September 28, 2010:  The Die is Cast!

"Just three more days!" exclaimed Teresa, my favorite travel companion. 

"The die is cast!" I replied jubilantly.

"That's a bit dramatic, don't you think?  Who said that anyway?"

"I don't recall if it was Caesar or Hamlet, but we are leaving Friday and there's no turning back, therefore 'the die is cast', or should I say 'the dice are cast!' "

I think she rolled her eyes.

Then she said "Try using that for the heading on your next blog entry!"

So here we are.

It's a ten hour non-stop flight from San Francisco on Virgin Atlantic, getting us into London's Heathrow airport at 11 AM Saturday morning.  I much prefer non-stops from the U.S.  If you have a domestic connection, you invariably end up worrying about missing it -- if it's not a snowstorm in Chicago, it's a thunderstorm in New York City.

We're going to make our way into central London, either via the tube or perhaps the London Connect train.  The tube costs £4.50 and can take up to an hour while the London Connect is £7.90 and takes about 25 minutes.  There's also the Heathrow Express for £18, which I think is excessive. 

We'll have a few hours to grab a bite to eat, then we'll catch the EasyBus shuttle from Victoria Station to Luton airport at 3:45 PM -- this is the least expensive option to Luton and you don't need to be flying out on EasyJet.  It's about a 75 minute ride, and after we get checked in to our hotel I think we'll be ready to hit the sack!  I've packed some melatonin to help with the jet lag -- it's worked wonders on past trips!

We'll be staying at the Holiday Inn Express which is adjacent to the airport -- this is clearly a plus since our flight on Ryanair leaves at 6:35 AM Sunday morning!  They even include a free breakfast starting at 4 AM!  (Hooray -- I love free!)

We get into Marrakech at 9:10 AM and will grab a taxi to the train station which is only 3 km away.  The train to Casablanca leaves at 11 AM and takes about 3.5 hours.  Then we'll meet up with our Intrepid tour group at the designated starting point, the Hotel Guynemer: 

October 1-2, 2010:  San Francisco to London

After an unremarkable ride to San Francisco, we dropped off our rental car, checked in, then boarded our 4:55 PM non-stop flight to London.  Altogether the 10 hour trip was uneventful and we got into Heathrow around 11:15 AM. 

Heading down below, I purchased Oyster cards for each of us to use on the London Underground.  (The Oyster card provides discounted fares of up to 50% -- you pay a refundable £3 deposit then add as much cash to it as you wish. Highly recommended even for visitors!)

We got off at Victoria Station and had lunch at Wetherspoons, a traditional pub located inside the train concourse.  At 3:45 PM we boarded our EasyBus shuttle to Luton Airport (just outside the train station).  By 6:00 PM we were settled in at the Holiday Inn Express, just a short walk from the airport terminal.  Time for a little shut-eye!

Up again at 4:30 AM, we had a fast breakfast then quickly returned to the terminal for early morning flight to Marrakech.  After checking our bags and passing security, we followed a lengthy corridor to our gate, then joined a huge throng of passengers waiting to board - all very disorganized!  As I write this note, I'm stuffed like a sardine into my Ryanair seat - it's a very utilitarian aircraft!  Oh well, you get what you pay for !  :-)

October 3, 2010: Marrakech to Casablanca

We disembarked onto the tarmac at Menara Airport and walked to the passport control hall.  There were about a dozen control booths each with an enormously long queue, and all queues moved at a snail's pace. It took about an hour till we finally got to the agent - he was having to manually enter each person's passport information which explained the long wait.

Exiting to the baggage claim, I expected our bags would be waiting there, but no.  We waited another 15 minutes for them to show up.  Christopher finally stuck his head through the gap beyond the carousel and pointed out our bags to the poor fellow who was trying to sort them all out and get them on the conveyor belt.  By the time we got out to the main hall it was 10:40 AM.  Luckily there was an exchange booth with no line, so I quickly changed some dollars into dirhams, about 8 to the dollar.

We exited and immediately spotted a shuttle bus to la gare (station) and centre-ville (city center).  I anxiously eyed my watch, only 10 minutes to get the 11 AM train to Casablanca.  No such luck!  Thank goodness this was not the Amazing Race!!

We settled in at the station after buying tickets for the 1 PM train to Casablanca.  Only 90 dirhams each, about $11.  We scrambled on to the train when it arrived, finding an empty compartment to claim as our own.  But the train was full and we found ourselves with several Moroccan women wearing traditional head scarves-they pleasantly tolerated our scads of fleshy arms and legs.

There was no AC and we were melting by the time we pulled into Casa Voyagers station 3 hours later.

After a bit of haggling, we piled into a taxi to our nearby hotel, the Guynemer.  I was so relieved we'd finally made it, without major stress or trauma!

Our tour group met at 6 PM affording us the first opportunity to meet our guide, Tahar and the rest of the group.  After introductions we headed to a local restaurant, Etoile Central (Central Star) for an authentic Moroccan meal of tagine and couscous.  The only thing missing was Moroccan beer, apparently not always readily available due to the Islamic prohibition on alcohol.  However, on returning to our hotel, we were able to secure several Flag beers, paradoxically,  a popular Moroccan brew often served  behind closed doors.

October 4, 2010: Casablanca to Rabat

As instructed by Tahar, we met in the lobby at 8:30 AM for a tour of the Hassan II mosque.  The mosque was an impressive edifice built on an outcropping by the ocean's edge. It's the only must-see site in Casablanca, a large city not generally regarded as a tourist destination.  The mosque was completed in 1993 and is the third largest in the world after those in Mecca and Medina.  It never ceases to amaze me how countries with so few resources are willing to spend scads of money on these kinds of monuments!

Moving along, Tahar herded us onto the train for the short hour long ride to Rabat, the capital. Arriving at the Rabat Gare Centre-Ville, located in the city center, we stopped for a light lunch-I had a Kefta sandwich with fires - a Kefta is a spicy minced meatball, another Moroccan specialty. Delicious!

Afterward, we followed Tahar down the main drag, Avenue Mohamed V getting to the medina in about 20 minutes.  It was a surprisingly clean and relatively well organized warrant of market stalls selling all kinds of cooked food, spices, dried goods, candy, textiles, and a large selection of antique French chandeliers that Teresa found extremely appealing.  However after examining her backpack, she sadly determined that there was not enough space to carry one.

I, on the other hand, was elated to find a stall selling all manner of fruits and nuts, including figs, dates, walnuts, raisins, peanuts, etc, so Christopher Brandon and I filled up several bagfuls for snacking.  (Teresa nervously eyed our stash, then muttered something about diarrhea under her breath.)

Moving though the medina, we crossed a main road and found ourselves the Kasbah des Oudaias, a former fortress overlooking the ocean which consisted of another maze of narrow streets lined by; blue and white buildings. There were several small tourist shops, but mostly private homes in this area.  (Apparently it's becoming popular for foreigners to buy homes in this area, and I do recall seeing an episode of House Hunters Internationa onl HGTV about this not too long ago.)

Teresa, Katie and Brandon then hiked down to the beach where is what appeared to be a very old cemetery and examined the tombstones, ascertaining that some dated back to the 14th century.

Returning to the Kasbah, we wandered through the Andalusian Gardens, a relatively small park consisting of vegetation connected by cobblestone walkways, built by the French during the colonial period.  Our group stopped briefly for a mint tea at a restaurant within the Kasbah overlooking the ocean, the Cafe Maure.

Retracing our steps, we headed back into town meeting up again with Tahar who had left us earlier at the medina.

Returning to the station we hopped on to the 5:20 PM train and settled in for the 3 hour ride to Meknes.

Lots of aches and pains to report after our first full day, but everyone seemed pretty happy despite appearing exhausted! 

October 5, 2010: Meknes & Volubis

Tahar presented the group with an extremely ambitious schedule for today:  a taxi delivered us to the Greniers de Moulay Ismail (the former sultan's granary), from where we would follow by foot the ancient wall of the Imperial City past the Royal Palace (still in use) toward to the tomb of Moulay Ismail, about a 45 minute walk.  Moulay Ismail was the 17th century sultan widely credited with creating present-day Morocco by defeating his various domestic opponents as well as a raft of external enemies.

The granary was an empty, cavernous, architecturally non-descript structure with little to actually see within, and notable essentially for its large size.  The Royal Palace is closed to the public, although I peeked behind a gate and saw an impressively groomed golf course on the grounds!

The tomb of Moulay Ismail was a relatively modest structure of historical interest noteworthy for its primary décor consisting primarily of intricate patterns of ceramic tile throughout a series of "quiet" rooms leading to the tomb itself and intended to create a calming effect.  The room containing the tomb itself was off-limits to non-Muslims and could be viewed only through a barricaded entry.  Ostensibly, the tomb is modest because Meknes was the capital only during Moulay Ismail's rule -- the center of government was subsequently moved elsewhere.

Not far was the Prison des Chretien, a forbidding, claustrophobic, and darkly lit underground series of connected chambers no longer in use.  Its hard to imagine anyone lasting long in this dungeon!

Our next stop was Bab Mansour, a heavily decorated wooden gate that led from the sultan's parade ground to the Place el Hedema, the nearby market square surrounded by several buildings within which were packed an amazing variety of tiny stalls stacked with piles of fruits and vegetables, and adjacent to an enormous meat market with live chickens ready for immediate slaughter as well as stacks of recently butchered animal parts including goat heads, pork hoofs and organ meats!  We watched in astonishment as a customer selected two live chickens, which, with one flick of the hand were swiftly decapitated, plunged into boiling water then tossed into some sort of automatic de-feathering contraption!

We met up with Tahar shortly after noon, and he escorted us through the rather modest medina behind the market, which consisted mostly of private homes and some small textile manufacturing and woodworking shops, as well as some unusual fast food stands.  We stopped at one such stand and observed ground camel meat mixed with spices, placed on a sizzling grill, then thrust into a pocket bread with onions and tomatoes for consumption as a "camel burger"!  A few members of the group took a pass, but the rest of us enjoyed this peculiar delicacy which proved to be quiet tasty!  Had I not know the origin of the meat, I undoubtedly would have assumed it was simply hamburger! 

Returning to our hotel around 1:30 PM, we piled into a private van and waited as the driver stacked our bags on the roof.  Less than an hour later we arrived at the Roman ruins of Volubilis, an extremely well-preserved archeological excavation that reminded me of Pompeii.  It was a town located on the far edge of the Roman empire that was abandoned around the 8th century when the empire was in retreat, then covered by a volcanic eruption and excavated relatively recently.  There were remnants of an ancient viaduct system as well as a well-preserved sewer system, olive presses, and detailed tile floors from within various private residences.

Returning to the van, we continued on to Fes, stopping only briefly to sample freshly picked pomegranates at a fruit stand adjacent to a reservoir. 

We checked in to our hotel then enjoyed an outdoor dinner at a nearby restaurant before settling in for the night.  On tap for tomorrow: the Fes medina!

October 6, 2010: Fes

Although our original itinerary called for a relatively brief guided tour of the Fes medina in the morning followed by a free afternoon to wander around on one's own in the medina labyrinth, someone at Intrepid made an executive decision that leaving tour members on their own to get hopelessly lost was too risky.  So instead, a guide was provided for the entire day, eliminating this risk, and unfortunately, some of the adventure I was looking forward to.

When I first discovered the Fes medina on my own in 1977, I quickly found that this was, in fact, the world's largest maze, and that it was virtually impossible for a novice to navigate!  In fact, I've had intermittent nightmares for the past 30 years that I was trapped in the Fes medina and couldn't find my way out!  Back then (and probably still today), for a small price one could find a child to lead you out of the medina.

Early in the day we were taken to a hilltop not far from the medina for a bird's eye view.  You couldn't see much of what is within the medina as much of it is enclosed, but its enormity was apparent!  It's hard to imagine something of such complexity being designed today.  The original medina, "old Fes" was built in the eighth century, while "new Fes" is more than 600 years old!  There is also an adjoining, somewhat contemporary city built by the French during the 1920's that resembles a European style city, but most of the population still lives in the medina.

We stopped for a tour of a local pottery factory where we encountered dozens of local artisans (the word "artisan" is perhaps an exaggeration,) who were creating a range of pottery styles.  They were designing these using primitive methods (i.e., protractors and rulers), spinning them on wheels propelled by foot, chiseling and painting them painstakingly by hand - the process was clearly tedious.  Quite frankly, the working conditions appeared horrendous, with workers hunched over their pieces, many sitting on the ground.  Worse yet, we were told that they were paid on a piecework basis!   Much of the production was quite beautiful, but I found the overall process troubling.

Subsequently, we entered the medina with our designated local guide, a feisty, university-educated younger woman named Hakima who said she had been unable to find work as a teacher (for which she was trained).  We started out in the part of the medina dominated by leather goods, with the overwhelmingly vile stench of the adjoining tannery pits which were visible behind the shops.  Tahar handed each of us a handful of crushed mint leaves to place over our noses while we examined the merchandise.

We passed through several different sections of the medina each dominated by different specialty crafts, such as blacksmithing, carpet weaving, and metal fabrication (including silver and bronze engraving).  One of our stops included a herbal shop where the herbalist owner gave us a hands-on demonstration of various substances reputed to have curative properties.  It was after 6 PM when our guide finally led us out of the medina.         

I was both impressed and disappointed by the many changes I saw since my last visit here 30+ years ago - the proliferation of satellite dishes and cell phones were probably the most obvious difference (although that's true everywhere), and frankly, there were many more tourists - Fes is not the budget destination for students and hippie types it once was, and obviously has not been for many years!  One thing I'm sure hasn't changed - a visitor can still get hopelessly lost here!

The Fes medina is truly amazing - one cannot do it justice in only one day.  My sense is that Intrepid has done a disservice to its clientele by not allowing them sufficient time to experience it on their own.  By playing it safe I think Intrepid has eliminated much of the adventure and sense of wonder that one can feel here.

Beyond the medina, contemporary Fes presents an odd mixture of Moroccan and French colonial character, but without the appeal of the medina, Fes would not likely be a destination of choice.

October 7, 2010: Fes to Midelt

Getting an early start, we loaded up the minibus and headed toward Midelt, a small town in the Middle Atlas Mountains that is about halfway between Fes and the small settlement of Merzouga where the paved road ends prior to entering the northernmost edge of the Sahara Desert, tomorrow night's destination. 

It was a scenic route, requiring numerous stops for photo ops, toilet breaks and a picnic-style lunch at a small oasis-like roadside park next to a flowing stream.  We also stopped briefly at a local market which was congested with locals buying and selling necessities - this was clearly not a tourist stop.

It was after 4 PM when we got to Midelt, stopping for the night at the Auberge Jaafar, a sprawling but modest complex of buildings about 6 km outside town, clearly designed for budget group travelers and consisting of a somewhat confusing maze of rooms and quaint courtyards. 

It was only a short walk to the nearby tiny village of Berrem. The village was encircled by earthen walls surrounding several narrow twisting streets that seemed to lead to nowhere.  There was a hole-in-the-wall grocery store, and a small building with a pool table and a coin-operated Futbol game (that seemed to serve as a rec center), and we all played several games with the local boys.

Although Tahar had cautioned us that the auberge rarely offered hot running water for showers, we apparently lucked out and didn't have to take cold showers! 

In the evening after dinner, we pooled our funds and Tahar hired a local folklore ensemble to entertain us.  The music and dancing was intense and several of our group joined in for what turned out to be nearly an hour-long dance marathon.  Needless to say, they slept well that night!

October 8, 2010: Midelt to the Sahara Desert

Prior to departing Midelt, our first stop this morning was the Kasbah Myriem, a local workshop operated by Franciscan sisters for the purpose of training local Berber girls in the art of embroidery.  While the embroidered tablecloths and other similar pieces were impressive, they were not inexpensive, costing upwards of hundreds of dollars for some items.  We then headed south toward the Sahara Desert, a five hour drive.

Our route to Merzouga, the last settlement before entering the desert, took us out of the mountainous topography of the Middle Atlas Mountains and as we traveled south, the terrain became progressive flatter and more barren.  We passed many small oases along the way, essentially small villages with abundant greenery and numerous palm trees that exist because of the availability of local water.

Although uneventful, the change in geography was fascinating to observe, and we finally arrived at Merzouga around 4 PM.  We dropped off most of our bags at a local auberge, then tossed blankets on our camels and headed off into the desert sunset. 

Proceeding in single file across the dunes, we arrived shortly before dark at our camp which comprised several well-constructed tents, each accommodating up to four people, surrounding a central dining area where locally woven blankets covered the expanse of sand between the tents.

We enjoyed a communal meal of delicious chicken tagine and vegetables prepared on-site, then admired the intensely black starscape.  To entertain us, several of the camel drivers created a rhythmic hypnotic beat on their drums.  Several of our group members, including Christopher, chose to spend the night outdoors under the stars, while the rest of us grabbed blankets and settled into the tents.  Although we had anticipated a chilly night, we were pleasantly surprised at how warm it remained until the early morning hours. 

We were awakened by the slow beating of a drum at 5:30 AM, then Tahar led us on a short hike up the peak of a nearby sand dune to see the sun rise over the desert.    

October 9, 2010: Sahara Desert to Todra Gorge

After watching the sunrise, we quickly packed up and mounted our camels for the short trek back to the auberge.  Less than an hour later we were enjoying a light breakfast and had the opportunity to avail ourselves of some rather grungy showers, although admittedly, there was hot water. 

Heading back out of the desert, we stopped for a short shopping tour at a factory that excavates local rock containing fossil remains then turns them into an assortment of household items such as tabletops, goblets, trays, etc.  I have to admit I was fascinated to see huge chunks of rock being sawn and polished then cut into pieces.  The fossils embedded in the rock appeared to be mainly objects that you'd find in sea sediment, i.e. shells, conches, etc. but the items produced were quite appealing.  Teresa almost bought a polished tabletop, but ultimately the uncertainty over shipping such a heavy fragile object caused her to reconsider her purchase.

We spent most of the day in the minibus, stopping along the way in the early afternoon to have tea with a young nomad man in his tent not far off the main road.  He told us that he lived alone, moving with the seasons usually 3 or 4 times a year. While in his tent, the wind was blowing constantly and spread a layer of sand everywhere, and since his tent didn't offer much protection from the elements, it was hard to imagine such a difficult existence.   

About an hour later we stopped at a restaurant near an isolated village - while waiting for our lunch, three tour buses pulled up and a horde of tourists inundated the place!  We were dismayed to say the least.  On a rational level you know you aren't the only visitor to the area, but somehow, having it thrust upon you in this manner is quite disconcerting.  Teresa suggested that perhaps the local guides take all the tourists to the same places to eat because they know which ones are clean and won't make their groups sick!  Perhaps.  Nevertheless we found it to be a rather demeaning experience.

We got to our hotel at Todra Gorge around 4:30 PM and finally had a little free time to relax outside by the small pool (although the air temperature was too chilly for swimming).  Todra Gorge is a magnificent canyon that towers above the narrow road which winds next to the river between the cliffs, with a tiny village squeezed in for good measure.

After dinner, Tahar explained that in the morning we had a choice of guided hikes: an easy two hour hike along the river or a rigorous four hour hike to the adjacent mountain peak where we would meet a local Berber family for tea.  Teresa and I chose the latter, looking forward to getting some fresh air and exercise after spending so much time cooped up in the minibus.

October 10, 2010: Todra Gorge

We hit the trailhead, which was only a few kilometers down the road from our hotel, by 8 AM.  The trail was relatively steep with numerous switchbacks, but it was well-marked and clearly well-used.  With the help of our local guide, taking only short breaks, we arrived at the peak after about two and a half hours - and were rewarded with views of the gorge that were spectacular!

Near the peak were several caves and an adjacent tent-like structure occupied by a Berber family who invited us for mint tea.  Despite the freezing winters at this elevation, they remain here year round with their small herd of goats, periodically venturing into the village below to obtain supplies - how they are able to eke out an existence in such barren surroundings is beyond me!

We headed back down, taking about an hour to get to the village, then followed our guide through an ancient Kasbah until we finally met up with the rest of our group. We were taken to the home of a local Berber family and were served a lunch of fresh vegetables and Berber "pizza" which consisted of a dough-like crust with a filling of ground lamb.  The family also owned a small carpet-weaving business below and we patiently drank mint tea with the family patriarch prior to being shown a variety of locally weaved carpets. 

It was mid-afternoon when we returned to the hotel, and Tahar suggested an outing to the nearby town of Tinhir, about 12 km down the road, where anyone who was interested could visit the local Hammam for a total body cleansing and massage.

Teresa and Christopher decided to give this a try, while Katie, Brandon and I chose to search for a local Internet café.  Although we found one, I should note that Internet access has been very limited so far, and the combination Arabic/French keyboards have rendered it almost impossible to check and send emails!  Although I've been writing these posts daily on my laptop, there have been very few opportunities to upload them.

By the time we returned to our hotel for a late dinner, it was well after dark.  With winter around the corner, the days have been getting noticeably shorter.

October 11, 2010: Todra Gorge to Ait Benhaddou

We were enroute to our next destination after making a brief stop at a local project supported by Intrepid - a workshop that provided training and support to physically challenged individuals.  There was some impressive craftsmanship and we bought several items, including a five foot long wrought-iron coat rack that Teresa selected - how we're going to get that home is a mystery!

Except for a one hour lunch break, we were on the road for the next six hours.  With all this driving and so little down time, I was starting to get restless and agitated.  I don't mind long train rides - at least you can read, or get up and walk around.  But with twelve people, plus Tahar and our driver in our minibus, space was tight - if you tried to read you'd quickly get carsick.  So it was a painfully long day.

After getting us settled into our hotel, a converted castle with sandstone walls, narrow corridors, and low doorways, in the late afternoon, Tahar led us across a dry riverbed behind the hotel toward a remarkably well-preserved but abandoned Kasbah that appeared to rise up into the surrounding mountains.  The wind had been picking up during the afternoon and suddenly we got bombarded by a sandstorm that had been brewing gradually but had become fierce, and we were forced to shield our faces to avoid the stinging pellets of sand as we struggled to the other side of the river.

After we were safely across, and despite the persistent fierce wind, Tahar led us through the Kasbah and explained that it had once been a major settlement, but that only five families remained, the rest having moved to a nearby town. 

The buildings were constructed of mud and straw and the streets were narrow and winding, similar to other Kasbahs we'd seen so far.  There were several small shops selling knickknacks, and there was one local artist, the son of one of the families who lived there, who, while we watched, created a remarkably detailed watercolor painting in his shop

We'd been making our way through the Kasbah for nearly an hour, and as we emerged from one of the narrow passages, there was a clear view of the riverbed below that we'd crossed earlier.  Suddenly, Tahar's eyes grew wide and he pointed to a rush of water rapidly coming down from the nearby foothills toward the dry riverbed - a flash flood!!  Although we'd noticed menacing clouds earlier off in the distance, we hadn't given this much thought!. 

He told us we needed to turn around right away and get back, otherwise we'd be trapped on this side of the river.  And no, there was no bridge nearby!  We moved as quickly as we could, and as we approached the riverbed, it appeared that the flood waters were picking up speed and rising quickly as they rushed toward us!  We started running and crossed the riverbed with the water only about 200 yards away and moving fast. 

We got past the first rush of water and several of us, myself included, thinking we were clear of the danger, stopped to take some pictures.  Suddenly Teresa, who was quite far ahead of us, shouted and started waving, and when we looked up, Christopher, Brandon and I realized that water was rushing toward us from another direction.  Then we ran like hell!!  Seconds after making it to the far shore, a raging flume of water roared past us!  Yikes!  Close call!

(The last time I'd experienced a flash flood was at Universal Studios - on a tram!  Not quite the same thing!)

We watched from the hotel terrace as dozens of tourists who were stranded on the wrong side of the river tried to figure out what to do.  Several four wheel drive vehicles crossed through the water as we watched, taking some of them safely across.  One local entrepreneur drove his mule through the water to offer an escape route!  Back at the hotel, bottles of beer and wine suddenly appeared as our group rehashed the panic and excitement of the moment. 

Hussein, owner of the hotel, was nonplussed by our adventure - I assume he'd seen this happen before.  He introduced himself and explained that the local area was often used as a backdrop for movies that were filmed in a desert setting.  In fact, he informed us proudly that he had participated as an extra in the filming of a number of movies, including The Prince of Persia and Indiana Jones.  He offered to pose for photos and even to sign autographs!  Tahar had given him the nickname "Mr. Action" and we all had a laugh, including Hussein.  He then gathered us around a table for a cooking demonstration of how to prepare tagine and couscous, then afterward we enjoyed the dinner he had prepared and served us. 

October 12, 2010: The High Atlas Mountains - Aroumd

We got an early start this morning for the five hour drive to Toubkal National Park, located in the High Atlas Mountain Range. 

About 45 minutes before we got to our destination, the town of Imlil, we stopped at a local women's cooperative that produced Argan oil.  It's somewhat similar to olive oil, but is only produced in southern Morocco by an extremely labor-intensive process that involves cracking and crushing the nuts of the Argan tree by hand.  Apparently the nuts are retrieved from the droppings of goats who actually climb the tree to feed on the nuts.  During digestion, the hard outer shell is softened so it can be cracked open to obtain the inner nut which resembles an almond.  We sampled the oil with a crust of bread and also tasted a peanut-buttery concoction made from the nut.  I wasn't impressed, but I'm no connoisseur, but Teresa didn't care for it much either!  (The peanut-buttery stuff tasted like - surprise! - peanut butter.)

We arrived at the end of the road in the town of Imlil, at an elevation of about 5200 feet, repacked our backpacks for the hour long uphill trek to the tiny village of Aroumd, then headed for the trailhead.  We had several mules to carry our packs or you could choose to ride a mule for 50 dirhams (about $6) instead of hiking.  The trail was steep and rocky with a lot of mud from a rainstorm the day before, but before we could feel fatigued, we were at Aroumd, which is a tiny Berber village served only by this trail.

We stayed at a "gite", sort of a communal bed & breakfast, in two rooms with mattresses on the floor.  Although it sounds rough, it was actually pretty comfortable, and they provided heavy blankets - as soon as it got dark, the temperature dropped close to freezing!

There was also a communal dining area heated by a small wood-burning fireplace, but this was the only heated room. We enjoyed hot mint tea while we sat outside on the terrace looking out on some great views of the village and above to the mountain peaks.  The wood-smoke tinged air was invigorating!

Tahar informed us that we could meet for a three hour guided hike in the morning if we were interested, starting at 7:30 AM, but I was tired and figured I'd pass on this.  We had dinner around 8:30 PM which consisted of communal dishes of harire (vegetable soup) and delicious chicken tagine followed by melon for desert.  (Its interesting how the same tagine dish tastes different at every stop!)

Shortly after, we crawled into our mattress beds and loaded up with heavy clothing and blankets in anticipation of a chilly night!

October 13, 2010: Aroumd to Essaouira

I was so tired when I went to bed that I'd decided not to bother with the hike, but by 7 AM I was wide awake and feeling refreshed, and fearful of missing something really great, so I dragged myself out of bed into the cold mountain air, gulped some coffee, and joined the hike.  No surprise, the hikers consisted of Teresa, Katie, Brandon and two other adventurous souls!

Although the trail started out benign, it soon became quite steep.  This was actually a good thing because it was so cold and the rigorous terrain warmed us up!  We took a ton of photos as the village below receded and the sun rose over the mountain peaks.  (It was very beautiful and made me feel a bit homesick for Yosemite!)

When we returned to the gite it was nearly noon and we were presented with a lunch of fresh vegetables and pasta which really hit the spot!  As soon as we were done, we packed and headed back down to Imlil.

Tahar cautioned us that our next stop, the coastal city of Essaouira, was a five hour drive, and indeed, it was after dark when we arrived.  We had left the mountainous terrain and the landscape had again become flat as we progressed toward the coast.

Our hotel for the night, the Riad Dar el Qdima, was just inside the entrance to the medina.  (A riad is a large converted house with a courtyard.)  We ate dinner at Il Mari, a seafood restaurant just inside the coastal seawall and we could hear the crashing of the surf and feel the damp ocean breeze as we ate.  After dinner we were entertained by traditional live Arabic music and a Gagnua dancer who swirled and leaped, tapping the ceiling several times!

October 14, 2010: Essaouira

We met our local guide Hassan in the lobby and headed off for a tour of the town.  He explained that Essaouira is primarily still a fishing village, and as we walked toward the port, we could see large clusters of small blue fishing boats along the quay with busy fishermen loading nets and other gear.  Hassan advised us to come by later when the boats returned with their catch to see the freshly caught fish being unloaded.  Not far from the wharf about a kilometer away was the massive expanse of a sandy beach dotted with sunbathers and locals just hanging out.

We were told that Essaouira's population until the mid-1950's consisted of a Jewish community of 17,000 and an Arab/Berber population of 15,000 but that most of the Jews left for Israel after the Six Day War in 1967.  As they constituted most of the tradespeople, fishing was left as the main economic activity.

Just past the fishing boats was a large square surrounded by outdoor restaurant stalls displaying fresh fish one could choose and have cooked on the spot for a quick meal.  Hassan suggested ordering the "mélange", platters of the daily catch offered with salad for a fixed price.  We decided to return later for lunch.

We stopped at a stall that opened into a large interior space where we admired locally-made furniture, notable for its elaborate inlays.  We decided to return later for another look. 

We headed with Hassan into the medina which had much wider streets and followed more of a logical grid pattern than the one in Fes.  The medina was a hub of activity with locals buying and selling fresh meats, fish, poultry, vegetables, spices and fruit, as well as stalls with tourist stuff.  Clearly this was a living market not just a tourist attraction and it was all very appealing.  Hassan took us to a silver jewelry shop filled with ornamental bracelets, rings, pendants, etc., and Teresa purchased several items.  There was another furniture shop next door, much smaller than the first, but we didn't spot much of interest.

After the tour ended, we decided to head back to the first furniture store.  There was a beautiful coffee table by the entrance that had caught our eye earlier - it had the most incredible inlay, but when we inquired about the price, it was clearly prohibitive.   After a private discussion, Teresa made an offer that was a third less than the asking price, but this was summarily rejected.  As we started to leave the store, the young man asked us for our best offer and Teresa insisted that was it!  Oh no, he replied, not possible!  So we headed off for lunch and to give it some more thought, and since no one stopped us again, we figured our offer was way too low.

It was time for lunch to we returned to the seafood stalls and at #5 (as per Hassan) we ordered the fish mélange which included shrimp, calamari, sea bass, sardines and several others we couldn't identify, all cooked over hot coals only a few feet away from our table.  It was a superb treat as we munched our way through platters of crispy seafood.

There was an ice cream shop that Hassan had recommended just off the square so we stopped for desert and as we emerged we bumped into him, and he said he'd received a call from the furniture store and that they'd decided to accept our final offer after all!  We were surprised and a bit skeptical but we headed back. 

No surprise, the same young man once more tried to squeeze an extra 500 dirhams from us, but we flatly refused and then he spoke to an older woman nearby, clearly his mother, who nodded, and the deal was struck.  There was some paperwork to complete for the shipping, and of course we charged it on our Visa in  case we never saw it again, then I took a few photos and Teresa wrote our name underneath the top in felt pen.

For the next hour or so we wandered through the medina, closely examining the stuff that looked interesting and periodically congratulating ourselves on our brilliant negotiating tactics.

We returned to the hotel for a little R & R, then heaved ourselves up and continued to browse those areas of the medina we hadn't yet seen.   As the sun began to go down, we returned to the beach area and enjoyed watching the sunset over the ocean while enjoying a few beers.

In the evening, as the group was on its own, we chose to return to the same seafood restaurant as last night.  We sat out on the terrace this time, but waited more than an hour to be served.  Then when we went to leave, the bill was wrong, and Teresa had to do battle with the owner who insisted it was correct!  As you might have surmised, she prevailed, but she was still annoyed by the experience when we returned to the riad.

October 15, 2010: Essaouira to Marrakech

Tahar told us to be ready to leave the riad for the bus station at 2:30 PM - nothing scheduled for the morning, but a local woman would be by at 2 PM to do henna tattooing for anyone interested.  After packing up, I spent some time catching up on the blog while Teresa went out to relax by the ocean.  For most of the group it was a quiet morning for strolling the medina and doing some last-minute souvenir shopping.

The henna woman came by as promised but instead of 30 dirhams per hand, she demanded 100.  Fortunately Tahar returned in time to prevent a major brawl and the original price was honored after all.  At about 2:45 PM, the group traipsed over to the bus station (about a fifteen minute walk), trailed by a local porter pushing a cart full of overstuffed bags.  The thrifty Rose family chose to carry their own, of course!

There was a bit of a hubbub getting the bags stowed and claiming our seats, but afterward it was an uneventful three hour ride with a twenty minute potty and snack break (during which the entire busload disembarked).  It was dark when we arrived in Marrakech but the hotel was only a short walk from the station.

After handing out room keys Tahar took the time to arrange airport transfers, cautioning us that the local taxi service was often unreliable and frequently gouged tourists by stopping far from the airport and demanding more money.  He was insistent that we make our transfer arrangements through Intrepid to assure that we would get to the airport safely and on time.

Although I was initially hesitant, believing I could handle this on my own, I relented at Teresa's insistence.  We would be moving over to a riad located in an obscure part of the medina, and she was concerned that the scheduled taxi pick-up would be unable to find us. Tahar assured me he would contact our riad and make the appropriate arrangements for us to be picked up. 

About 45 minutes later the group proceeded to the medina on foot down the main thoroughfare, Avenue Mohammed V.  It was quite a long walk and I wondered why Intrepid had chosen a hotel so far away from the center.

We got to the Djemaa el-Fna and Tahar led us to a crowded cluster of brightly lit food stalls with tables in the center of the square.  Stall #41 was expecting us and we were quickly seated at a long narrow table covered with a white plastic tablecloth.  We were served a variety of dishes such as chicken and beef skewers, calamari, couscous, french fries, potato croquettes and fried eggplant.  It was highly entertaining although the food was mediocre.  As a novelty (I assume) Tahar ordered Christopher a goat head.  I was offered a piece that closely resembled a nostril - I politely chewed on it then decided to take a pass for obvious reasons.

After dinner, we wandered the square for only a short time.  Away from the food stalls it was quite dark and very crowded - there seemed to be an odd negative vibe.  As described in all the travel guides, there were many street performers (i.e., magicians, fortune tellers, snake charmers, etc.) but the overall impact was frankly underwhelming and the atmosphere felt sleazy so we chose not to hang around.

Walking back to the hotel, we encountered several large and rather menacing groups of teenage boys.  One tried to grope Katie, and a few minutes later, another unexpectedly kicked Brandon, without provocation.  Fearful of more trouble we raced back to the hotel.  Clearly the location of this hotel was not good.

October 16, 2010: Marrakech

Today was our free day to explore Marrakech.  Marrakech is divided into the historic city, consisting of the medina, the Djemaa el-Fna square, and the adjoining souks; and the Ville Nouvelle (the new town) built by the French starting in 1912.  Tahar informed us that a building boom that began in the early 1990's has dramatically changed the character of Marrakech, apparently not for the better.  Tourism has quadrupled just in the past decade encouraged by the easy access and inexpensive flights provided by Ryanair and Easyjet.

We had determined last evening that our hotel, the Corail, a higher end property located by the train station in the new town, was at least a forty minute walk to the Djemaa el-Fna, not a good location to start exploring Marrakech.

We exited the hotel around 9 AM heading for the Jardin Majorelle, about 20 minutes by foot.  Yves St. Laurent owned this garden and villa and bequeathed it to Marrakech when he died in 2008.  Located in the new town, the garden was a pleasant reprieve from the noise and traffic but certainly nothing spectacular, consisting mostly of bamboo trees, palm trees, various cactuses and a central lily pond with goldfish.  There was a small room off to the side lined with posters created by St. Laurent, one for each year (dating back 30 years) that he had designed for distribution to his clientele each Christmas.  On the other side of the garden was a modest memorial consisting of simple engraved marker - St. Laurent directed that his ashes be scattered throughout the garden after his death.

I doubt that there are many sights in Marrakech that one would characterize as "must-see" other than the Djemaa el-Fna, but the Saadian Tombs had an eerie appeal that I found irresistible, so we hoofed it over to the southern part of the old city.  Finding the tombs was like a treasure hunt, but I studied our maps and led us down narrow streets and obscure alleys.  Around the time I was figuring I'd never find it, I spotted a throng of tourists and when we tailed them we came to the tomb entrance.

Apparently these tombs were built in the 1700's by Sultan Ahmed El Mansour, but were then hidden by walls after his death so that their existence remained unknown until they were spotted aerially in the early 1900's.  The tombs consist of an overgrown garden filled mostly with graves except for a large chamber/mausoleum decorated with carved marble and intricate woodwork.  (Finding it was a lot of work for such a modest return.)

Fortunately, we were practically around the corner from the Palace El Badii, the impressive crumbling ruins of a palace also built in the sixteenth century by the Sultan Mansour.  The grounds were expansive with a number of well-concealed rooms and tunnels.  We were gratified to finally find something truly impressive and worth our time. 

We exited through what appeared to be an alley, but it turned out to be part of the labyrinth of tiny shops that filled the medina.  We stopped for lunch at a small outdoor restaurant adjacent to the square that was doing a brisk business and hoped that the food was freshly cooked!

About an hour later we entered the souks north of the square, tiny stalls selling everything imaginable.  After wandering for another hour I thought we were lost, but as soon as we decided to leave, out popped Teresa's homing antenna and we were soon on a bus back to our hotel. 

Later in the evening we met up with Tahar and the rest of our group for our farewell dinner, on a restaurant terrace overlooking the Koutoubia mosque, a major landmark of the old town.  We bade farewell to several people who would be departing early tomorrow morning, then spent about twenty minutes walking around the nearby Djemaa el-Fna  which was again packed with people. 

I wasn't impressed with what I saw - the place seemed like a breeding ground for trouble, i.e., pickpockets and petty thievery.  And as we were heading off, a child, no more than five years old, ran up to Brandon and tried to hit him, then started following and harassing him!  His parents were sitting about 30 feet away and completely ignored the child.  We finally chased him off, but it has become increasingly clear that there is an undercurrent of hostility in Marrakech that is directed toward visitors by the locals.  This was the second night in a row that we've encountered this and it's a disappointing experience.  I am beginning to think that too much tourism has damaged (if not destroyed) the authenticity and character that made Marrakech a favorite destination.

October 17, 2010: Marrakech

When we came down to the lobby, Christopher was sitting with Tahar having breakfast along with several other members of the group.  Tahar would be leaving for the train station shortly and everyone else would soon be headed in various directions, so Teresa and I bade farewell to Tahar and thanked him for all his help, then walked over to the outdoor café next door for coffee.  We sat at a table just off the main thoroughfare watching the comings and goings.  We saw Tahar eventually emerge from our hotel and head by himself to the train station, off to Casablanca to greet his next group.

Tahar had provided detailed instructions for getting to our riad.  He gave me two notes written in Arabic and said to hire two taxis for no more than 25 to 35 dirhams to take us there.  As the riad's location in the medina was quite obscure, I was somewhat apprehensive about finding it.  He told us the taxis would drop us off  by the parking lot across from the Mohammed V school, and we should then call the riad to have someone meet us to lead us there.

We hung out at our hotel until the noon checkout time, then did as he'd instructed.  The first taxi driver agreed to 20 dirhams, but the second wanted 100, explaining that our destination was very complicated and difficult to find!  The third taxi also agreed to 20 dirhams, but I was still relieved when Christopher and I got to the designated location and Teresa, Brandon and Katie were waiting for us.

As I stood there trying to decide what to do next, two young boys approached and offered to show us the way to our riad.  I was hesitant, knowing that they'd want something in return, but they seemed to know where to go, so I agreed to let me lead us there.  It was no more than a ten minute walk, and when we got there, the smaller of the two demanded 100 dirhams (about $12 - no surprise)!  I offered him 20 dirhams and he refused, cussing me out.  We knocked on the door and Chantal, the owner of the riad, greeted us and invited us in.  As we entered, the older boy realized they were about to end up with nothing and decided to take the 20 dirhams.

Chantal showed us our rooms and also gave us a tour of the riad, excitedly detailing all the effort she had expended restoring it this past year.  I must admit it was quite impressive - she had clearly preserved the overall Moroccan décor.

As it was still early in the afternoon we decided to find a route through the souks back to the square.  Despite our hidden location, I successfully navigated our way using the Google map I'd printed a month ago.  When we got to the square, it was midday, so we decided to have lunch at the same outdoor restaurant where we'd eaten yesterday (without getting sick).  After, we did some more wandering through the medina, bought a few more small items as souvenirs, then walked back to the riad. 

We hiked the three flights to the riad terrace to watch the sunset and, craving a cold beer, I decided to find Chantal and see if she had anything to sell us.  Although it was a long shot, she indeed had a secret stash, so we relaxed up top with our cold beers and watched the sun go down over the medina.  Around 5:30 PM, the muezzin's call to prayer suddenly became a chorus as all the nearby mosques joined in - honestly, the noise sounded like air raid sirens!

It was a quiet evening at the riad.  After dark, Teresa and Katie, led by Chantal's evening receptionist, Abdul, successfully ventured out for some snacks.  And a little later we got a phone call from the taxi service confirming Christopher's pick-up at 6:45 AM - tomorrow he is heading back home on his own.

October 18, 2010: Marrakech to East Midlands

I got up early to accompany Christopher to the prearranged taxi pick-up location - I was glad they'd called last night to confirm.  His flight was at 9:30 AM and I was concerned that if they didn't show there might not be time to make other arrangements.  It was still quiet outside the riad when we left but the taxi appeared at precisely the appointed time.  I said goodbye to Christopher who had plans to meet up with a friend in London this afternoon, then fly home tomorrow.

A little later we had a nice breakfast of coffee, yogurt and croissants served by Chantal in the well-appointed breakfast room, where we admired the colorful tile work and intricate ceiling motif. 

We had purchased that five foot long coat rack in Tinhir and now we had to figure out how to get it home.  There was a post office nearby but they told us we had to go to the main post office in the square to mail it, so we made the trek all the way back to the Djemaa el-Fna where they weighed it and told us it would cost $52 to sent it to the U.S.  I'd only paid $12 and wasn't willing to pay quadruple to mail it - Teresa thought we should just toss it.  But I'd noticed a wrought iron fabrication shop near the riad, so we stopped on the way back and for only 10 dirhams they cut it in half and we stuffed the pieces into one of our bags.

We relaxed and read until mid-afternoon, then made our way to the pick-up point.  The medina was crowded so we guarded our bags zealously until our ride showed up.

At the airport check-in I was rudely informed by the Ryanair agent that I had neglected to prepay for our checked baggage and that it would be $50 per bag to check it now, double the online rate!  Not much to be done so I paid it - Ryanair certainly has earned its reputation for nickel and diming customers!

Our departing flight was late and it was after dark when we finally boarded.  The flight itself was uneventful and we got into East Midlands airport just before midnight, disembarking onto the tarmac while being pelted by cold rain.  It took me nearly an hour to figure out where our hotel was located - not far but too far to walk, especially in the rain carrying heavy bags.  A short taxi ride got us to the hotel which was fully booked, but our room was being held for us, and even though it was cozy (i.e., cramped) with only two double beds, it was a relief to finally get there.  It was after 1 AM when we finally crashed for the night. 

October 25, 2010:  Sheffield and home

We headed home after spending four days with our family in Sheffield, UK.  The weather in Sheffield was a bit of a shock with the mercury hovering around 35 F., but the skies were mostly clear and the air was fresh.  We enjoyed long hours walking and admiring the autumn leaves, in addition to the time we spent quaffing the local ale at Sheffield's many pubs! 

There was a torrential rainstorm in San Francisco and the otherwise calm ten hour flight from London ended with some turbulence before we bounced onto the tarmac.  It was a long wait for our rental car and the freeway was at a standstill as we wended our way home, pulling into our driveway about 7 PM.  Although we tried to stay awake for a few more hours it was sure nice to eventually get to sleep in our own beds.  I'm sure it will take a few days to rest and recover from the jet lag.

To view a selection of our Morocco photos, click here:


Here are a few links to videos of our Morocco adventure: 

A Musical Ensemble in Midelt 

October 7, 2010

The Sahara Desert Caravan

October 8, 2010

Lunch in the Desert

October 9, 2010

Riding a Mule in Aroumd

October 12, 2010

The Call to Prayer in the Marrakech Medina

October 17, 2010