mosque, dating from the 12th century. Unlike the other buildings we had seen this (we saw it only from the outside) this was very plain and unadorned.
Then after a few minutes walk - lunch! This comprised a buffet in a rooftop room. Rice, salad, some small meatballs and some chicken. Quite pleasant but not exceptional. Still it provided a chance to talk with four of the other travellers - the two women of the couples both being involved in schools. One was a special needs teacher and the other Jan (who had travelled the world with her husband Robert who had been in the army) was a school secretary of a large primary school in Dorset. Can't get away from these teachers!
We then proceeded on one of the strangest walking tours we have experienced as we went through the souks. These are 8000 (but we only visited 7999 of them) little workshops and shops. Virtually everything in this area was made on the spot rather than being the usual round of tourist trophies mass produced in factories and sold in a myriad of outlets. It was a maze of narrow alleys tightly packed with workshops, cats, pedestrians, bikes and mopeds! It was crowded just to walk through but this did not deter the mechanised travellers one bit. There was metalwork, baskets, slippers, belts, clothing and leatherware. We emerged into the occasional larger space only to dive off again through a doorway or down an alley.
We interrupted this assault of noise, smells and sights to spend a while in Ben Youssef Medersa, a 16th century divinical university. Again the features of elaborately carved stucco, painted wood ceilings and a courtyard and fountain. At first floor level were the students' cells (very dark and basic) and the more attractive rooms with windows overlooking the courtyard and occupied by the more advanced students. Again the mosaic floors and walls, the former now well-worn, as had been those in the palace. There seems little concept of preservation of the past here, but that may be unfair of me.
Onward again through the souks, this time ending in a small shop with demonstration room where we were introduced to the spices and herbs of Morocco. After smelling and testing those we were shown we, along with many others bought something for every kind of meal, ailment, beauty need etc.
Another series of narrow alleys and shops led us to Place Jemaa el-Fna. When we arrived at this irregularly shaped space at 3.50 p.m. it was fairly well occupied with locals, tourists, sellers of various foods and spices, snake charmers and fortune tellers etc. By the time we left at 5.15 it was heaving with about three times the number of people. Smoke from cooking fires drifted across. The typical music associated with snake charmers came from all directions. Monkeys on chains provided photo opportunities for those less particular than us, and stray cats everywhere roamed amongst the crowds. People spilled into the surrounding roads where donkey carts, mopeds, bicycles and horses and traps competed for space in this noisy, smelly, colourful area.
This must rank amongst one of the most different places we have visited.
At last another short walk to the bus returned us to the very welcome rest, sit down and tranquillity of our hotel. Nothing had been suffered that a quick shower and a couple of hours sit down could not put right.
Monday 11th April
Arising at 6.15 (well we are on holiday aren't we!) we left at 7.30 for a long day on the road. A couple of refreshment stops preceded our lunch break at 3 pm! Then another hour or so saw us in the hotel at Meknes shortly after 6 pm
We began on a very long and exceedingly flat plain. We were in countryside very rapidly and little flocks of sheep occurred every couple of hundred yards throughout the entire journey except, to a lesser extent, in the high mountain country. Tended by a single shepherd of either sex and all ages, they numbered perhaps 12-30 and grazed the roadside, In places this offered just a little thorny plant in other places quite lush grass. Often the flock was mixed sheep and goats.
Initially there were clusters of workshops every few miles. Whilst Morocco is awash with Mercedes (the ubiquitous taxis in differing colours according to region) the most common transport is a donkey cart or just a donkey. For those who have really arrived economically, the cart is horse drawn - far more efficient - but comparatively unusual.
Buildings are either brick or adobe. Again, according to region the colour is determined by the council, and whilst mainly terracotta, it is yellow in some towns.
Most people seem engaged in basic agriculture but we saw men waiting at the roadside at Marrakech for hire, and our guide said that these would be plumbers, electricians etc. Apparently there is no government help for the poor but there are strong family ties offering support.
In rural areas the people almost exclusively wear the long gowns , the men with pointed hoods and the women with veils, but in the mountain areas just with full head coverings.
We stopped at one stage for a photo call with 2 dromedaries plus a 40 day old baby again grazing at the road edge.
Education is free but not yet compulsory, but it is planned to be by 2006. 55% literacy puts Morocco well down the international league, but most larger cities boast a university and many students go to technical colleges. This combined with a population having 55% under 25 makes one think that literacy and expectations will rise rapidly. For the moment, many youngsters will probably remain in rural jobs where literacy is irrelevant and the relatively common absence of electricity will limit expectations.
The terrains seemed fairly arid to us but in places supported wheat, carrots and even the relatively new crops of vines and strawberries. There seemed no agricultural machinery of significance, but equally the fields seldom had workers in them.
Agriculture is number one in the economy followed by the 10% of the population who work abroad and send money back to Morocco, and thirdly tourism. Certainly on this route we felt relatively unusual and were waved at by people of all ages, and stared at by a few.
We left the first plain, climbed up to around 3,500 feet and entered alpine country. With the occasional small town and nearly always some buildings every mile or two we had seldom felt remote, but at this stage the distances increased quite a lot.
We crossed the middle Atlas mountains and lunched at the Hotel Panorama at Azrou. This welcome mid afternoon break in fact gave us an excellent meal of chick pea soup (never Jill's favourite vegetable) followed by trout and then creme caramel. From Adrian's viewpoint the best meal so far. It also afforded the chance to chat with others and add two more teachers to the list! So much for the poverty stricken teachers! Apparently the same debate rages in Morocco about whether teachers are well paid.
Then some wonderful views over ranges of lower hills beneath us as we descended a little to the Plain of Seiss. We stopped shortly at Boufakrane to climb onto some rocks and admire the walls of the casbah and the views of the plain below. This was the first (indeed only) exercise of the day.
Tuesday 12th April
Leaving the hotel at 9.00 a.m., we set out for a 16 mile journey to the old Roman city of Volubilis. An existing Mauretanian town, it was developed by the Romans from 45 AD and flourished until the 3rd century. Initially occupied by Christians it eventually fell into decline.
We saw it in the distance from a hill road leading us to the religious town of Mouday Idriss. It is a bright white town spreading over 2 hills.
A site of around 90 acres it included many public buildings and large houses with mosaics. Where these have been excavated the mosaics remain open to the elements. A large triumphal arch was reconstructed in the 1930s. Much of the site remains buried but a large area has been exposed. It suffered an earthquake in the 18th century, until which time it remained in a fair state of preservation.
An interesting fact emerged. One mosaic is the same as one discovered at Chester! Was this an itinerant worker or the use of a pattern book?
Again we saw storks and nests on the top of a couple of columns.
We then returned to Meknes passing the ubiquitus tiny flocks of sheep at the roadside and the occasional donkey and wooden plough.
We were taken to a Meknes Restaurant for a lunch that was typically Moroccan with beans, lentils, stewed lamb - in fact all of Jill's favourites!! Actually her stomach was a little upset and so she declined most of the goodies.
We took a short coach ride through the series of 3 walls that surround the town. Then a few minutes walk, We passed a very small and shallow reservoir where 3 storks obliged us by coming in to settle on the water. For such large birds they are very graceful in flight and seem to make maximum use of air currents to conserve energy.
We then entered a large series of 17th century buildings that comprised the royal stables (for 12,000 horses) and a huge granary. Moving on we visited modern stables for the royal breeding stallions. It was interesting how Helen who used to breed horses and finds most trips on this holiday boring, found so much to take her attention on this particular section of our day!
We then visited the Grand Mosque. Whilst not exactly our cup of tea, we did find out a little. We have an elderly Pakistani lady who is a practising Moslem and who spent some time discussing various aspects with our guide. Much seems, as we have found previously, to be an observance of a series of rituals.
Finishing off with a stop for a look at a highly elaborate gateway through part of the 25 miles of walls that surround the city, we set off for an hours drive to our 5* hotel in Fes.
Observations of the day:
Considerable variations in dress. Generally the older women have the traditional robe and a variety of head coverings. Some of the younger girls wear jeans and even knee length skirts, make up and no head covering.
Police checks at most major road junctions but so far we as tourists have been exempt.
Relatively few private cars; numerous grand taxis (almost universally Mercedes) and petit taxis generally French.
Few coaches on the open road. Locals rely on taxis which cram in at least 7 people, and the less frequent buses.
Roadside sales of oranges, olive oil, pots etc.
A carob tree in Volubilis led to us learning that the dry fruit are identical in weight and were used by the Romans to balance gold on the scales - hence 24 carat.
Wednesday 13th April
What else? Well not a lot actually. We spent the morning going round the souks. This is certainly an experience, but for Adrian, one that went on too long. The narrow passages between ancient buildings were packed with people, donkeys, traders working out of tiny units, noise, dirt and smells.
Again items were largely homemade apart from some sweets, and electrical goods. The food stalls were acceptable when selling vegetables but enough to turn one vegetarian when dealing with meat - "Fresh chicken sir? I'll just wring its neck" "Some meat? I'll just push this donkey's head away and see what I have got".
We did the usual visit to a carpet shop where we saw a huge carpet that would have looked perfect in the drawing room, but we did not feel that it was wise to spend that much money, even when reduced by about one third.
Following a visit to a kaftan, jellaba shop we went to lunch. Down a narrow unprepossessing alley and through a doorway into what looked like a mosque with the mosaics, stained glass, high ceilings,huge central space etc. In fact it once was a private house, but now a restaurant.
After lunch we visited a ceramic museum in a former palace, again hiding behind an unassuming wall. The garden proved more interesting than the exhibits to most of us. Then on to a ceramic factory, a visit to a couple of gateways and then back to the hotel.
Thursday 14th April
A cold and at times rainy day, the latter not inconveniencing us but the former doing so.
A three hour ride along the motorway to Rabat. The motorway is 2 lane and has very little traffic indeed. Along the way were some sheep as usual occasionally on our side of the motorway fencing and also the odd pedestrian. The service station was small and despite the motorway being only 2 years old, the toilets were as poor, neglected and dirty as is normal here.
We arrived in Rabat in time for lunch. Rabat is a very busy walled administrative city beside the sea. With a population of 1m. it has a great amount of traffic. This time it is the private car rather than the taxi that chokes the roads, ably assisted by police interfering at every possible roundabout and traffic light. They persist with the daft French rule of priority from the right which effectively chokes the roundabout with more and more traffic.
Lunch comprised salad, meatballs, and fresh fruit salad. Then back to the coach before going to the outside of the royal palace and later to Roman ruins beside a derelict 14th century mosque, and a shrine with eels. A very strange mixture. This Merenid necropolis at Chellah was a unique mixture of the unusual. The whole site was also home to a considerable number of storks and other birds. The Roman ruins were unusual in being largely just left - they must have been excavated but one gained the impression that we were discovering them anew. Here a statue pedestal with inscription, there the folds of a toga forming the lower part of a statue, of which the rest is now lost.
We then visited the mausoleum of Mohammed V the father of Moroccan independence from France in 1956. The site was also that of a 12th century mosque, built by Caliph Yacoub el-Mansour along with the city walls. He died in 1199 and the minaret remained unfinished. The mosque itself was huge but has now gone, its extent marked by numerous columns from the original building. Then on to the Oudaia Kazsbah, an area of narrow winding streets and houses painted blue to around 4 feet and then white. The area of the Kasbah dates back to the 12th century but the houses to the 17 and 18th. The streets led us to the Cafe Maure for Moroccan sweet pastries and mint tea. We passed through a gateway to the Andalusian Garden and back out through the walls of the Kasbah to the waiting coach. Parked beside the wall it gave a small dog the opportunity to look down on us and engage in an animated conversation (in barks) with John in our group!
The warmth of the coach was welcome, as was that of the Hotel Oumlil, our first with heating.