DAY 190: MOROCCAN MOSAIC


Taking time in transit to reflect on our time in Morocco…

Like all good things, our time in Morocco had to come to an end eventually. And so we set off early this morning for Marrakech’s Menara Airport bound for Nairobi (via Casablanca then Abu Dhabi – a triple hop, 21 hour transit day… yuck!). With all that airport time up our sleeves, we’ve had heaps of time today to reflect on the past 3 weeks and on all the things we’ve seen and done whilst travelling around Morocco. The overall impression we will take away with us is colourful, joyous, multifaceted and quite complex – not unlike one of the incredible Moroccon zellij mosaics! As wonderful as all the pieces of the mosaic were, however, the true beauty of Morocco only becomes apparent NOW, as we get some distance and see it in its entirety.

 

Our route through Morocco took us all around the place, and showed us a bit of everything. As wonderful as all the pieces of the mosaic were, however, the true beauty of Morocco only becomes  apparent NOW, as we get some distance and see it in its entirety.

 

 

We knew so little about Morocco when we first arrived; we have friends who’d been and loved it, but had only a vague sense of what Moroccon culture was about or what to expect from the people, the architecture or the food. Beyond a few travel brochure photos of camels riding through the desert, we didn’t even have a clear idea of what to expect from the landscape there. What we’ve experienced over the past 3 weeks had exceeded every (vague) expectation we had. Morocco is, in a word, magnificent!

 

Morocco is a land made up of an incredibly diverse set of peoples. It is a melting pot of cultures that has, over the past 10 centuries, attracted conquerers, rebels, dissidents, intellectuals, religious refugees, asylum seekers and interpreneurs from all over North Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe. Islam and Arabic culture was brought to Morocco in the 8th century; then Andalusian Jews and Muslims arrived in the Middle Ages, seeking refuge from religious persecution; sub-Saharan Africans, once captured as slaves for the Moroccon king and then freed, joined the mix in the 15th and 16th centuries; and French, Portugese, Spanish and Dutch colonialists came to Morocco in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

 

All along there were, of course, the indigenous Berber tribesmen – these nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes are spoken of with reverence by all the Moroccons we’ve met (they admire the Berber spirit of independence, their loyalty to family and tribe, and their contribution to the fabric of modern Morocco). Each of these groups has added to the mosaic that is Moroccon culture, food, architecture and identity. The result is a mesmerising blend of African, Arabic, Berber and European influences that is uniquely Moroccon.

 

The landscape too is surprisingly diverse and wonderfully picturesque. From the sweeping beaches of Morocco’s Atlantic coast, to the resort-infested beaches along the Northern Mediterranean coastline, this country has some amazing seaside locations. Further inland the rich farmland and plentiful water supply creates a tapestry of farms where planting and harvesting methods have remained unchanged for centuries. Thanks to these “old fashioned” farming methods, virtually all the food in Morocco is locally grown, organic, free range and “slow” (as opposed to modern, Western “fast” food), and it is amazing!

 

Behind the farmlands rise the Atlas Mountains where we saw snow and experienced the sort of alpine cold we normally associate with places like Switzerland! Beyond the mountains the scenery changed again to something that reminded us a little more of home: the desert. As dry and featureless as the desert seemed at first glance, the beauty there revealed itself with careful consideration – especially at sunrise and sunset. The colours of the Sahara at sunset were amazing and that camel trek through the dunes of the Erg Chebbi will forever remain the highlight of our visit to Morocco.

 

One of the most surprising things for us was seeing how forward-thinking and progressive Moroccons are. There are still some issues to be resolved – issues left over from a time when the country was governed in a more conservative, totalitarian manner – but overall Morocco seems to be moving rapidly into the future. Every where we went we saw signs of progress; new buildings, new businesses, and open discussion about previously taboo subjects like divorce and women’s rights. It is evident that Moroccon’s have a deeply held respect for their king and that they like the direction he and the current government are taking the country in. Some of the things we came across that struck us as very pragmatic and positive, in terms of change, include:

  • Changes to divorce and marriage laws making it impossible for a man to marry a second wife without his first wife’s permission and making it possible for women to seek divorce.
  • Helping farmers in the North of country who make a living by grwing marijuana by educating them about crop substitution and providing financial incentive for them to replace their illegal crops with other crops. So much more realistic than just declaring the crop illegal and setting fire to it all!
  • Building schools all over the country to help address the disparity in literacy and education levels across the country. Estimates say 40% of people in rural areas were illiterate, whereas the richer urban areas had almost 100% literacy. Over the past 10 years this has changed dramatically with the poorer, more isolated parts of Morocco benefitting greatly.
  • There is a government campaign running here designed to reduce corruption. We saw TV ads and posters telling people that any policeman or other official seeking a bribe should be reported – they have even set up an anonymous tip line people can call. The posters also make it clear that if discovered, corruption will result in fines for person receiving the bribe and for the person giving the bribe. For anyone that’s ever spent time in a culture where corruption is the rule, not the exception, you’ll appreciate the magnitude of the change that is beign wrought here!
  • There is a government campaign running to encourage Moroccons who have gone oversees as to study and work to return home to start businesses in Morocco. With tax exemptions and other incentives at stake, many Moroccons are returning from Europe and helping bring more wealth, opportunity and propserity to the country. This is effectively helping reverse the “brain drain” Morocco experienced during the late 20th century, when the brightest and best went to Europe to seek their fortunes.
  • On top of all of this we saw lots of new infrastructure being built. There were lots of signs of investment such as new roads, hydroelectric dams, wind farms for electricity and other public works projects aimed at providing jobs and improving quality of life for Moroccons.

 

The best part of our time in Morocco has been the people though. They are so friendly and welcoming that it made us keen to come back. The ever-present cup of green tea with mint, always served with much ceremony and enthusiasm, will also remain with us as a treasured memory from Morocco. Other unforgetabbles from Morocco: mouth-wateringly delicious tagines, with their complex mixtures of sweet and savoury flavours; the beauty and history of the sand-coloured, adobe kasbahs and ksars; the always amusing sight of a donkey, mule or camel riding through town and obediently stopping at traffic lights; and the colour, chaos and sheer spectacle of the medinas and souks in every town. Totally unforgettable – totally Morocco! The selection of photos below captures some of our favourite Moroccon moments.

 

 

 

Transit days are never fun and today was no exception – Shane had his passport stamped with the wrong immigration stamp in Marrakech and almost didn’t get to leave the country, then we had a 6 hour layover at Casablanca airport before our flight to Abu Dhabi left, and now we’re enjoying one of those cramped, sleepless overnight flights that make us wish we’d paid the exorbitant price for a comfy, reclining Business Class seat. *SIGH* Ahhh well – we’re trying to just keep focussed on what awaits us when we arrive in Nairobi: a good meal, a hot shower and great night’s sleep in a soft bed. Not to mention an awesome 2 week safari through the best of Kenya and Tanzania’s national parks – can’t wait!

DAY 189: COOKING OURSELVES A MOROCCAN FEAST


Cooking in Marrakech

Today was our last full day in Morocco and we thought we’d celebrate the day by doing one of our favourite things: eating! We booked ourselves in for a Moroccon cooking class and it was awesome!

 

Shane works on his chopping technique during our Moroccon cooking class today.

 

 

We’ve had some great food over the past 3 weeks here in Morocco and were really excited about getting the chance to learn a bit more about what it takes to make an amazing tagine! Our day started when Karima, the Moroccon lady who runs the cooking classes, picked us up from our hotel and walked with us to the fruit and veggie market in the medina. There we picked through the freshest organic produce available and selected the ingredients for the lunch we were about to cook for ourselves. From there we went on to the spice souk and bought the pepper, cumin, ginger and turmeric we would need to make said lunch extra tasty. It was great fun, shopping like a local!

 

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Shopping like a local in Morocco!

 

 

Laden with our groceries we walked to the restaurant where Karima works as a cook. There the real fun began! On the menu for lunch: chicken, lemon and olive tagine with a traditional Moroccon tomato and capsicum salad on the side. The preparation and cooking was actually quite easy, and surprisingly simple given how amazing the final result tasted. Below is a summary of what we did, with a few pictures to illustrate how simple cooking delicious Moroccon food really is.

 

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Chicken tagine: so easy & yet so very tasty!

 

INGREDIENTS (per person)

1/4 chicken, roughly chopped

1/2 fresh lemon

1/2 preserved lemon (preserved lemons, we found out, are made by soaking lemons in brine for 2-3 months)

1 medium-sized red onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 small chilli, finely chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

6 pitted green olives


PROCEDURE

1. Place chicken in tagine and squeeze 1/2 fresh lemon over it, taking care not to let any pips fall into the tagine. Remove flesh from preserved lemon and place into tagine, again taking care not to let any pips fall in. Put rind aside for later.

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2. Add in finely chopped onion, garlic, chilli, parsley and coriander, and ground cumin, ginger, black pepper, turmeric and sea salt.  

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3. Pour in olive oil and mix well, making sure the chicken is well coated in the tasty, tasty mixture.

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4. Put the lid on your tagine and place it on a low heat (e.g. a small brazier of hot coals) for about 1 hour (chicken and fish cook in just an hour or so, beef and lamb take -3 hours). Stir occasionally, turning the chicken and basting it with the delicious sauce. Add 1-2 tablespoons of water if the mix gets too dry.

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5. When the chicken is just about cooked add the green olives and preserved lemon peel into the tagine whole, put the lid back and leave it for another 15-20 minutes. When ready, leave the tagine to cool for a few minites then serve with fresh bread and some Moroccon salad.

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Whilst the tagine was cooking we made our salad, which consisted of:

1 large ripe tomato

1 green capsicum

1 small red onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 fresh lemon

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

 

PROCEDURE

1. Put capsicum on a grill to cook.

2. Whilst this is cooking peel the tomato and remove all the seeds. Chop the tomato finely.

3. Add the red onion, parsley, coriander, cumin, black pepper and salt to the tomato.

4. When the capsicum is cooked, allow it to cool then peel it and chop it finely. Add chopped capsicum to the mix.

5. Squeeze 1/2 lemon into the mix (no pips allowed) and add in the olive oil. Mix it all around and voila – one Morrocon salad!

Viola: Moroocan tomato and capsicum salad.

  

It was all so simple and easy, and sooo tasty! We lingered over lunch, chatting to our fellow classmates and enjoying a cup of that archetypal Moroccon beverage: mint tea. What a great way to end our time in Morocco! We’ll be leaving for East Africa tomorrow and whilst we’re sad to be leaving the colour and spectacle of Morocco, we’re also really excited about starting on the final leg of our adventure for the year: an African safari!

 

DAY 188: THE MAGIC OF MARRAKECH’S MEDINA


Exploring Marrakech’s medina

As a traveller there are few pleasures greater than losing yourself for hours in a market-place, and Marrakech’s medina has to be one of the most exotic, chaotic and riveting market-places in the world – as we discovered today! Everything you might ever need can be bought in Marrakech – clothing, carpets, shoes, scarfs, bags, jewelery, baskets, luggage, pottery, soaps, children’s toys, herbs, spices, eggs, chickens, beef, lamb, mutton, fish, camel meat, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, cakes, biscuits, orange juice (freshly squeezed in front of you), and even live animals like chameloens, baby tortoises and snakes. We spent our day weaving our way through the many souks of Marrakech, mesmerised by the colours, the energy and the vibrance!

 

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Like most Moroccan cities, the heart of Marrakech is its ancient medina (translation = walled, fortified town). Some 200,000 people live in the medina of Marrakech, with another 1.4 million in the suburbs of the surrounding ville nouveau (translation = new town). Supermarkets and shopping malls do exist here, but most people still prefer to come into the medina to do their shopping – especially if they’re looking for a gift or something special. Certainly there are vast tracts of the medina that cater more to the 20 million tourists that flock to Marrakech every year, but, as we discovered today, there are also districts frequented predominantly by the locals. In these parts of the medina the touting is less intense and the vibe more laid back and relaxed. The colours are no less vibrant though!

 

 

 

The medina is divided into 18 districts or souks, each home to the workshops of different typesofcraftsmen and selling different wares. One of the largest souks is Souk Semmarine, which specialises in leather goods – from brightly coloured leather sandals to jackets and leather pouffes. Souk Ableuh is where to go if you want herbs and spices – lemons, chilis, capers, pickles, olives, and that essential ingredient for Morrocon tea: mint. Souk Kchacha specialises in dried fruit and nuts, including dates, figs, walnuts, cashews and apricots; and Souk Berbiere is known for its Berber carpets and rugs. In Souk Siyyaghin we saw jewellery, and laterns and wrought iron at Souk Haddadine. Check out some of our favourite photos from today here (click on eahc photot to see them full size).

 

 

 

Marrakech’s medina is far easier to navigate than the one of Fes – eventually all the main streets lead back to the central sqaure, the greatest spectacle of all: Djemaa El Fna. Named after the public exceutions that used to be held here (Djemaa el Fna translates to “Square of the Dead”), the central square in Marrakech is definitely unique. It smells like spices, oranges and horse poop; and it sounds like a cacophany of touters, drums, pipes and people. By day the square was predominantly occupied by tourists, orange juice stalls, snake charmers posing for photos (for a fee), and men with chained Barbary apes making some money from tourists wanting to touch the poor beasts. It’s sensory overload, Morrocon style! We had a late lunch at one of the many roof-top restaurants around the square and happily watched the action down below from our sanctuary of calm.

 

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Lunch at a quiet rooftop restaurant was good for a respite from the noise & chaos below.

 

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Lingering over mint tea on the rooftop terrace restaurant.

 

 

As the day progresses, the entertainment on offer at Djemaa El Fna changes: the snake charmers and monket wranglers depart, to be replaced by acrobats, magicians, musicians, story-tellers and dancers. Then the food stalls get set up and all the place really gets lively! It was madness in the square at night – crazy, colourful, chaotic and totally captivating. Ah Marrakech – there really is no place quiet like it!

 

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Djemaa El Fna by night.

DAY 187: HISTORICAL MONUMENTS OF MARRAKECH


We finally visit the last of Morocco’s 4 imperial cities… 

Marrakech. The very name of this ancient city speaks of things exotic and exciting. This is the city that gave Morocco its name*, and the country’s #1 tourist destination. If Rabat is the political capital of Morocco, Casablanca its economic and commercial capital, and Fes its intellectual and spiritual heart, then Marrakech is the cultural and tourist capital of Morocco. Some 20 million tourists visit this city every year, with most of them drawn to the medina and its labyrinthian souks. We’re definitely keen to explore those, but for today we thought we’d start by exploring some of Marrakech’s historical sights. 

*The Latin name for Marrakech was Maroch, which is how the Kingdom of Morocco got its name.


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Highlights from our day exploring the historical sights around Marrakech.

 

 

The history of Marrakech stretches back 1,000 years; the city was founded in 1070 by the Almoravids as the capital of their empire. For 200 years of Almoravid rule Marrakech grew, becoming one of the most important trade cities in the world. Caravans brining gold, ivory, salt and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa and across the desert had to pass through the High Atlas Mountains to reach the coast, and Marrakech lies at the foothills of those huge mountains. Much of the medina in Marrakech dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries, with the red earth used for the building here giving Marakesh its distinctive red color, and its popular appellation Marrakech al Hamra (translation = Marrakech the Red).

 

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Views over the roofs of Red Marrakech.

 

 

Unfortunately the city’s fortunes changed in 1269 when control of the country went to the Marinid Dynasty, who relocated the capital to Fes, leaving Marrakech as a regional capital. Whilst Fes was developed as the country’s premier city, Marrakech continued to function as a trade city. The rivalry between Fes and Marrakech dates back to this era – over the past 1,000 years Morocco has often been fragmented politically, with Fes the capital of the North and Marrakesh the capital of the South. The choice of Rabat as the capital of modern Morocco is in some ways a compromise designed to ensure neither of the two rival cities is dominant over the other.

Like shifting desert sands, Marrakech’s fortunes changed once again, however,in 1525 when the Saadian Dynasty gained control of Morocco. Marrakech was reestablished as the capital and reached new heights of grandeur under the Saadians. A new royal palace (El Badi Palace) was built, with new gardens, barracks and a royal burial site (the Saadian tombs).

El Badi Palace (translation = the incomparable palace) was built in the 16th century and consisted of 360 rooms and a large courtyard garden, all richly decorated with Italian marble and large amounts of gold imported from Sudan. The palace, which took approximately 25 years to construct, was torn apart in the 17th century by the Alaouite Sultan Moulay Ismail, who used the material obtained from El Badi Palace to decorate his own palace in Meknes. Thanks mainly to Moulay Ismail’s plundering, all that remains of the palace today are a few ruins that only hint at the size and grandeur that once was.

 

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Ruins of El Badi Palace.

 

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All that remains of the palace today are a few ruins that only hint at the size and grandeur that once was.

 

 

The Saadian tombs remain intact, however. This mausoleum contains the tombs of 60 members of the Saadi Dynasty, set in manicured, peaceful gardens near the medina of Marrakech. The mausoleums are beautifully decorated, with intricate stucco and tiled zellij wall designs, and ornately carved cedar wood architraves. After the chaos of down-town Marrakech, we really enjoyed some quiet time exploring the Saadian tombs!

 

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The 16th century Saadian Tombs, Marrakech.

 

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There are some 60 Saadian family members buried in this necropolis.

 

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The mausoleums are beautifully decorated, with intricate stucco and tiled zellij wall designs, and ornately carved cedar wood architraves.

 

 

From El Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs we took a step forward in time and went to see Bahia Palace – a 19th century testament to opulence like nothing we’ve seen in Morocco yet! This palace was built by Grand Vizier Si Moussa, who served the Alalouite Dynasty who have ruled Morocco since 1669. Si Moussa governed Marrakech for the Alaouites* for a time and built himself a grand palace here to accommodate his 4 wives, 24 concubines and many children. The palace had the most amazing painted, inlaid woodwork ceilings and stunningly decorated zellij floors. The quarters of Si Moussas favourite concubine were the most spectacular, with original woven-silk panels, stained-glass windows and ceilings painted with rose bouquets. More examples of marvellous Moroccon art! The thing we were most impressed by was that Si Moussa had 28 ladies in his harem – that’s a lot of nagging for one man to contend with! 

*Although they had a residence here, the Alaouites never used Marrakesh as their capital.


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Grand Vizier Si Moussa built himself this lovely palace as a reward for his own services,

 

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The intricately carved and painted wooden ceilings of the palace were gorgeous.

 

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The palace had a harem for the Grand Vizier’s 4 wives & 24 concubines,

 

On our way from El Badi Palace back to the riad we’re staying in for the next few nights, we walked through the heart of Marrakech’s medina and across the city’s most famous square: Djemaa El Fna. The snake charmers, monkey wranglers, street food stands, hawkers and touters were just setting up when we walked through this afternoon – the “show” reaches its peak when the sun sets (which, we’ve been warned, is also when the pick-pockets and seedier elements emerge!). We’ll be checking that out at some stage over the next few days, but for now the warmth and comfort of our bed beckons… Buonne nuit mes amis!

 

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Djemma El Fna by day – no snake charmers to be seen… yet!

DAY 186: SEASIDE SOJOURN – MOROCCAN STYLE


Atlantic Ocean blue

Essaouira is a long way from the desert – not just in terms of distance, but also in terms of setting and ambience. Here our senses are assaulted by the cry of gulls, the smell of fish and the salty tang of the Atlantic Ocean. This sleepy fishing village is lovely – the people are so laid back; the ocean water clean and blue; and the town itself friendly and easy to navigate. It’s been great having a day here to relax!

 

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Laid back, blue and beautiful Essaouira.

 

 

We arrived in Essaouira this afternoon after driving through the N’Tichka Pass in the High Atlas Mountains. The difference between the Southern side of the mountains, where it rains less than 100mm per year, and the Northern side was remarkable. On the Northern, ocean-facing side of the mountains we once again saw valleys of cypress, thuja and olive trees, and the land itself changed to a much richer, red soil.

 

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Crossing from the dry, sandy Southern side of the High Atlas Mountains….

 

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…through the pass, to the much greener and wetter Northern side.

 

 

The closer we got to the ocean, the warmer and more humid it got – a pleasant change after the icy cold, dry air of the desert! Here in Essaouira itself it’s a little cloudy and windy, but not unpleasant. With its French-built fortified walls, ocean-facing Portugese fortress, and Arabic labyrinth of streets, Essaouira’s medina is infinitely Moroccan and fascinating. We had a great afternoon exploring the old town and enjoying the fresh ocean air.

 

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The fusion of European, Arabic & Morrocon architecture makes Essaouira unqiue.

 

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The fish market was the busiest part of town, with sardines, crabs and prawns being sold by the bag, the bucket or the handful.

 

  

The bay at Essaouira is partially sheltered by 2 islands: Les Iles Purpuraires (translation = the Purple Islands), making it a peaceful harbour protected against the strong Atlantic winds. The name of the islands off the coast refers to the Tyrian purple dye factory that was established here by the Romans during the 1st century BC. The purple dye extracted from the molluscs found on those islands was extremely valuable and was used to colour the purple stripe on Imperial Roman Senatorial togas. In later years this purple dye was used to denote royalty.

 

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Essaouira became wealthy thanks to a ready supply of molluscs that provided the most valuable of dyes: royal purple.

 

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The Portuguese built these immense defensive walls around the town in the 16th century.

 

 

Thanks to its importance as a supplier of royal purple dye, Essaouira’s fortunes were assured throughout the Middle Ages. In 1506, however, the city was captured by the Portuguese and a fortress was built here. The town’s name was changed to Mogador and the precious dye trade fell into European hands. Throughout the 16th century Spain, England, the Netherlands and France all tried in vain to conquer the locality, but the city remained firmly in Portuguese hands. It wasn’t until the 18th century that control of the port city was wrested back by the Moroccon king Mohammed III.

 

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The city was retaken by the Morccon king Mohammed III in the 18th century and modernised.

 

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The wide, spacious boulevards and streets of modern Essaouira.

 

  

The  “modern” city of Essaouira was built during the 18th century by Mohammed III. This Alaouite king, wishing to reorient his kingdom toward the Atlantic to increase trade with European powers, chose Mogador as his key port city. The king employed a French engineer to rebuild the town and create a fortified city along “modern” lines. The king also ordered the town’s name changed to Essaouira which loosely translates to “the beautifully designed” in Arabic.

 

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Essaouira means “beautifully designed”. We think this is a pretty accurate description.

  

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The main town square was quiet today but used to host vast traders markets centuries ago, when Essaouira was North Africa’s largest port city.

 

 

From the time of its rebuilding until the end of the 19th century Essaouira served as Morocco’s principal port, offering goods from the trans-Saharan caravan trade to the world. For 150 years goods from sub-Saharan Africa and Timbuktu travelled across Africa, through the Atlas Mountains and Marrakech, and then on to Essaouira for export to the world. During the 20th century Essaouira became part of the French colony of Morocco. The city’s importance faded somewhat during these years as the French chose Casablanca as their major port. It was only after Morocco regained independence that the city once again flourished, becoming a haven for artists, hippies and musicians. It is said that Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens holidayed here during the 1960s, and in 1952 Orsen Wells chose Essaouira as the setting for his filming of “Othello”.

 

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This sleepy seaside town is a haven for artists and musicians looking for a place to chill and practise their art.

 

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Such a laid back place – the noisiest thing in town are the sea gulls!

 

 

Even today the city still has a thriving music and art scene; Essaouira is a retreat for artists, musicians, and wealthy Europeans escaping the cold during the Northern winter. The riad we’re staying in, for example, is full of older French couples here for a extended holiday in the sun. Lucky them! There are no grand, epic sights to see in Essaouira really, but we still had a great afternoon watching the fishermen at work, exploring the medina, and just relaxing to the sound of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean beating at the walls of this fortified fishing village.

 

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Our marvellous riad is a haven by the beach.

 

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Just chillaxing by the beach – Moroccan style.

 

DAY 185: ROCKING MOROCCO’S KASBAHS


A tale of 2 kasbahs…

A kasbah is a typically Moroccon, earthen building surrounded by high defensive walls and protected by watch towers positioned at each of the four corners. These fortified structures can be immense, the size of a small village (like the kasbah of Rabat which covered hundreds of square metres and was built as a defensive fortification to protect the Moroccon King and his family), or just large enough to protect one (wealthy) family and their farm animals. Kasbahs are a key feature of the Moroccon landscape, in the South-Eastern parts of the country where warring Berber tribes were often at each other’s throats and defence was a primary concern for all. We visited a couple of Morocco’s most famous kasbahs on our drive through the Draa Valley today: the Mollywood* kasbah at Ouarzazate and the real thing at Ait Benhaddou.

*Ouarzazate is the centre of Morocco’s film industry, hence the “Mollywood” moniker.


Exploring the kasbahs of Morocco’s heartland.

 

 

We left the Djebel Saghro and dusty N’Kob behind today, bound for the historical kasbah town of Ait Benhaddou and the Draa Valley. The Draa River is Morocco’s longest river (length about 1100 km) and the valley this wide river forms is the largest date palmery in the country. The water from the Draa is used to irrigate these palm groves and numerous small sclae farms, ensuring the survival of villages and towns in the valley. It was so nice leaving the dusty, desolate landscape of the Djebel  Saghro behind this morning – the green of the Draa Valley was such a welcome change after the seemingly unending expanse of rock and sand we saw over the last couple of days!

 

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The welcome sight of the green Draa Valley.

  

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The life-giving Draa River.

 

 

We followed the course of the Draa River for a few hours, winding our way ever upwards towards the river’s source in the High Atlas Mountains. Around lunchtime we reached the town of Ouarzazate, Morocco’s modern movie capital. This bustling town of 80,000 inhabitants was once an important stop for traders on their way across the Sahara to the port towns of Northern Morocco. Today it is a noted film-making location, with Morocco’s biggest studios working with international companies to make movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Cleopatra (1963), The Jewel of the Nile (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Alexander (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Babel (2006), Prince of Persia (2010), and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). Part of the TV series Game of Thrones was also filmed in Ouarzazate. Many of the locals in the Ouarzazate/Mollywood area make a living as extras in movies, whilst others work as set creators, costume tailors and as support crew for the stars when they’re on site. There are movie studios and left-over movie sets all over town – including a couple of great, fake kasbahs!

 

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Following the course of the Draa River all the way to Ouarzazate.

 

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That kasbah: FAKE!

 

After an awesome kefte tagine lunch in Ouarzazate we went for a quick tour through one of the studios, where remnants of movie sets sat alongside antiquated film-making equipment and autographed photos of movie stars. It was hilarious seeing how fake movie sets really are! Entire rooms made of spray-painted foam blocks, fake marble painted onto thin plywood walls, and torture chambers with plastic chains. We concluded that every movie ever made that was supposedly set in Egypt was actually set in Morocco, as were many “Wild West” and historical Roman-era movies. It was all very amusing and entertaining.

 

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Amusing ourselves on set at Ouarzazate (aka Mollywood).

 

 

From Ouarzazate we continued up into the High Atlas Mountains, still following the course of the Draa River until we reached Morocco’s best preserved REAL kasbah: Ait Benhaddou*.  Located in the foothills on the Southern side of the High Atlas Mountains, Ait Benhaddou is the most famous kasbah in Morocco. This village-sized fortification has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 and is one of the country’s most visited historical areas; in fact, for the first time in days we actually saw other tourists!

*We learnt today that the prefix ait simply means “belonging to the tribe of”. Ait Benhaddou, therefore, is the kasbah belonging to the Benhaddou Berber tribe.


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Surrounded by high protective walls, the kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou kept its citizens safe for centuries.

 

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The houses within the protected village were themselves like mini-fortresses, with narrow window slits facing outwards and high, impenetrable walls.

 

 

Ait Benhaddou is built on the protected side of a hill, with the Draa River at its base. Surrounded by date palms and fields of vegetables and lucerne, the kasbah was very picturesque. Inside the fortress, the houses were built very close together, with externally-facing windows little more than slits – just wide enough for a bow and arrow or gun.

 

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The kasbah was surrounded by green fields of lucerne and vegetables, and date palms.

 

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Exploring Ait Benhaddou with our guide, Tariq.

 

 

We climbed through the kasbah all the way to the top, where the town’s granary stood in the most protected position. The view from the top was great – we could see for miles around in every direction. No doubt this afforded the inhabitants of this area a good view of potential attackers well before they were within range, giving the villagers time to get inside the kasbah and bar the main gate.

 

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The view back down into Ait Benhaddou from the the top of the hill.

 

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The hill-top view was impressive, with everything for miles in every direction clearly visible.

 

 

During our walk through Ait Benhaddou we came across an elderly gentlemen playing a gunbri. This traditional Berber stringed instrument is very simple in design but made a lovely sound. We stopped and spoke the musician (via Tariq our guide who translated for us), asking him about his instrument and his music. Turns out he is the last gunbri player left in the area – the instrument has gone out of fashion with younger musicians preferring modern guitars. He learnt to play the instrument from his father and uses it to play the Gnawan music of his ancestors. Very cool.

 

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A man and his gunbri play Gnawa music. Gnawa music was developed by the Sub-Saharan slaves brought to Morocco during the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s rhythms are unique and more characteristic of West African music than North African or Arabic tunes.

 

 

It was really interesting seeing the kasbah of Ait Benhaddou and exploring its streets. The oldest constructions in Ait Banhaddou date back to the 17th century, with extensive renovations carried out on many of the homes within the kasbah. Some of these have been bought by European, British and/or American investors and converted into hotels, which has lessened the authentic feel of the place a little but at least ensures the ongoing protection of this 400 year old kasbah. Our abode for the night is one of these converted adobe homes, fitted with all the mod cons, including electricity, running water, sewerage and heating. Very flash!

 

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Renovated in style: our hotel for the night is a restored 17th century Berber adobe home.

  

Tomorrow we continue up into the High Atlas Mountains and cross through the N’Tichka Pass, heading towards the Atlantic Ocean. We’ll be spending a couple of days there, enjoying the sea breezes and just relaxing before moving on to Marrakech – our final stop in Morocco. Can’t believe our 3 weeks in this marvellous country is almost up!

DAY 184: N’KOB SANDSTORM


A long drive through the burnt desert 

Today we took a rarely travelled route from Merzouga through the Djebel Saghro to the fortified village of N’Kob. The Djebel Saghro is a volcanic expanse that lies between the High Atlas mountain chain and the enormity of the Sahara Desert; it’s a lunar landscape of plateaus, peaks, canyons and vast empty spaces. It took us hours of driving to cross this desolate region and tonight we’re staying right on the edge of the Djebel Saghro is the small Berber village of N’Kob, whose name means oasis in the local dialect.

 

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The vast, burnt expanse of the Djebel Saghro.

 

 

The Djebel Saghro is one of the driest part of Morocco, with average rainfalls being less than 10mm per year. It’s a dusty, dry, isolated part of the country, with just a few Berber villages spread across the region; these villages are few and far between, and were always clustered around the handful of oases that exist in the area.

 

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The few Berber villages we saw on our drive today were clustered around the spring-fed oases of the region.

 

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That human beings have managed to survive out here for centuries is truly amazing!

 

 

The ground here is black – as if burnt by the scorching sun that bakes the earth here for most of the year. All we passed were black rocks, acacia trees*, wild camels and the occasional cluster of flat-roofed, adobe (i.e. mud and hay) Berber homes. It’s about as unwelcoming a landscape as you can imagine. The situation is made worse by the fact that the area has been in drought for the past 5 years.

*These, we were told by tariq our guide, are also known as the “umbrellas of the desert” as their broad canopy provides much needed shade in the searing heat of the desert sun. He also told us that before choosing to enjoy one of these “umbrellas of the desert”, however, it is important to check who or what you might be sharing said umbrella with as on hot summers’ days these trees are a favourite resting place for cobras and scorpions. Yikes!


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A desert umbrella. Just watch out for the cobras and scorpions!

 

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Where is she walking FROM? Where is she walking TO??

 

 

Talking to our host here in N’Kob we learnt that the drought is severly affecting village life. The date palms they rely on for food and to sell, for example, are producing a quarter of the yields they were 5-6 years ago. The villagers used to use water from underground springs to irrigate the land and cultivate wheat, barley, vegetables and fruit trees (almond, walnut and some peach). With the recent years of drought however these underground springs have all but dried up and many of the farms are now little more than dust. Our host showed us through the fields and the village and pointed out all the empty houses – empty because their inhabitants had to move away to one of the bigger cities to find work. Water is life and nowhere is that more apparent than here where it is so rare.

 

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The drought-stricken village of N’Kob.

 

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Dry and dusty now, these fields used to provide the villagers with precious vegetables and legumes for themselves and fodder for their animals.

 

 

N’Kob itself was dusty and looked a little worse for wear. This 300 year old ksar (translation = fortified village) used to have a population of around 1,300, but is home to just a few hundreds hardy souls now. The most amazing thing was seeing how well the mud and straw homes blend into the surrounding landscape – you wouldn’t even know the town was there if you weren’t looking for it!

 

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The ksar of N’Kob is 300 years old. Some of the oldest fortifications are still standing, like this old watch tower.

 

 

The Berbers of this region belong to a tribal group known as the Ait Atta. These fierce, somewhat taciturn people, were the only tribe that successfully resisted French occupation in the early 20th century. In the 1930s the Ait Atta, led by their general Assou Oubasslam, fought against and defeated French troops seeking to bring this part of Morocco under French control. The heroic victory of the Ait Atta is legendary here in Morocco and is still a great source of pride for the locals. Today the Ait Atta live a semi-nomadic life, tending to their lands during the cooler months of the year and heading North into the Atlas Mountains in summer when temperatures in vilage slike N’Kob reach upwards of 50C. In summer they tend to their goats and sheep in the alpine pastures, living in khaïma (translation = traditional nomadic tents made of goat skin). It’s a way of life that is about as far from our modern, urbanised, Western lifestyle as you could imagine. In all honesty it left us a little shell shocked to see how hard life really is for people here.

 

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The Ait Atta tribe who live out here are a tough lot.

 

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The Ait Atta still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, spending many months of the year in tents like this up in the Atlas Mountains, tending to their animals in the high pastures and escaping the worst of the summer heat.

 

 

To top off our sense of shock we had a sandstorm blow through the village this afternoon as we were walking around. The wind whipped up and within minutes we were blinded by sand and trying desperately to keep it out of our mouths, ears and nostrils. Needless to say we were unsuccessful. It took 2 showers, lost of nose blowing and a whole lot of shaking out of our clothes to lose the “desert coat” we had acquired. It was nuts! The sand, the dry desert air, the scorhcing midday sun and the icy cold night temperatures are not much fun at all – we’re actually really glad to be heading West tomorrow towards the Atlantic coast where things will be greener, moister and a little easier for these 2 little cream puffs!