Sunday, 12 June 2016

The North Of Morocco: Imperial Cities, Roman Ruins, The Blue City & The Mediterranean Coast

3 nights in Fez provided plenty of time to explore the bustling medina, pottery factories and tanneries for which this ancient imperial city is so well known. The ceramics, above are all made in Fez, which is the centre of the Moroccan pottery industry. The tiled tables on the right and the fountain above them, are made of many small hand made mosaic tiles. The house numbers in the centre of the photo are made by carving a fully glazed tile.

The picture on the left shows goat hides drying having been unhaired, degreased and soaked. In the centre are hands of Fatima, a powerful talisman of good luck, Fatima being the youngest daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. 

Several of Fez's tanneries are being gentrified which will hopefully benefit the health of the tannery workers and help the surrounding environment. The tannery in the picture above uses natural dyes. 

Below shows pottery being painted with intricate designs before being glazed. In the centre are tagines, of which there are no shortage of in Morocco!

Our visit to Fez coincided with the World Sacred Musical Festival, a yearly event which draws artists from all around the world. Below shows a performance by the Algerian Raï singer Reda Taliani in Place Boujloud. Although originally from Algeria, Raï is a popular musical style in Morocco and the crowd knew all the words - it was a lively evening!

Meknes is the least visited of Morocco's 4 imperial cities, and was the capital under Moulay Ismail, the second ruler of Morocco's Alaouite dynasty. Below is a photo of Alice in the royal stables Moulay Ismail built in Meknes, which are thought to have held 12,000 horses, with a groom and slave for each horse. A canal providing fresh water ran underneath the stables, whilst the granary stored enough grain for the horses to last 20 years. The granary had a reservoir beneath it, with thick walls and a forest on the roof to keep the grain stored in ideal conditions. 

Below on the left is a shot of Meknes's impressive Zelllij tiling; in the centre the beautiful riad we stayed in; and on the right inside the royal stables. 

A short drive from Meknes brought us to the town of Moulay Idriss, named after Moulay Idriss I, who is credited with bringing Islam to Morocco in 789AD. His vast mausoleum, in the centre of the photo below, is an important Islamic pilgrimage site, and 6 pilgrimages here are said to equal one Hajj to Mecca. 

Above shows some examples of Zellij tile work in Moulay Idriss.

A short drive from the town brought us to Volublis, a Berber then Roman city set amongst fertile agricultural land. It was originally the capital of Mauretania, a Berber kingdom from the 3rd century BC, and later became a province of the Roman Empire, which corresponded to the Mediterranean coast of modern day Morocco.

Volublis is thought to have been home to 20,000 inhabitants at its peak, and predominantly involved in olive and grain production. 

Many impressive mosaic floors have survived, such as these examples shown below. 

After the Romans left Volublis the site is thought to have been inhabited until the 14th century, then falling into disrepair as it was ransacked to provide materials to build Meknes. Volubilis was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1755, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Below, Alice samples the Solarium! 

A stunning drive north brought us to Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains - no prizes for guessing why it's called 'The Blue City'! It was originally built as a fortress to fight Portuguese invasions.

Many woolen products are produced in Chefchaouen, including blankets, as well as rugs as shown in the photo below. We could have used a few more of these ourselves with the cool weather in the mountains!

Many of us went trekking in the Rif Mountains close by, though Ian and Rowan thought the cafe was a better bet!

Another beautiful drive took us across to the Atlantic coast and the town of Asilah. It was initially a Phoenician trading base from around 1500BC, before becoming a Portuguese outpost, a base for pirates in the 18th and 19th centuries, and later part of Spanish Morocco.

Asilah has many striking murals - as shown below - and hosts an annual mural painting festival.

Our last day of the trip (and the end of our season of trips) saw us drive to Tangier, a melting pot of many different cultures over the centuries located at the entry to the Straits of Gibraltar. Close by is Hercules' Cace, where the Greeks believed that Hercules slept before attempting 1 of his 12 labours. Those of us who'd journeyed all the way north from Accra, Ghana over the past 4 months slept just as well as he must have done!

Above, from left to right, is a picture of John, our waiter, Ida, Ian, Alice, Rowan, Jase and Will.

The medina in Tangier is alot smaller than in other Moroccan cities we visited. The sea front was formerly a busy port, but this has declined in recent years with the construction of a new modern port out of town, leaving a relaxed area to wonder around.

After a great last night of the trip and long farewells, Al, Jase and Aminah left on the long drive back to the UK. They made smooth progress for 2 nights in Spain and 1 night in France, but neither the night ferry from Ceuta to Algeciras nor the European motorways made for particularly good photos!

The shots above and below were taken on the ferry from Calais to Dover on the final leg of the journey. The smoke in the photo above is coming from the encampment of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers near Calais port. We read in the newspaper on the ferry that we'd travelled through France during a large strike - with the media reporting a 'national shutdown' - but it seemed much like business as usual to us!

Back in the UK at last - Aminah cruises up the M20 in Kent. She's looking forward to a well deserved rest over the summer, having carried us almost without incident since September 2015!

Many thanks to all of the overlanders who've travelled with us over the past 8 months - some truly fantastic people to have shared the journey with. 

Bookings for next season are coming in thick and fast, with good numbers on all of our trips already. We're very much looking forward to being back on the road in October!

Many thanks to Alice, Ian, Ida, Fed, JP John for letting us use their photos, much appreciated!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

A Moroccan Adventure: Rain in the Sahara, Trekking With Camels & Winding Atlas Mountain Roads

The last few days of our Dakar to Marrakech trip were spent on the Atlantic coast in Essaouira, which means 'The Little Rampart', in reference to the fortress walls enclosing part of the city. Essaouira is know for its cabinet making and wooden inlay, and is a UNESCO World Heritage listed city. 

A short drive from Essaouira took us to Marrakech, where we said goodbye to Pauline, Zoe, Lexi and John at the end of our Dakar to Marrakech trip.

Djemaa el-Fna is Marrakech's huge central square and a focal point of the city, which comes to life in the evening with numerous food stalls, musicians, story tellers and performers. 

Above is a picture of our Dakar to Marrakech group sharing a meal in Djemaa el-Fna on the last night of the trip. From left to right, Fred, Will, Hiro, Nathan, Lexi, John and Zoe. 

Marrakech has 18 souks which all specialise in a different craft. Rowan, left and right below, made sure she bought something from each one of them!

We enjoyed a beautiful drive from Marrakech over the Tizi n'Tichka pass, a road through the High Atlas linking the coastal plains and the Sahara Desert. 

En route we visited the ancient kasbah of Ait Benhaddou, an impressive fortified Ksar that has been used in many films such as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. Below, Jase and Ida walking over the bridge to Ait Bennhadou.

There was a downpour at our bush camp before we headed into the Sahara desert - fortunately Ian remembered his umbrella!

Heavy rain the next day slowed us down on our journey into the Sahara. At a coffee stop in Agdz we were told it hadn't rained so heavily since 2006! Fortunately the skies cleared for our arrival at our camp and we went for an afternoon walk amongst the soggy dunes. 

Below, Ida, JP and Jase.

There was an impressive thunder and lightning storm on our first night in the desert which blew Hiro's beloved tent away as he was trying to put it up. If anyone finds a bright yellow tent in Algeria, Hiro would very much appreciate being re-united with it! 

We spent Jan's birthday appreciating the shelter of a sturdily built Berber tent.

With clearer weather the next day we packed up our camels for our trek into the desert. The camels took even longer to get ready than we did!

Above, Rowan, Hiro and Jase, prepared for the desert winds. 

Above, birthday girl Ida leads our camel caravan. As she's allergic to eggs we celebrated with a birthday melon, with everlasting candles that threatened to stay alight all night!

The next day we visited Erg Lihoudi. Below, Al and Jase enjoy a quiet moment after a steep climb up the highest dune.

In the afternoon the wind picked up again, this time bringing a sand storm with it. We were all wrapped up as a defence against the sand but the camels didn't seem bothered at all!

In the evening our guide showed us how to make sand bread, as Berber tribes have been baking bread for generations.

The next day we explored the Draa river valley, visiting Tamegroute. This small town is known for its Koranic library, which includes a Koran from the 14th century.

Below, Rowan models a traditional black shawl. 

Tamegroute is also known for its green pottery. The first 'firing' of the pottery is done in the sun, with the green glaze baked on later in a wood fired kiln. What look like plant pots cut in half at the bottom of the photo are actually roof tiles!

Below, Will, John, Hiro and Rowan enjoy local hospitality in the kasbah in Tamegroute.

From the Sahara we headed north on a drive to Todra Gorge, passing a number of ruined kasbahs on the way. 

The walls of Todra Gorge rise up to 160 metres on each side, narrowing to just 10 metres wide at one point.

We spent a day hiking in the gorge and exploring the palmeries below. 

We stayed outside of Todra at Tamtachoute, away from the tourist bustle of the main gorge. 

Below, John, after a trek to the Petit Gorge, a little visited spur off the main gorge.

The next day we visited Akhiam Caves on our way to Imilchil. The drive there, and the trek up to the caves, was as impressive as the caves themselves!

Below, Al on the trek to the caves: Aminah is a tiny blue spot in the valley below.

Below, Jase and Will at the entrance to the caves. Inside there is a large network of caves on several levels, with underground lakes and many stalactites.

Above, Al and Alice under the huge natural archway outside the entrance to the caves.

Below, Lake Tizlit in the Eastern High Atlas National Park, where we stayed for 2 nights. 

Below is an Opsrey we saw on our first night. Ospreys breed by the lake during the summer, but head for warmer climes in the winter.

We spent a day trekking to Lake Islit, sharing tea and goats cheese with herders along the way.

On our last evening, our host cooked us a cous cous feast. From left to right, Ian, Nathan, John, Hiro, Fred, Rowan, Alice, Ida, Jan, Al and Jason.

The drive down through the High Atlas mountains was stunning, if a little tight at times!

Below, donkeys graze in front of Lake Aguelmame Sidi Ali. Ida took some persuading to leave the baby donkey behind!

We drove through an ancient cedar forest on the way north, and were fortunate enough to see Barbary Macaques, the only macaques found outside of Asia. These are the same as those that were introduced to Gibraltar. 

Our last night in the Atlas mountains was particularly chilly; fortunately there was plenty of wood in the forest for our camp fire to keep us warm! 

Our next drive brought us in to the ancient imperial city of Fez, from where our next blog post will pick up shortly.

Many thanks to Alice, Lexi, Ida, John, JP, and Fred for all of the photos!