Surf or turf?

I’d be hard pushed to choose between a day by the sea or a day at the races. So any day that I can have both (of a sort) is a good one. Essaouira, a fishing town on the west coast of Morocco, about 3 hours by bus and €7 from Marrakesh, is famous for its surf. The Alizée winds are strong, the waves are high, and the thrill is there for the taking.

In the distance you can see the Island of Mogador, which now requires special permission to enter. It was once home to a massive open-air prison where pilgrims from Mecca would stay for 40 days to see if they were sick or not. And it had a mosque (where doesn’t?)

IMG_2676 (800x600)This late eighteenth-century fortified town is quite something. The town itself has been trading since the fifth century; it’s the fortified walls that went up some thirteen hundred years later. Outside the walls, a crescent-shaped beach wraps around the town adding even more strength to the fortification as the waves pound the rocks and spray the gallery of tourists who gather on the ramparts to watch the sun go down.

IMG_2875 (800x600)IMG_2640 (800x600) On any given day of the week, the musicians are out in force. Sit for a while at a beach café and it won’t take long for them to find you. Essaouira is far more relaxed when it comes to beer than Marrakesh – perhaps something to do with the sun? Or the surf? Or the type of tourist it attracts. IMG_2655 (800x600)IMG_2654 (800x601)Who knows? Whatever is going on, the rules in this Wind City of Africa seem a lot more lax and certainly the hassle factor is far softer.

It was here on New Year’s Eve that the culture of the country went on show, starting with horseracing of sorts on the beach. Saddles of Berber soldiers rushed at the promenade brandishing their muskets, screaming their war cries, and then letting loose their final volley. It was quite the spectacle with riders young and old alike, and some too cool for school.

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IMG_2677 (800x600) For the princely sum of €3.50, you could rent a sunchair and a pair of eyes to keep watch on your stuff. But the tide was out and the water was miles away. The sun was warm but the wind was biting. Getting wet would be no problem but drying off would certainly take some time. The tourists were in various stages of undress and no one seemed to mind. But it was interesting to see the locals well wrapped up – the complete opposite of how it used to be in Alaska with the locals in shorts and tshirts on days that the cruise ships docked and disgorged teams of hatted, mitted, and scarved tourists.

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IMG_2684 (800x600)IMG_2695 (800x600)At 3.30, the parade started. Groups of different types of musicians, presumably different clans or tribes, lined up to take their spot under the watchful eye of a suited and booted official. Most of the instruments were variations a theme. Drums, bugles, more drums, more bugles.

But it was yer man with a cake pan on his head that took my fancy. He was fascinating. Keeping balance and keeping time. What talent. Him I could have followed, had I not had places to go and things to see.

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Pop culture or traditional culture?

The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller, with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart opens in Marrakesh. Ten years later, in 1966, Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! with Tony Randall and Senta Berger, is part comedy and complete guide to what’s worth seeing in the city.  Even the Absolutely Fab pair spent an episode there. Spielberg filmed Raiders of the Lost Ark in the city in 1981; Scorsese followed in 1988 with The Last Temptation of Christ, and Stone topped it in 2004 with Alexander.

Walking through the narrow, windy streets of the Medina, I half-expected to see someone running from someone else. Car chases would be mad. Motorbike chases  a possibility. But the old reliable on foot dodge-em would be perfect. It’s hard to get a sense of city scape. But I’d imagine that viewed from above, it would be a different story entirely.

Kasbah Mosque

Kasbah Mosque

The Saadian Tombs date back to the sixteenth century, but lay hidden for years and years and years until 1917 when they were rediscovered during an aerial survey of the city by the French. Located in the Kasbah, next to the mosque, a pathway was built to access them and the grounds reclaimed. Architecturally, they are a fine example of  mosaic work and inlay.
IMG_2220 (800x600)It’s thought thIMG_2226 (600x800)at they were sealed back at the turn of the eighteenth century when Moulay Ismail was in power. Having destroyed the Badai Palace next door, word has it that superstition intervened and rather than destroying the tombs and risking the wrath of those who had gone before him, Ismail just sealed it all up leaving just one entrance, a well hidden one, open from the Kasbah Mosque.

For two hundred years or so, the dead rested in peace, undisturbed by clicking cameras or littering tourists. Today, it’s a sight to be seen if you’re in Marrakesh – and, in fact, it was the only one we visited on purpose. [I have a thing for cemeteries.]

IMG_2231 (800x754)IMG_2224 (600x800)Sixty-six tombs are housed in the two main mausoleums with another 100 or so graves in the gardens, including, interestingly, a few Jewish ones. The dead are mostly princes or members of the various royal households, their elevated status probably reflected in the brilliance of the mosaic and the intricate carvings of excerpts from the Qu’ran. It’s quite something really. And while you might be shoulder to shoulder with someone as you try to get a peek inside, it still manages to retain that sense of quiet, that air of solemnity.

It’s an ongoing restoration, a painstakingly slow one, a lot of which is done by hand. Just last month I saw something similar going on with tombs in Hyderabad – hand chisels and hand work. And even watching that process is fascinating, in and of itself. It made me wish that I had paid more attention to pronunciation in French class – I might have been able to ask some questions. [Are mosaic artists good at doing jigsaws?]

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IMG_2234 (600x800)The walls outside, the shared walls with whatever is next door, are a maze of pigeon nests. It’s hard to know whether they are old bullet holes or mortar holes or whether, as in Malta, they were made with pigeons in mind. I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows more? But perhaps as much as anything else, I was impressed by the tri-lingual write-up in the square outside, written in the first person, as if the square was talking about itself and the sights around it. A new one for me and one that I’d like to see catch on.

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2016 Grateful 52

There’s a saying at home that you can take the man out of the bog but you can’t take the bog out of the man. I’m not sure what’s in me. Urban or rural? City or countryside?

When I moved to Hungary, I wanted city. I wanted noise, life, chaos … anything that would take me away from the quiet, somnolent, comatosed life I had had in Chichester. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter I spent in Valdez, a small Alaskan town of about 4000 people. So I suppose it depends very much what I’m in the mood for and given that my moods can last years, it’s little wonder that I’ve stayed in Budapest as long as I have.

Or have I stayed so long because I leave so often? Because I go to places that are far quieter than Pest? Places where traffic in a given day is counted in donkeys and not cars? Places where kids still play in the street and all five families in the village know each other. Places where you stop and wonder what in God’s holy name do people do here all day?

The High Atlas are something special. Yes, the valleys and the rivers are spectacular and the scenery is jaw-dropping, but it’s the Berber villages that left me awed. You can do lots of day trips from Marrakesh,** there’s something for everyone – be it overnighting in the desert or visiting the beach or four-wheeling through the Sahara. Me? I wanted to see the villages and the people – the Berbers. What’s not to like about an ethnicity where the women get to choose their husbands?

IMG_2393 (800x600)IMG_2476 (800x600)IMG_2409 (800x600)We visited three valleys in the High Atlas, each one different in its own right. Ourika Valley is very popular with the Marrakeshis – a weekend retreat from the heat of the summer where they come to wallow in the cool waters of the Ourika River. Imagine taking Szimpla Kert or any other ruin pub in Budapest and plonking it outdoors beside the river … then you’d have Ourika and the village of Setti Fatma. It’s all a little bit mad really. Seeing sofas and dining tables and chairs set up on the banks of the river and even mid-river is quite something.

IMG_2416 (800x600)IMG_2422 (800x600)Our end goal was a waterfall. A waterfall at the back of the village and up a few stoney ridges. Our Berber guide reminded me of the young MT. While the rest of us were huffing and puffing and trying to find our feet, he was bouncing along up and down the rocks like a goat. We’d been IMG_2426 (600x800)warned to wear flat shoes and we were first that morning. On the way down, it was mayhem. They needed the  flag ladies out to direct traffic …  and some of those heels !!!! Mad. The lower part of the path was lines with artisan stalls selling all sorts of Berber handicrafts and once again, I was cursing the luggage allowance on Ryan Air and making a mental note to myself for next time.  There were plenty of cafés along the trail for those who dropped by the wayside and tempted though I was to let the others go on ahead, I’d never have lived it down. God bless those who have to hump in the cans of Fanta and bottles of water. It must be a thankless job. Gotta love the natural refrigeration though.
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One of the IMG_2444 (600x800)most remarkable things about Morocco is its colour. It is so vibrant. So not what I’d have expected from a society that is 98% muslim.  I don’t know why I expected sobriety to match with somber shades but I couldn’t have been further from the truth.  The waterfall, when we got there, was lovely. But beside Horsetail Falls or Bridal Veil Falls in Valdez, it would have looked more like a dribble. Then that’s life, though – a mishmash of perspectives that vary with time.  But I didn’t give up. I made it to the top. I persevered.

IMG_2514 (800x600)IMG_2532 (800x600)berber2 (800x450)The next valley over is Oukaïmeden Valley, distinctive because of its tricolour ridges shaded by basalt, copper, and iron oxide and famous as one of the premier ski resorts in Africa. No snow this year though – it’s been unseasonably warm. Many of the rivers we passed by were dry and the farmers are feeling the pain. The terraces hewn from the mountain faces that should by now be full of wheat were empty. It’s worrying, especially for a largely subsistence people who depend on what they can produce.

IMG_2487 (800x600)There aren’t enough schools or classrooms or teachers to go around so the kids go to school in shifts from 8 to 12 and from 12.30 to 5, older ones in the afternoons. There are two secondary boarding schools, too, and all education, what there is of it, is free. French is taught from 3rd class onwards and most kids are trilingual – French, Arabic, and  Tamaziɣt (Berber). Juxtapose this with women still congregating by the river to do their laundry and you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. 

IMG_2575 (800x600)We were booked in to have lunch at one of the village houses in Tachedirt, the highest village in the valley. Home cooking has never tasted better. We’d been on the road since 8.30am and I was hungry enough to eat a Berber bag, buttons and all. With tagine and couscous on the menu, we weren’t IMG_2565 (800x600)disappointed. Such is globalisation: this woman and her daughter catering lunch for some Austrians, Irish, Americans, and Australians, each of whom was marvelling at the simplicity of it all and no doubt a tad envious, too. The view was stunning. The food spectacular. And the air – so clean you could smell a blade of grass growing. Not for the first time this week I found myself wondering what it would be like to come back and stay a little longer…

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The third valley, Asni, is by far the most developed. It’s here that the rich people have houses and where Richard Branson has a hotel, with a swimming pool and room for a few ponies. I wonder what the locals make of the choppers flying in and out and whether the residents ever leave the poolside?

IMG_2571 (800x600)Asni, being that much more populated, has its markets at which most of the locals shop just once a week. Esnee has one on Saturda and some other village has one on Tuesday. Coming down from the mountains takes on a whole new meaning [anyone old enough to remember Come Down from the Mountains Katie Daly? – must be the altitude getting to me]. It’s here, too, that the majority of the fruit is grown – apples, walnuts, almonds, and peaches – as well as the bamboo used as roofing in the Berber houses. And with lots of houses going up, the urban sprawl from the city is making itself felt.

It was a spectacular day. One that will live on in the memory bank for a few years yet. I’m grateful indeed to be able to kick off this 2016 Grateful series by giving thanks, yet again, for the opportunities I have to travel, to see new places, to meet new people, to get a glimpse of other ways of life. And were I in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, my first one would be: Travel … more.

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Street food or restaurants?

I wouldn’t think twice about eating from a market stall in Dublin or Budapest or London or anywhere in Europe, but move me to another continent and the doubts set in. Horror stories from friends who have spent large chunks of their holiday wearing a path between the bed and the bathroom flood to mind. And while usually quite adventurous, I find myself erring on the side of caution.

Okay, in some places it’s the flies. I can’t eat anything that has flies dancing on it. In other places it’s the grime. The sink has to be clean. In more places it’s the greasy hair or the grubby fingernails. But in fairness, if I’ve not been warned, then I usually don’t think about it at all. And if I’m travelling with someone blessed with the constitution of an ox and a penchant for street food, it makes it all the easier.

IMG_2129 (600x800)IMG_2127 (800x600)Such was the case in Marrakesh. The food markets were amazing. The food was excellent and great value. I don’t know what they do with their eggplant – I’ve never had it taste so good. And as for the lamb – I was in heaven. I figured I could spend the week eating IMG_2238 (800x600)just like this.

I had eggplant with fish. Eggplant with lamb. Eggplant with chicken. Eggplant with just about anything I could find to go with it.

IMG_2468 (800x600)IMG_2583 (800x600)Tagines are the Moroccan speciality. Stews made from all sorts cooked in large conical clay pots (called Tagines), miniatures of which are sold by the truckload as souvenirs. In the city, they cook them on gas. In the Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains, they’re cooked over charcoal. Other IMG_2585 (800x600)than this, everything is the same, but the taste – so different. Slow cooking seems to be the way to go.

Couscous is also another staple in this carb-intense diet. The breads way too good though and the kilos could easily pile on.

IMG_2363 (800x600)We did go posh one night – to the La Pearl du Sud. And it was there that we discovered Pastilla. Filo pastry filled with savoury chicken and all sorts and covered with icing sugar and cinnamon. A different take on the old pasty, one I’ve made a goal to perfect when I get back to Budapest.

Being a Muslim country, alcohol is in short supply. In Marrakesh, it’s a rarity inside the Medina but across in the New Town, with its hundreds of new hotels, neon-lit fountain, and wide promenades, it’s available. The contrast between the two sides of the city is stark. The Medina, with its narrow, winding passageways, old riads, and suicidal scooter-riders pulsates with life. Gueliz is more like a Vegas wannabe, complete with casinos and private clubs. With more than 1000 hotels/riads in the city and 2 million visitors each year, the much-loved king – Mohammed VI – has embraced tourism and development. As you drive out of the city, the wasteland stretches for miles just begging to be built on. Golf courses and water parks offer something quite different to the riad experience. Personally, I can’t imagine coming to Marrakesh and not staying in the Medina. And eating the street food? That’s a  must.