Saturday, November 3, 2012

Morocco: To Marrakech and Casablanca

Had we realised that the eight and a half hour trip would prove so tedious I doubt we would have driven it, but taken a train or plane instead. As it was we managed fine but there was not a great deal of interest on the way. In addition, the tour operator had provided us with a new driver which was a bit disconcerting.
So off we went, the luggage cart guys managing our luggage over the steps and pathways to the gate where we joined the van. First we moved through apple and olive groves, then over fairly desolate land until we reached a town that was unmistakeably a ski town, and learned that this was where the king had a palace and liked to come for ski-ing. It was very alpine in feel with well tended gardens and fountains, steep roofed houses and Chalet style hotels. We stopped for a nice coffee, as did all the tour buses.

Marrakech swit hotel N_edited-1
Appropriately named hotel
Marrakech, switz fountain N
Fountain and park
Marrakesh, switzerland of Morocco
Chalet type houses
Then off through land that became more stony, bleak and less populated as well as progressively redder in soil colour, so that the houses blended into the landscape and were almost invisible. This predominant colour continued through all the towns, with the houses made from the local mud bricks and painted surfaces also in shades of red and pink. The houses in towns tended to be three stories, with a metal door housing a workshop, shop or business at ground level, living quarters in the middle and an open area or rooftop on top, often giving an unfinished air to the buildings. There are many rough and unfinished footpaths, piles of dumped dirt and enormous quantities of rubbish, especially plastic bags and bottles. This rubbish continued right into the big cities such as Marrakech. I was sad to think we can pollute a landscape so heavily with our unnecessary rubbish.
While many of the towns on the way seemed to have unfinished and abandoned houses, on the outskirts you would see whole housing estates with roads, kerbing and lighting, but no houses and the plots full of weeds and rubbish. I was told this was future planning but it looked like a plan gone wrong. But I may be mistaken.
We passed a very large lake and dam system and there were irrigation channels in many parts, especially allowing the growth of citrus in areas close to Marrakech.

Marrakesh,  countryside_edited-1
Marrakesh,  farm_edited-1
Farmstead hiding in the hills
Marrakesh, dam in desert_edited-1
Beautifull blue reservoir lake
marrakesh development
Abandoned development
Into Marrakech and again the need for a luggage cart. The riad was in a quiet, residential area of the medina, built around a central courtyard with rooms opening off. Our room had an enormous four poster bed hung with golden drapes; very romantic though I couldn’t squeeze past the posts to get into bed and had to perform some acrobatics. One of our hosts walked us to the main square of the medina, ensuring that we saw the landmarks that would allow us to find our way back. We ate at a rooftop restaurant looking down towards Jemaa el-Fnaa, the huge square that fills at night with all manner of people and food, from beggars to food carts to snake charmers to story tellers. All the shops are open, touts pester you with requests to eat at their food cart and really is bedlam, but absolutely fascinating. My meal on the rooftop began with Moroccan salads, just 9 dishes of things such as olives, dates, carrot salad, eggplant and so on. Just for me. Just the appetiser.
marrakech riad
Bed in riad
Marrakech, street
Street from our rooftop cafe
Marrakesh, salads_edited-1
All mine, just for starters
Next morning Ibrahim, our guide, arrived and we mapped out a plan of the day. First the Garden Majorelle, built by the designer Majorelle and later purchased by Yves St Laurent. The very vivid colours and unusual exotic plants were contained in high walls and threaded with pools and fountains. In the house a museum of Berber artifacts and jewellery was quite magnificent, especially the jewellery which was displayed in glass cabinets under a starry sky and backed by mirrors so that all you could focus on were the amazing silver and semi-precious stone necklaces, bracelets and head-dresses. (Photos not allowed)

Cacti and succulents, plus brilliant colours in the Majorelle gardens

Marrakech Majorelle cactus_edited-1
Marrakech Majorelle garden_edited-1 Marrakech Majorelle palm_edited-1
Marrakech majorelle pool
A pool in the gardens
Marrakech majorelle bench N marrakech majorelle vista
Back to the medina, via the Koutoubia Mosque and minaret and the Roman ruins beside them.
Marrakech ruins and minaret_edited-1
Then through the medina to the old medresa, or Islamic school, where young men studied for years to know the Koran and the other law books, living in small rooms, worshipping in their own mosque and making their ablutions in the pool. The artistry of the architecture is stunningly beautiful, the rooms small and rather chilly and students stayed there from 5-24.We followed with a Caliph’s house which became a school, was abandoned and eventually and recently restored as a museum. While there are not many exhibits, the house itself is an absolute jewel.
Marrakech medressa N
Interior courtyard and pool of medresa
Marrakesh, Medressa niche N_edited-1
Niche of medresa mosque
marrakech medresa room
Study and bedroom for two
Marrakech girl_edited-1
An obliging girl poses in a medresa study/bedroom
cupola medresa
Marrakech medressa_edited-1
Carved plasterwork
Marrakech museum_edited-1Interior of museum
Marrakesh, museum detail N
Beautiful tiling in the old caliph’s house

Ibrahim took us to the market areas of the medina as well as a pharmacy which he assured us was different to the one we had seen in Fes, but really it wasn’t, and the pharmacist lost interest in showing his wares when he realised that we were from Australia and could purchase very little to take back. Where was Ibrahim? Well praying actually, which was OK by us, but we would have preferred honesty from him. In the end I did purchase some saffron. The smell was glorious and permeated my luggage.

Marrakech, fruit_edited-1
Fruit and dates for sale
Marrakech trays_edited-1Metalwork shop Marrakech light shop_edited-1
Light shop
marrakech store
Fabric store
Then some food at a small street café which may have been a mistake, as I had some grilled meat patty and sausage and Nick some sausage (among other things). The trouble with minced meat is that it can be easily contaminated and unless well cooked, can hold microbes. We paid for this later when we reached Lisbon.
Some more touring in the medina led me to speak with a jewellery shop owner and once interest was even remotely expressed in a piece he was determined to clinch a sale. In the end I had to leave and Nick had to reiterate the “No”. I probably broke every bargaining rule but all I really wanted was to get some idea of the price of items, not to make an offer on the one I picked up. Different places, different norms.
I expressed some interest in going to a hamman and Ibrahim was anxious to show me the one he used. So off I went, armed with fresh undies. In all honesty I felt like a child being undressed and led by the hand, being steamed and soaped and doused and scrubbed and daubed with mud and steamed again and shampooed and rested and massaged. It would have been restful except that I got lost trying to return to the riad (and therein lies another story) and was hot and bothered by the time I finally got home.
We finished the night at Jemaa el-Fnaa, this time eating at Stall no. 1 with gorgeous fresh prawns and calamari. We did find the touts for the various vans were very pushy and annoying, refusing to take no for an answer and thrusting menus in our faces, but I guess they were just trying for our business. The competition was fierce.
Marrakech oranges_edited-1
Orange juice cart
Marrakech stall 1_edited-1Stall no. 1 Marrakech snails only_edited-1
Just snails
By morning we were ready for the trip to Casablanca with a different driver and an informative sidekick. The road was fast and good, but the frequent police stationed along it led us to ask questions. Seems the king was in Marrakech yesterday and would be driving the road today. Enquiry revealed that people are much happier under this king that under his father who was a despot and used the police to enforce his desires. The people were very scared but really seem to respect the current king. More small settlements along the road with many fields bounded by prickly pear for the fencing capabilities and the fruit as well which is an excellent crop. As we approached Casablanca the irrigation channels were everywhere and there were crops of potatoes, citrus, wheat and possibly underground irrigation for strawberries. Lots of human labour of course and the people seem to walk long distances or use donkeys. The towns always came as a surprise, desert then suddenly a town, red of course, and still the plastic everywhere.
To our hotel, Il Doge, the same one as before. This is a really lovely boutique hotel with rooms decorated in Art Deco and themed after film stars. We chose the Fritz Lang room because it had a separate shower, but I must admit that the huge, black marble bath was used once, filled with bubble bath. The hotel was a Relais et Chateaux establishment, staffed with French women on the desk and local people in the restaurant. And therein lay a problem, because the local people, willing as they were, did not understand European meal plans, cutlery or the food, so the service was a tad interesting and not quite at normal Relais et Chateaux levels. We made allowances.
Casablanca, hotel stair
Hotel stair
Casablanca hotel glass
The dining room art deco glass
Casablanca hotel bedroom
The Fritz Lang room
Casablanca hotel bath
The opulent marble bathroom
People suggest avoiding Casablanca, but we had to fly in and out so we made the most of it. We went to visit the major sight and tour the Hassan II mosque, which is ginormous. Built partly over the sea, and with very special arrangements for the king, such as his own walkway down the centre and screens that pop up from the floor to protect him as he prays in private, it is nevertheless a very beautiful space. We were impressed that it was built with donations from 13,000,000 Moroccans (until we discovered this was compulsory and enforced by the police) and built very quickly, just a few years. Almost all the materials are local except some Carrara marble and the Murano chandeliers. The minaret is exceptionally tall and sends out a laser light at night in the direction of Mecca. The floor is not glass, as is suggested in Wikipedia, but marble, and can be covered in carpets for large crowds of worshippers. It is a beautiful and impressive building. Despite various claims it is not bigger than St Peters (though St Peters really annoys me with its “I am bigger” line down the central aisle)
Casablanca, mosque_edited-1
The mosque of Hassan II
casablanca mosque on water
Built over the water, in part. Kids jump from the back wall into the water
Casablanca, mosque buildings_edited-1
The enormous forecourt
Casablanca, mosque interior_edited-1

Looking toward the mirhab
Casablanca, kings way
Reserved for the king to walk on. You can see the glass inserts in the floor which look down into the ritual ablution area
Casablanca, door N
A charming perforated metal door
casablanca ablutions fountain
One of many ablution fountains. There are also 650 taps along the wall
Casablanca, hamman_edited-1
Part of the hamman, now no longer used
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The body temperature pool at the hamman
A white church near our hotel turned out to be the Art Deco church of Sacre Coeur, now an exhibition space. We didn’t manage to get inside but were impressed with the Gothic bones realised in an Art Deco way.
Casablanca, Sacre Coeur_edited-1
And as we flew out of Casablanca this very poor shot through the plane window, gives an idea of the size and location of the Hassan II mosque’

Casablanca mosque from the air
Next stop: Lisbon

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