Marrakech or Marrakesh is interesting to say the least. I wanted to show you this image above first because as you can see the roads are polished and modern, getting off the mini van you feel like you have stepped onto a street in Los Angeles, forgetting you are in a beautiful African country. This is probably a great way to end the adventure tour, after so much trekking and being surrounded by the hubbub of rural markets along dusty roads or simple villages in the remoteness of the mountains. I think ending the trip in a contemporary place allows the traveler to reflect back on the awesome holiday as a whole and it also makes you really appreciate certain comforts that us westerners take for granted. For example, all through this tour our group found it difficult to have to endure cold showers almost every day due to there being not enough hot water and yes we did jokingly moan about it but looking at the bigger picture you realize that not always having hot water to bathe in may be a reality to some Moroccans and other parts of the world, in fact it didn’t bother me so much largely because I came from a poor family where my mum couldn’t always afford hot water, I learned to wash with cold water in a sink and with a sponge.
So although Morocco is developing fast and it is really up and coming, it’s still a real eye opener and culture shock to not have hot running water readily available in certain places we traveled to and it’s something us Westerners probably take for granted too. Or perhaps there is no central heating in the hotel you are staying at and you need ten thick blankets to keep warm due to your delicate western body being unable handle the cold nights because it is so used to radiators. It’s times like that, that you look back on and smile, it makes you appreciate a culture so different from your own and as a human being you learn a hell of a lot about yourself and how you adapt to not getting everything you want, and how others thrive in societies you may consider beautifully strange.
You don’t see the culture shock when you first arrive in Marrakech, it’s very modern, and has all the mod cons. It isn’t until you visit the main square you think to yourself “Ah Ha! This is the Morocco I know!” Marrakesh is like two worlds encased in one. As you walk to the main square you are surrounded by sophisticated shops and cafes and sleek pavements & roads and then suddenly you step into the noise and eccentricities of the main market. This was our last two & a half days in Morocco before we said our farewells to the group of 16 people who had become a little family to us. These last couple of days involved a short tour around the souk and mainly pottering about, eating lots of food at the food court, bartering for gifts and enjoying the odd street performances.
Essaouira is up and coming, it is becoming the creative and bohemian hub of Morocco. If you liken Marrakesh to London, then Essaouira is like Bristol or Liverpool. Over the years many ‘foreigners’ have been buying & renovating beautiful town houses here which is great for the economy but not so great for locals since outsiders are getting rid of that crumbling charm of the exterior buildings in order to modernize and suit their own needs. Moroccans strongly believe in community & in being humble. The whole reason as to why the exterior buildings look as though they are about to collapse is to show all men & women are equal, nobody knows who is wealthy or who is struggling until you step inside their home. Moroccans; unlike us in the West, do not like to gloat about who has the most expensive car and who can afford a deluxe designer kitchen because doing that encourages segregation and a weak sense community. Another practice that I love about Moroccans is that local bakeries and store owners always put the poor first, giving them the bigger and fresher pieces of bread because they know full well that whereas the wealthier person can afford bread every day, the individual who is struggling may have to make their loaf of bread last a week. There is a real sense of community here in Morocco in that they do try to look after those who are less fortunate. In the West our community enjoys pointing the finger and offering little or no support, needless to say I prefer the Moroccan community to the West.
Soon after Ait Benhaddou we headed to Aroumd, a village in the High Atlas mountains. Aroumd (also called Armed or Aremd) is the largest village of the Mizane Valley, an extraordinary looking place, built on a huge moraine spur above the valley at 1840m. We were to stay over night with a lovely local family who welcomed us all with open arms. You will find if you ever visit Morocco, the people there are exceedingly accommodating & friendly, always wanting to enjoy a good conversation with you over tea or encourage you to dance & sing by a roaring fire.
After numerous hours driving through the valley & up the mountain pass, the dusty white hairpin bends are becoming so tight that the hard-worked mini van, unable to make them in one, negotiates a series of death-defying turns, leaving us at times driving so close to the very edge of a precipice, with only a handbrake between us and a 1000-foot drop and a breathtaking view down the valley. Our driver is the Bees Knees! To the south, a dizzy view of interlocking spurs, and to the north, a spread of horizontal terraces and rooftops. Here is the village of Aremd, 8000 feet high, overlooked by jagged ridges and wedged in the cragged mountains. The silence of the mountains is both eerie and magical.
Our mini van couldn’t take us to where we were to stay so we trekked for about 45 minutes up & around parts of the mountain side, taking in the incredible views as the sun was slowly setting and enjoyed our brisk walk. I mentioned in the previous blog post that at this point of the tour my body was getting tired and now it was showing signs of being a bit poorly. If like me your immune system isn’t great, I’d suggest taking multi-vitamins or Berocca and maybe probiotics too. My body creates a lot of nervous energy, my nervous system is usually on full power but it never knows what to do with the stress and adrenaline so I get fatigued and poorly quite fast on the positive side to that I have reasonably fast metabolism which helps maintain my slim figure. Although another favourite place during our time in Morocco, I was getting weak and craved some quiet time with herbal tea, PJ’S and a good book. I actually did get that whilst in Aroumd which was a welcome relief.
After Todra Gorge we drove to Ait Benhaddou and arrived at our hotel by late afternoon as the sun was setting. Time in this place was short and we were to leave the next day sometime around Noon. With only 3 other destinations left after Ait Benhaddou I was getting exhausted (In a good way). Being constantly on the move plus beautiful sensory overload through out this adventure holiday was really challenging my stamina at this point but at the same time there was a sadness brewing because I had fallen in love with Morocco & I knew that soon this life changing adventure will be over.
Aït Benhaddou is a fortified city, or ksar, along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech in present-day Morocco. It is situated in Souss-Massa-Drâa on a hill along the Ounila River and is known for its kasbahs, although they take damage with each rainstorm. Most of the town’s inhabitants now live in a more modern village at the other side of the river; however, eight families still live within the ksar.
Aït Benhaddou has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 and many movies have been filmed here including Prince of Persia, Kingdom of Heaven & the Mummy. It is also used in parts of the hit T.V show Game of Thrones.
After the Sahara desert we drove to Todra Gorge and arrived at our hotel as the afternoon sun was setting, it was situated at the base of the stunning flame orange canyon and surrounded by an Oasis of palm trees and tropical looking plant-life. We had to walk through this Oasis get to our hotel on the other side of the valley. The whole moment was quite surreal, it felt like we were walking through a mirage within the rocky & barren landscape. This was a time of rest & refuge for everyone because we were to stay here for two nights which was great considering most days so far in this adventure holiday consisted of traveling to destinations and full on daily activities from 7am until 9pm, I don’t know about the others but I was exhausted but it was a happy tiredness non the less. This part of the adventure was a welcome retreat. This amazing gorge plunges 300 meters down to a clear river. Pastoral villages and hotels are scattered throughout the area. This place is very popular with rock climbers.
The Todra Gorge or “Todgha Gorge” is a canyon in the eastern part of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, near the town of Tinerhir. The tiny glacier stream is something of a misfit, the river which once filled the gorge must have carried a lot more water. It is easy to hike in the gorge along a well-maintained paved road. The scenery is spectacular. Local people live in the area and can be seen with their small donkeys or herding camels and goats.
Once we all left our back packs in our rooms, some of us took a dip in the pool before we all settled for the night. Don’t let that photo fool you though, the water was freezing because although Morocco gets reasonably hot during middday in the spring, it wasn’t high summer temperatures plus we were engulfed in shade from the deep gorge and as the sun sets at this time of year in Morocco, it still can get a little chilly in the evenings.
After Midelt we arrived at Merzouga in the late afternoon. We spent an hour freshening up and sitting all together with Mint tea in the hotel that our backpacks were to be stored in for the night and then preceded to pack smaller overnight bags with essentials & a sleeping bag. Not long after we were designated our camels whilst awaiting our guides to lead us through the stunning dunes and to our camp where we were to spend the night.
I have ridden camels before whilst living in Cyprus so I am used to the awkward holding on tight as the camel stands up or descends back to the floor but never ridden across desert dunes! It really gives your thighs and solar plexus a good work out because you kind of have to move with the camel. Going down hill of a huge dune was both exhilarating & a little scary because the sand is so fine and the camel with your weight is a reasonable amount it is bound to be a clumsy and slippy experience! No one fell off though, hurray! Going to the Sahara during this time of year (Early March) is a good time to go if you have sensitive skin and find hot climates difficult. Early March is a cooler climate, still warm but you can comfortably handle the heat, I’d still wear sun lotion though to protect your skin from UV rays because lets be practical here, you would be riding a camel in the Sahara Desert!
Arriving in Midelt in early afternoon everyone was pretty tired yet happy. We were welcomed with some warm Moroccan mint tea by the family we were to stay with and slumped on their sofas in the living room of their Auberge.
Midelt is a town in central Morocco, in the high plains between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas mountain ranges. With an estimated population of 44,780, Midelt serves as the commercial centre of a large agricultural hinterland. It is also one of Morocco’s principal cities for the mining of several minerals.
The town within Midelt that we visited is called Berrem, this was quite a traditional village with many lovely, sand-coloured buildings. It was great to get a glimpse into the locals general lifestyle & actually spend quality time with real people of Berber ethnicity. It was the happiest & most emotional day on this adventure for me. I do remember this place being exceedingly cold at night though and with about 5 heavy blankets Jon & I still couldn’t get warm (I could see my breath!) so if you go here in early March pack thermals! Like most people who visit Morocco, it sounds warm and spicy and coming from a dreary, damp and cold country like the UK where we have little no summer months and lots of rain you forget other countries get cold & rainy too because you want so much to escape to somewhere with better climate and make friends with the sun again! However Morocco has seasons just like most countries in the world, their summers are ridiculously hot and they have some pretty chilly winters, especially in the mountains. You can see from pictures on this blog that the mountains in the background have snow on them.
After our mint tea we were told to freshen up before we were to go on a walk. The family dog joined us and the walk was relaxing with breath taking views of the mountains in the distance.
After our day in Meknes & Volubilis we travelled in the evening to our next destination, Fes. Arriving at around 7pm, it was dark and we were all hungry! Our guide took us through some windy back streets of narrow walls with an array of tangled electrical wires poking through the surface like over grown ivy and cobbled footpaths of leaky drain pipes and many stray cats. Where were we being taken? If we didn’t know we were in the safe hands of our guide, this would have been a reasonably unnerving walk akin to being lost in precarious alley ways of London.
Finally we arrived at a door with other ‘tourists’ merrily stepping out into the street, I was intrigued. One by one we ventured inside and it felt like we had been transported to a magical world, I really did feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole and waking up in Wonderland. We were surrounded from ceiling to floor of hand made and hand carved mosaic walls and furnishings as well as lovely locals. This magnificent place hidden away like a secret box belonged to a family who open it up to travellers to experience authentic Moroccan hospitality, cuisine and décor. They were so gracious and welcoming and We dined and lounged like Royalty on their delicious food before saying our goodbyes and driven to our hotel for a good nights sleep in preparation for the wild unknown maze of Fes.
Soon after the morning site seeing within Meknes our group took a short drive in the afternoon up to Volubilis. It was a warm sunny day with some mild rain showers & a thunder cloud in the distance. I love visiting old ruins & ancient places because it makes me feel nostalgic and imagine what life must have been like in past civilizations.
Volubilis (Arabic: وليلي Walīlī) is a partly excavated Roman city in Morocco situated near Meknes between Fes and Rabat. Built in a fertile agricultural area, it was developed from the 3rd century BC onwards as a Phoenician (and later Carthaginian) settlement. It grew rapidly under Roman rule from the 1st century AD onwards and expanded to cover about 40 hectares (100 acres) with a 2.6 km (1.6 mi) circuit of walls. The city gained a number of major public buildings in the 2nd century, including a basilica, temple and triumphal arch. Its prosperity, which was derived principally from olive growing, prompted the construction of many fine town-houses with large mosaic floors. This was once a very sophisticated & grand city.
After an afternoon in Rabat our group hopped on a 4 hour train ride to Meknes where we stayed the night. Our train journey was an interesting one, half of our group (including Jon & I) ended up in a bare carriage with no seats and eventually surrounded by locals. We all shared cake and enjoyed having conversations with the natives. Moroccans are a very friendly and curious bunch as I discovered when I ended up in conversation with a Maths teacher who wanted to share his music with me on his iphone!
One thing I learned whilst in Morocco is that in comparison to other cultures, it is considered rude to eat snacks on local transport like trains and not offer any to those around you, it is always polite to try and share what you have even if the locals decline. I think this is a lovely thing to do considering us Brits are rather greedy and like to keep things to ourselves, the British culture as a whole does not like sharing and that includes personal space, food, clothing and having conversations that involve having to share any form of emotion. So this small gesture of kindness in Morocco is rather refreshing as I am always open to sharing and giving. Whilst on the 4 hour train journey it was interesting to slowly watch the landscape change from flat and industrial to lush with rolling hills.
Our group arrived in Meknes in the early evening and it was raining with a slight chill in the air! (Yes. It does rain in Morocco) so once we were designated to our rooms in the hotel and had 15 minutes to freshen up we all ventured out for our evening meal. I will say from what I saw of the city, this could be another place Westerners could live, it reminded me a little of the Lake District in England because it is located near the Atlas Mountains, Meknes has a seasonal climate, shifting from cool in winter to hot days in the summer months of June–September.
Meknes was the capital of Morocco under the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), before it was relocated to Marrakech. Meknes is named after a Berber tribe which was known as Miknasa (native Berber name: Imeknasen) in the medieval North African sources.