Monthly Archives: December 2015

Epilogue to Images of Morocco

 

Mustapha Pouring Mint Tea

Mustapha Pouring Mint Tea

One day after lunch at a home in a Berber village, Mustapha showed us how Moroccans make the fresh mint tea that is so much a part of their daily life. He explained that mint tea is meant to awaken all five senses. During the pour, the server holds the tea pot high above the glass, and you see the stream of tea splash into the glass. You hear the glass filling and smell the fresh mint. When you touch the glass to pick it up, you feel the warmth of the hot tea.   And finally, you taste the tea, with its fresh mint and sugar.

Like mint tea, our Moroccan adventure offered an intense experience for the five senses-hiking and cycling in the Atlas mountains and countryside, camel riding on the Atlantic beach, wandering the medinas of Essaouira and Marrakech, eating exotic and delicious foods, and retreating to the quiet of our inns and riads at night. And through our guides and the people we met in our travels, we caught a glimpse of the multicultural Morocco with its Arabic, Berber, Moslem and Jewish and French heritages.

We have repeatedly been asked by friends whether it is “safe” to travel to Morocco. Yes, it is safe to travel and stay there. The irony of this question is that we live in a country with the highest rate of mass shootings for any developed country, and where the inner cities of all our major metropolitan areas are extremely dangerous for gun violence. There are urban areas throughout the United States that none of us would drive through for fear of crime. We felt safer walking around in Marrakech and Essaouira at night than we would have in many places here. Such fears should not prevent you from traveling to Morocco.

The featured photo above presents an illusion-am I standing in a window (with Howard taking the photo) or photographing myself in a mirror at the El Badi Palace in Marrakech? Perhaps the gallery below can answer that question.

Images of Morocco-The Souk in Marrakech

 

The souk in the old medina of Marrakech is a maze that bombards you with chaotic alleyways packed with the sounds of vendors hawking goods for sale and jumbled with shops selling shiny jewelry and brilliantly hued scarves and rugs. The smell of African spices, such as cumin, turmeric and coriander, used in tagines, fills the air like a dust storm in front of the little spice vendor shops. The alleyways are mostly covered with cloths and screens, without the benefit of lighting, making the souk a dark place. And it was the close darkness and infinity of this maze without order that caused us to become hopelessly lost.

We walked into the souk late in the afternoon on the last Friday of our trip. Sightseeing, not really shopping, we walked further and further into alleyways that proceed without rhyme or reason.  I had always heard that it was easy to get lost in the souk, and this is part of its charm. But I have a good sense of direction and gave this little credence. Not so in the souk. I began to worry when, after we were lost for some time, the alleyway took us through a dim area where craftsmen were welding metal in the open. The scene reminded me of futuristic Ridley Scott sci-fi  movie where the rebels hide away secretly welding their get-away spacecraft or whatever. Stepping over electrical cords, avoiding the sparks, we kept going with no idea how to get back to the city center.

Ultimately, a guy standing on a corner offered to show us the way out-with a side trip to his family’s shop where he sold me a pretty blue scarf.

So my take-away on the souk is that it was really fun, very intense, and definitely a place to visit again on a return trip!

Images of Morocco-Mogador and the Jewish Heritage of Essaouira

 

One morning we wandered around the medina looking for the old Jewish quarter. Essaouira used to be called “Mogador” and was home to a mostly Jewish population who settled here to handle trade with Europe. In the late nineteenth century, there were 38 active synagogues and almost 20,000 Jews who made up the majority of the city’s population . Around the 1950s, the Jewish people left to resettle in Israel and the synagogues are now largely gone.

The first synagogue we found, the Simon Attias Synagogue, built in 1882, was closed on the day we visited. Its entryway can be seen in the featured photo above, as Howard knocked on it to see if the synagogue was open. It wasn’t. Walking down the Rue du Mellah, still in the old Jewish quarter, we found the old community synagogue, Slat Lkahal which was built circa 1850, see first and last photos in the gallery above. The synagogue’s original arc, shown in the last photo above, came from the Jewish community of Livorno, Italy, which had commerce dealings with Mogador in the nineteen century. The synagogue fell into extreme disrepair in recent years and now is being renovated by community and visitor donations. It is a beautiful and old place that hopefully will be refurbished in the years to come.

Images of Morocco-Essaouira

 

We spent two nights in Essaouira, a beautiful, bustling historic seaport whose medina is colored deep blues and scorching whites and its wide streets (relative to other citys’ medinas) are packed not with cars but with restaurants and vendors selling food and goods. The ancient  fortress now known as Essaouira was rebuilt during the 18th century to increase trade with European countries. Mohammed III, the sultan of Morocco from about 1757 through 1790, commissioned a french engineer to design the city along a modern, square grid. The name Es-Saouira means “the beautifully designed.” And it is easier to find your way around here than it is in, for example, the souk in Marrakech (more about that later) but we did manage to get lost once in the twisted streets.

We stayed at the gracious Heure Bleue Palace, whose entry way is the last photo in the gallery above. On our first night in Essaouira, we felt some trepidation about exploring the medina in the late evening. But the concierge at Heure Bleue told us that the city is a “peaceful and calm place” and advised us to feel comfortable to exploring the city at that hour. So we did, and greatly enjoyed seeing the town’s people out and about, also enjoying the evening.

 

 

 

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Images of Morocco-Essaouira

 

Lunch before our camel ride was at a small inn near the beach and offered a delicious tagine of vegetables and mint tea. Howard had purchased a turban head wrap in the old city market of Essaouira, and at lunch, Mustapha tied it into a traditional Berber turban. I was amazed when afterwards, we walked outside to find the camels in the yard waiting for us as I had assumed we would go to the farm where they lived. We climbed aboard and headed to the ocean. Howard wore his turban to keep out the sun, wind and sand.

Desert and Oasis

Finishing the cycling part of our trip, we drove to Essaouira with a lunch stop at a desert oasis, La Pause. A green spot in the desert, this oasis is fed by the waters running off the mountains. Camels roamed loose to nibble on trees. We escaped the relentless desert sun under tents perched on red Berber rugs, with La Pause’s Turkish Kangal pups as company. The dogs worked the nightshift protecting livestock from predators and one of them happily lounged with us in the midday heat. Our beef and vegetable tagine, fresh bread and iced mint tea was fabulous.

 

 

Images of Morocco-Hiking in the High Atlas Mountains

Wendy and I hiked with our guides Hassan and Mustapha in the Atlas Mountains from Gadji Valley to Ourika Valley, starting high in the mountains after a picnic in a Berber village. Walking for hours on a rocky trail cut into the side of a canyon, we descended through steep terrain suited only for goat and sheep grazing to a lush valley of cultivated terraces and groves. At the end of the valley, the 4 x 4 sports vehicle driven by our driver Mohamed picked us up and carried us to our hotel.

Epic is how I would describe this hike for its beauty, challenging terrain and duration. I am slightly afraid of heights and the sheer drop-offs combined with narrow rocky trails required a great deal of focus and some coaching support from Mustapha in navigating slippery sections. But even more than the hike, the car ride to the hotel offered many thrills as Mohamed made our way through impossibly rocky, rutted and constricted dirt roads, streams and steep inclines. On this and subsequent days in the mountains, the 4×4 cut across mountain sides on rock-strewn roads that were more like trails, with no shoulder or guard rails, feet away from drop-offs of a thousand feet (it seemed to me). I sat in the back, inside seat, with eyes down, hands sweating, not daring to look up for fear of the heights outside the car. Never have I seen such skillful and careful driving like that done by Mohamed, who is a licensed professional driver. We were never in danger, but driving in these conditions is something I do not experience at home. Driving in rugged terrain is part of going to remote areas, and I am sure that I will do this again when I return to Morocco.