Friday, 21 June 2013

Morocco

Morocco has long been high on our list of places to go. We even booked a flight there a few years ago which we had to cancel last minute due to work. So it was nice to finally make it here, and the wait was definitely worth it! 

So what can I say About Morocco? It's a little difficult to explain Morocco in some ways given the contrasting cultures and geography. True it physically resides in Africa, but Morocco is a unique place that to me seems to have more in common with the Middle East than Africa. A predominantly Muslim country, although more moderate and open to Western influences. It's coastline has abundant agriculture, but cross over the Atlas Mountains and you enter the barren Sahara dessert. 

The scenery and natural environment was amazing. We enjoyed crossing over the Atlas Mountains with stunning views of the valleys below and the snow capped peaks above. The rivers that flowed down the mountains cut through reddish rock to carve out deep canyons and other interesting rock formations. And a ribbon of greenery followed the rivers paths and nourished the small villages along the way. Eventually the rivers flowed out into the Sahara, along the way supporting ancient civilizations that flourished for centuries along the Draa Valley, with its many kasbahs. Walking through the large date palms that grew along the river valleys made us feel like we had gone back in time to biblical times. 


The Route

We landed at the international airport just outside of Casablanca and drove straight to Marrakech getting in quite late. Was exhausted but it worked out great because we slept well that night and when we woke up the following morning, were already adjusted to the time change from Canada. 

The route I'd planned out took us through some amazing variety, from the historic medina of Marrakech, over the high Atlas Mountains, past ancient kasbahs, into deep river canyons, out into the Sahara, through small date palm villages, to the package tourist town of Agadir, and to the old ocean-side walled city of Essaouira. 

Every day brought a new adventure. It was a fair bit of driving, a little more than we would have liked, but then again I can't see myself taking anything off the itinerary. And even the driving was always through scenic and varied terrain. So we can recommend the route, maybe just a few more days if you can afford the time. 



 
Day  1-3      Marrakech
Day  4         Ouarzazate
Day  5-6      Dades Valley near Tinghir
Day  7-8      Merzouga in the Sahara
Day  9         Zagora in the Draa Valley
Day  10       Agadir
Day  11-12  Essaouira
Day  13       Casablanca

The timing of the trip was December, the weather was fine - just a bit cold crossing over the Atlas Mountains, and also got chilly in the dessert in the evenings and night. 
 

Highlights

Pretty much everyone whose been to Morocco has visited Marrakech, and we were no exception. And for good reason, it is an amazing place, even if spots can be overly touristy. Amoung it's simplest pleasures is to wander through the medina and get hopelessly lost. So it's best to have plenty of time, and an exploring mindset. If you had a dozen people walk along the same path through the medina, they would each have a very different experience. There is so much clutter, people and distractions along the path to draw your attention, no matter what your interests are. 


      Street side stall, medina style
 

            
      Mederssa Ben Youssef 16th century school


      Courtyard in our riad


While we enjoyed Marrakech, I must admit that heading out over the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara piqued my travelers spirits even more. The thought of following along ancient trade routes once used by the trading caravans made me wonder in awe how they managed to cross the high mountain passes, let alone the route through the barren Sahara. Like many of the old caravans, we stopped at Ait Benhaddou Ksar, a Unesco World Heritage site and old town perched on a hillside with many of the ancient original builindings still standing. 


      Ait Benhaddou Ksar, Uneso World Heritage Site


      The Atlas Mountains viewed from the inland Sahara side


Continuing into Ouarzazate for a night, we toured the Atlas film studio, Morocco's version of Hollywood, albeit a very small version! But we were surprised to learn how many scenes from famous movies were filmed here, including much of Lawrence of Arabia and parts of Patton - one of my favourites. We wandered through sets from the Gladiator, Kundun and Ben Hur amount others. Our young tour guide had studied film in Morocco, and seemed disappointed to be putting his knowledge to work taking tourists around the film sets. But I'm sure one day he will have a chance to help make the films of the future.


      Atlas Film Studio


Beyond Ouarzazate the road passed along the date palm growing areas with some of the best kasbahs in the country, and incredible views of the Atlas Montains. Eventually cutting back towards the mountains, we drove into Todra Gorge, a deep river valley cut through reddish-pinkish rocky terrain. 


      The Todra Gorge, may look familiar from automobile tv commercials






We stayed at the Chez Pierre overlooking the gorge, and can definitely recommend this inn. Run by two Moroccan brothers, one being an amazing cook, and the other taking us for a day long 4x4 excursion through some remote mountain territory. When he said we would meet "cave people" I thought he was either joking, or it would be some staged exhibition for tourists. But we really did meet a family of cave dwellers. It turns out there are still a fair number of nomadic Berber people who mostly tend goats high up in the Mountains in summer, and then drop down to the valleys in winter and literally live in caves that have been carved out over the centuries. They don't even necessarily stay in the same cave each year as it's first come first serve approach. Our Guide was a Berber whose grandfather still lived this way by choice. 


      A nomadic Berber, at home in his summer time "cave retreat"


The route then took us further into the Sahara and to the impressive sand dunes near Mergouza. This was about as far as the runoff from the Atlas Mountains could make it before simply disappearing and being absorbed beneath the Saharan dunes. We spent one night sleeping out among the dunes in a traditional Berber tent, with our guide cooking up a traditional Moroccan tangine that was truly tasty, especially given we were not expecting the best food at a tent site! 


      The dunes at Mergouza with runoff from the Atlas Mountains


Continuing on to the next stop Zagora, took us through some more amazing and remote dessert scenery. We stayed at the Sahara Sky hotel in the middle of the dessert. It was in a remote location away from any city lights, and they catered to hobby astronomists mostly from Europe. A couple of friendly Finnish amateur astronomers showed us some pretty cool stuff, and we managed to get a few photos of the moon and some distant galaxies the names of which escapes me.

      The Sahara Sky Hotel, intentionally located n the middle of nowhere!


      Galaxy somewhere in the universe, complements of the friendly Finnish
      amateur astronomers


The next day we left at 6am as it was the longest driving day of the trip, and I wanted to leave at least a few hours to explore the walled town of Taroudannt. And glad we did as we made it to Taroudant in great time and found a local guide who took us through the souks, along the historic ramparts and through the soothing gardens of the Palais Salam Hotel. Only wish we had a couple extra days to spend here. 

After the quick walking tour of Taroudannt, we were back in the car for a couple more hours until we reached Agadir, a coastal package tourist destination for Europeans seeking some warmth in the winter. While a pleasant enough place, it really didn't have the same Moroccan charm experienced elsewhere. So we were satisfied to take a walk along the beach and next day headed off early for Essauoira. 


      Walled seaside town of Essaouira



      Goats climbing an Argan tree near Essaouira


If I was forced to pick one and only one place to come back to in Morocco, I think it would have to be Essaouira. An old walled city and Unesco world heritage site, Essauoira is a seaside fishing town with its own little medina. A more laid back place, the souks had all the variety of Marrakech but more concentrated, and easier to navigate. The vendors were not aggressive, and life seemed to go on here at a relaxing pace. The one exception might be the row of about a dozen fresh seafood stands that lined the entrance to the port. In a friendly spirit they competed aggressively for every tourist that walked by. And eventually just about everyone would stop in for a fresh cooked seafood dish - how could you resist...


      A varied and colorful menu! 


Our accomodation was a little riad in the medina, Riad Chbanate, run by a young Frenchman who was a carpenter at heart. He had taken a fallen down decrepid shell of a building and created an incredible four storey riad with an interior courtyard. Each room was uniquely designed. His work is so good that other expats in the town had hired him to construct their riads. 


      Riad Chbanate 


Essauoira is a lively place even in the evening. Even with a fair number of tourists wandering about, the town still felt authentically Moroccan. 


      Main walkway throug Essauoira medina


It's always difficult to leave at the end of a trip, but what better way than to watch the sun going down over the Atlantic from the ramparts of Essauoira...


      Sunset from Essauoira


We were able to stop over in Paris for three days on the way back to Canada. It was my first time there and the city does live up to its reputation. But three days was just a teaser of a trip and we will have to make it back one day. Our travel blog on Paris will have to wait until then as we can't possibly do justice to describing Paris on just a three day stay. 



A Few Poetic Portraits

Inspired by the great Brazilian poet Raimundo Gadelha.



      A grand entrance impresses all, except those that peer down from on high



      The complex patterns date back to simpler times, a perplexed face yearns
      to understand 





      Clothed in tradition, hidden by inhibition, treading lightly into a world unknown



      Two best friends, a trusting dog, what surprises await us this carefree day


      When stresses grow, I seek my solice, alongside a silent pool in a sea of green


      Nature is patient, abiding the time, but when will the balance that permeates all 
      come tumbling down?



      A gnarled tree in a bed of stone, the simplicity is truly astonishing