Saturday, January 31, 2015

From Marrakech to Rabat

Donkey having breakfast on the street...carrot peelings, greens...

Knitting while waiting in the train station Saturday...

I've started writing this while on the train from Marrakech to Rabat. We're traveling first class, with six people in a compartment. The seats are wide and comfortable...wide enough for me to have my shoulder bag beside me and my knitting on my lap. I'm in the middle  seat facing forward. On my right is a gracious French woman, an ex-pat from Paris who lives in Marrakech and works on a magazine about luxurious decor and is traveling to Casablanca. Like every European we meet, she apologized for her bad English however her English is far superior to our French! On my left is a young woman, likely Moroccan, dressed very fashionably without head covering who has not spoken since thanking Lloyd for putting her suitcase up on the rack. She has spent most of her time on her smart phone reviewing male profiles in what appears to be a multinational Muslim matrimonial site..aren't I snoopy...and on an English translation site, I think formulating responses in English to some of these profiles... Across from me and next to Lloyd is another young woman with long black hair  wearing a longer skirt who has said not a word. She stares at me while I knit but doesn't smile when I smile at her. Her male companion could be an American black man, but his English is definitely not...maybe Nigerian? And he's a man of very few words too. 

We're travelling through a fertile landscape, quite unlike the stony brown fields south of the Atlas Mountains. There are green fields of wheat or barley, bright orange flowers that might be calendula, prickly pear cactus, the occasional almond tree with its pale pink blossoms, a few cows and donkeys, some sheep and goat herds, and olive orchards. It's a misty drizzling day.  This is not a fast train so there is lots of time to enjoy the landscape. It's not easy to tell what stations we're stopping at--no signs on the platform. Hope it'll be obvious when we get to Rabat! (Addendum..yes, platform was well labelled!)

After the French woman left the train, Lloyd took this photo of me taking a break from knitting to write this post...

We spent the last two days exploring the Marrakech medina, the old city. It was a huge challenge for me the first morning. I was so irritated by the vendors...Madame, please look! No charge for looking! Madame, hello! Do you speak English or Francais?  See my lovely shawls! You need a carpet?... I felt like stamping my foot and screaming "no shopping!" Lloyd helped me adjust my attitude with annoyingly calm words, "this is their job, this is how they do business..." So we carried on, first to the Saadian Tombs...built over 500 years ago to house the tombs of the important members of the  family, the rulers of Marrakech at that time. Amazingly this site was relatively unknown for a few hundred years until about 100 years ago when it was rediscovered and restoration begun. 

On site was a craftsman creating small medallions from tiles.

A stork is nesting on top of this tower...

Our next destination was the Palais Bahia, and of course we didn't manage to navigate there directly. The narrow twisting lanes...thoroughfares, cul-de-sacs, and dead ends make this difficult, plus so many "helpful" people..."are you lost? Where do you want to go? Not that way!" So many just wanted to steer us towards businesses. Another ploy is "I remember you from the Riad!" (No, I've never seen you before.) "It's your lucky day! There's an exhibition of Berber art/ carpets/ antiquities today!" (My new calm voice..."no thank you")

On to the Palais..what a building! 
A beautiful door and a painted ceiling...

After a lunch (a pretty reasonable omelet) Lloyd escorted me back to the Riad for the afternoon where I enjoyed some quality knitting time until sunset...

...and then out to dinner with new friends from Switzerland. One aspect that we enjoyed in Marrakech was other peoples' company...we are no longer the only guests in the Riad! So, some good conversations over good food.

Friday was similar, with the exception that my attitude adjustment made it a lot easier! Plus Lloyd said to just ignore them and let him do the talking. One of the best bits of advice we got from our first Marrakech host was to ask a vendor for directions, and to ask for directions to the nearest landmark, e.g. Ben Yusef mosque, rather than accepting unsolicited help from young men who will demand payment when you finally reach your destination. So off we went to the Dar Si Saïd museum and another gorgeous building. We turned down what we thought was the right street, only to be greeted by an older woman who was closing a gate, "non Monsieur, c'est ma maison!" So Lloyd, ever with the quick rejoinder, said, "but Madame, we were coming for dinner!" At which point she laughed, and we all laughed. She redirected us back to the main street and "a gauche", and sure enough we soon found the signs for Dar Si Saïd....another delightful and beautiful complex built in the late 19th C. There were some interesting carpets, shawls, jewelry, ceramics, and carved doors, but the building itself was the star attraction.

Next we dropped into the Bert Flint Museum, another charming 19th C residence which houses a collection of folk art from the Saharan region (including Mali, Niger, and Mauritania) amassed by a Dutch academic, Bert Flint starting in the 1950s. While much of it is rather dusty, it's well displayed with good descriptions. 

We stopped for lunch nearby and then made our way back through the souks (and organized chaos...pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, donkey carts...) the dyers' souk. 
Coarse wool, single spun

With it being Friday, the holy day of the week, none of the dyers was working, however one of the vendors showed us around. Here are samples of the dyes; he said they were all minerals (not so sure about that...)

 He was desperate to sell us a scarf, shawl, or bed covering from his stall...even going so far as to wrap Lloyd's head in a Berber-style turban.

Lloyd entered into negotiations and ended up buying this apparently indigo-dyed silk/cotton scarf. I'm not so sure that it really is indigo.  The vendor also said these shawls were all naturally dyed, but I think the colours were too bright. 

My curiosity about the dyers' souk satisfied, we went back to the Riad where I enjoyed a few hours of knitting in the sunshine! 

Topped off with a bottle of Moroccan white wine that Lloyd bought from the little supermarket 10 minutes away. Alcohol is prohibited in the Islamic religion, however it's available in certain stores (very controlled, enter through a small door and exit out the back alley, but very well stocked) as well as restaurants and hotels serving a western clientele.

I'm finishing this post from the Riad Yanis in Rabat where we will be for 3 nights. We walked here from the train station, about 500 m, without getting lost!
It's still raining...I can hear it bounce on the canopy over the central courtyard.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On the Marrakech Express...

We're back in Marrakech having successfully crossed the High Atlas from south to north on the other pass, the Tizi-n-Test. (We were on the Tizi-n-Tichka pass last the snow...). No snow on this one although apparently the road was closed a few days ago due to rock falls. We had an excellent driver, Omar, who lives in a village in the pass, and is very familiar with the road. He took it nice and slow so that Lloyd could take as many pictures as he wanted. Here are a few...

 We stopped for tea at the summit (2100 m)....a welcome break. An itinerant trader showed us his wares...he was a pleasant gentleman who told us in a mixture of French and English that he is from Zagora (in the Sahara) and walks through the mountains from village to village buying up antiquities, and could he show them to to us? (Of course, no pressure, just look!!) Lloyd was quite taken with a couple pieces of silver...a hatchet type of gadget to chip big cubes of sugar, and a pendant. They started negotiations and I stayed right out of it. An observer only! We thought we would get away without buying because he refused Lloyd's final offer, and then as we started getting into the van, he came over with the pieces, and Lloyd handed over the cash. The man just couldn't let that sale disappear down the road.

We also had a stop at the Tin Mal mosque which was built in the 12th C.

It's been under restoration since 1990 and is a UNESCO heritage site. It's one of the few religious buildings open to non-Muslims, probably because no services are held here, and won't be until the roof is finished.

Here I am in my multicultural look...a Canadian of British heritage wearing Moroccan pants (handwoven cotton), Indian cotton indigo-dyed tunic, and Kashmiri shawl...and comfortable walking shoes!!

We've been here 10 days now, and I'm not feeling as shell-shocked! Now back in Marrakech for a third actually feels familiar! Some observations...In the cities (Taroudant and Marrakech) women push their babies in strollers whereas in the villages, babies are strapped to their backs. In the cities, faces are mostly uncovered but not so in the the latter, being completely covered (veiled) is more common. Hair is almost always covered usually with beautiful scarves, but it's also not unusual to see younger women in Marrakech without scarves.

Remember that song about the Marrakech Express? Well, it's become quite the ear worm for me, so now I'm passing it along to you!  We're here for three nights at the Riad Alwachma  

A final view from the pass: This reminded us of the southern interior of BC, specifically north of Cache Creek or around Keremeos.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A day out with a naturalist

We spent much of the day in the Sous Massa National Park with a naturalist guide named Said who is an enthusiastic birder but also knows the flora and fauna well. We got all sorts of questions answered about plant species, and agricultural and Berber practices.

The park was established about 25 years ago in an effort to preserve wetlands for migrating birds, habitat protection for an endangered species (the Bald Isis), and control of desertification. We saw lots of egrets, herons, gulls, different kinds of ducks, sparrows, swallows, finches, owls, a juvenile flamingo, and many other birds. We didn't see the Bald Isis! Not being birders this was all very interesting but we didn't have a list that we were checking off.

The park straddles the Wadi Massa, a vast estuary with shifting sand bars. 

People are allowed to farm using traditional ways, but not allowed to build houses next to the cliffs (although we saw some "secret" houses) due to occasional flash floods and high water. This wadi last flooded in October and there are still plots of land under water as well as many ponds for the birds. People were harvesting reeds (used for baskets, furniture, ceilings, amongst other uses) and alfalfa for animal feed. We saw many protesting, overloaded donkeys, as well as overloaded baskets on the back of motorcycles or trucks.
Above the river are many villages--this mosque is particularly imposing.

We finished our walk along a wide and beautiful sandy beach that is usually filled with European tourists in the spring and fall. 

There were some curious structures built into the cliffs, and incorporating caves...they are fishermen's huts, and might have been in each family for years. 

We drove back to Taroudannt via some back country roads and went across yet another wadi showing the power of water when it comes down in a torrent as it did a few months ago.

Friday, January 16, 2015


(Sitting on a crowded train to Firenze...and the man next to us keeps his bag on the seat next to him as people walk by looking for a seat... No one does anything--he doesn't acknowledge the walkers and they don't ask him to move it to the floor. These little cultural differences are interesting to travellers! Meanwhile we're about to do something remarkable in that we're going to Florence (Firenze) for only a day! The 2 guidebooks we have consulted offer itineraries for 3, 5 and 7 days, not for one! Seems criminal, in fact we contemplated not going at all, however it's only an hour away by fast train. So we have decided to focus on Michelangelo. We have tickets to see "David" at noon, and will visit nearby sights before and after.)

Yesterday we took the regional train to Lucca, an ancient city whose 16th C fortifications are still intact, forming a lovely green ring around densely packed buildings. We entered the city walls about 200 m from the station 

and turned right, walking along the top of the walk counterclockwise. 

At the 12 o'clock position we came down off the wall and found the Piazza dell Anfiteatro Romano, a plaza completed circled by buildings, built on the original 2nd C Roman amphitheater. 
At one of the entrances:


We wandered almost aimlessly in narrow lanes, enjoying the lack of cars (the only vehicles allowed inside the walls are for residents and deliveries). Most streets are for pedestrians and cyclists only, and there were many people on single speed bicycles with baskets on front for their shopping.

Another thing we enjoyed about touts! No one trying to sell us hats, iPhone cases, scarves, guidebooks, postcards, selfie sticks, umbrellas...

See that tower in the distance with the green on top? 

That's the Terre Guinigi, a medieval tower which has trees growing on top. The guidebook said that the tree roots are visible in the room below but that's not true. That ceiling is very much intact. We climbed up to the top for the view...

Lloyd in a pensive moment:

Here's the Duomo or cathedral in Lucca...such eclectic designs on the front...carved and smooth pillars, some decorated with checkerboards, swirls, and other designs made with marble inlays. Expand this image for a closer look. It looks as though the masons building the tower were conserving their marble blocks...

Lucca is Puccini's birthplace and he is much celebrated here. There are concerts most weekends and a big festival in the summer. This statue of him is in front of his birth home (now a museum but closed when we were there): 

The square was surrounded with cafes, restaurants and bars with names like Bohemian cafe, Bar Tosca, Madama Butterfly Ristorante, etc. Lloyd had just asked me what Puccini had written, and I said I think the answer is all around us! 
This statue of a cellist was in front of a music school:

We returned to Pisa by train, only 20 minutes away, but not very comfortable for Lloyd. He rarely finds seats in trains, buses, and planes big enough!

We arrived back at the hotel in time for a little knitting in the comfy chairs in the lobby, and then supper at a Pakastani kabab cafe around the corner. They also had a variety of hot food, and I enjoyed a very yummy chickpea and egg curry with rice pilau. It was actually a very welcome change from Mediterranean fare. (Lloyd had the meat kabab with chips...)