Monday, October 22, 2012

Morocco; Rabat and Fes

This six night tour was to be a taste of Morocco only. As we were really unfamiliar with the history, language, customs and culture of the country we decided to have private transfers and tour guides for the cities arranged in advance. After some homework, we decided on Your Morocco Tours and were generally happy, though we had some minor gripes such as changes of driver and additional, small, unexpected expenses.We arranged our own flights, transfers and accommodation into Casablanca from Malaga. We stayed at the lovely Relais et Chateaux, Il Doge Hotel on both our arrival and departure days. More of that in the next post.

We were picked up on time by our driver for the trip to Rabat, meeting up with the guide for a tour of several sights in the city, including the Chella, with ancient Roman and Arabic ruins, the tomb of Mohammed V and the new medina at the mouth of the river.

The Chella was an amazing area enclosed by walls (some reconstructed) and containing an ancient Roman city, Sala Colonia, complete with agora and the base of a triumphal arch. We walked through some well tended gardens to reach the ruins, seeing also a necropolis of arab princes and a lovely sacred spring. Surprisingly, it appears much of this necropolis was destroyed by the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

Rabat, walls
Reconstructed walls of the Chella
Rabat, Roman agora
Ancient Roman agora
Rabat, minaret in ruins
Minaret of 11th century mosque. Note the stork’s nest on top
Rabat, sacred pool the Chella

Sacred spring
Rabat, arch detail
Detail of old arch and tiling
rabat, chella gate
Gate in the wall

We were taken on to the very much more modern tomb of Mohammed V, guarded outside by both horse and foot soldiers . Of white marble, it is highly decorated inside with gold and tiles and also houses the tomb of the late king, Hassan II who was not beloved by his people. The tomb is situated on the same area as an unfinished mosque and a minaret which is very similar to the original La Giralda in Seville (minus the Catholic bell tower addition on top).

Rabat, minaret at tomb of mahommed V
Columns of a never completed mosque and the minaret
rabat tomb
The white marble tomb
Rabat, cupola at tomb of mahommed V
Interior of the cupola in gold, tile and glass
Rabat, tile pattern, tomb of Mahommed VI
Tile detail from the interior wall
rabat porch of tomb

The arched porch of the tomb

Rabat, fountain at tomb
Tiled fountain

Further on we were taken to the newer medina of Rabat, much like to a Greek Cyclades town in the blue and white, almost adobe type construction. It overlooks the mouth of the river, now swept bare by order of the king to house new and luxurious accommodation and other luxuries such as marinas. One wonders what happened to the original occupants.

Rabat, walls of medina
Walls outside the medina
Rabat, new medina
A street, very like the Greek Cyclades
Rabat, mouth of river
The newly bare bank of the river

There followed a long road trip to Fes, culminating in our arrival at the medina, where we were greeted at the medina gate by a porter with a cage on wheels into which all our luggage was placed. We set off at a good pace through streets and down and up steps until we reached our accommodation at the riad and were welcomed in. This was one occasion where we had not expected the luggage service and so were not equipped with the money required to tip the porter. Wish we had known in advance, but we all managed in the end. Our driver and the owners of the riad stressed to us that it was not safe to venture out alone into the medina which was not policed. It seemed we were virtual prisoners in the accommodation until our guide arrived the next morning. I have no idea how true this warning was, but the riad had a great rooftop viewpoint and provided lovely meals at a reasonable cost, so we settled into our room and enjoyed the ambiance of the house and the welcome of the hosts. We couldn’t believe the extent of the medina as seen from the rooftop, so no wonder they warned us against venturing out alone.

Fez panorama

Panorama of Fes from our riad rooftop


Fes, night
Fes at night

Fes, medina and wallsThe cemetery is vast and just outside the city walls

Fes, medina walls
UNESCO Heritage listed, so the walls must be held up

Next day our guide took us first to some beautiful gardens, then through the blue gate to the medina, through tiny streets and past miniscule rooms with people sewing or cutting leather, beating metal or winding long skeins of thread together to make cords and of course, selling goods, ranging from the live chickens prepared immediately to your needs to enormous metal cauldrons or even, perhaps, a wedding ceremony couch. We wondered how so many tiny shops could produce a living for their owners.

Fes, garden palms Fes, garden
Gardens, pools, fountains
Fes, blue gate
The blue gate to the Medina
Fes, olives
Olives for sale
Fes, new shoes
Not much shop space, so hang everything up
Fes, turtles
I was assured these were for pets
Fes, metalwork
The metalworkers square
Fes, wedding couch
A marriage ceremony couch (and I did ask permission before taking the photo)
Fes, essential supplies Everywhere in the narrow lanes you make way for donkeys and carts and motos laden with suppliesFes, donkey People have houses hidden in the lanes. The double door allows the woman inside to judge if the visitor is a relative, who knocks at the little door, or a stranger who knocks at the big door and cannot be admitted by the woman alone. rabat, door

We were taken also, to the dye pits of Fes, handed over to a local expert, given the necessary sprig of mint to hold under the nose and told the history of the pits, the family businesses, the use of pigeon poo, the dangerous lime pits, the freezing dye pits of winter when they still tread the skins by foot and of course the final products. We were not pressured to buy, surprisingly, but again, wish we had known we would be handed over to someone and therefore would need to tip.

Fes, lime pits
The lime pits
Fes, dye pits
The dye pits
Fes, hides
Yellow skins drying on the roof

I did get to poke my nose into a tiny school, maybe six children aged 3-5, and one teacher, heralded outside by a Mickey Mouse. Inside the children waved shyly at the urging of the teacher while I took a picture. Then, again, I was asked for a donation “for the children” and I can well believe they needed it. The guide said these were “private” schools and that the parents paid. Take a good look at the facilities in the picture.

Fes, school

I asked about schooling from several guides and got several different answers. It appears that schooling is compulsory from 6-15 years, but that it is difficult to enforce this especially in desert areas among nomadic people. Even in the cities it was obvious that children who were useful in the family business or who could help make a living were frequently not in school at all. The more wealthy apparently send their youngsters to a small school from ages 3-7. There they learn Arabic alphabet, numbers and memorise some Koran. If they manage this they are regarded as educable and may then attend a more general school where they especially learn arts and crafts to quite a high level. Following this they can attend high school/university until maybe age 24, studying religious subjects, but also the more usual subjects. After that the student can choose a career based on specialised arts and crafts or an academic or religious career. My impression is that this is open to only the wealthy and perhaps mainly to boys.

The previous medresa system has now been subsumed by the universities allowing us to visit the old medresa properties in the city and see how the students were housed, studied and prayed in their own mosque, so we were privileged to see some of the lovely ceilings, doors and plasterwork of the medresa. Current areas of study such as at the university were out of bounds and we were not allowed to enter any mosques, though we could look and photograph from the entrances.

Fes, university mosaics
Mosaic tiling at the entrance to the university
Fes, medressa doorOld cedar door at the medresa Fes, medressa mosque
Beautiful old cedar ceiling in the medresa

Fes was overwhelming to us in terms of the poverty apparent in the medina, yet our guide was shocked that we might think that someone working there would not make a living. Such a different world…

Next post: Marrakesh and Casablanca

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


It was pouring rain on the day we left Seville and this continued for parts of the journey. We took the train to Malaga, but no one had warned us of the spectacular gorge scenery and series of tunnels on the way, so we were totally unprepared for about 10 tunnels, some very long, and in between, glimpses of the El Chorro Gorge with a roadway in disrepair hanging on its precipitous sides. This, it appears, is the Camino del Rey, a small pathway a metre wide clipped to the side of the gorges for the workers on hydroelectric dam projects to move themselves and equipment. It was opened by the king, who walked it, hence the name. These days it is broken, dangerous and forbidden, which is an added thrill to some. However, all I caught was one quick shot with many reflections in the train window. But I learned something new thanks to responses to my query by Tripadvisor members.

The Camino del Rey clinging to the cliff

It had been very difficult to book accommodation in Malaga, even months ahead, so we settled on the Ibis and were pleasantly surprised by its centrality and level of comfort, plus space, which is often at a premium in boutique hotels. The hotel was situated on an unappealing, concreted, dry river bed where the people walked, cycled and played with their dogs. The next day it was still wet  and outside quite a level of water was running through the Guadalmedina riverbed from the overnight rains. I could see that in spring melts the river would be deep and fast and rise quickly.

malaga, ibis
Ibis and dry river bed
malaga, water in river N
Next morning, rain from the mountains and the river was running quickly. By night it was dry again.
However there are more appealing views of the city
Malaga and its lopsided cathedral
Malaga, moon
Malaga and rising moon from the hotel

We did a quick wander through town and later did a tapas crawl, well, two stops with a glass of wine and several tapas at one place and then at another . It certainly does have appeal.

Malaga, nest
Quail egg and beef “nest”
malaga, cafe_edited-1
A cafe where we ate
The town is blessed with a Carmen Thyssen Museum of Spanish art as well as a Picasso museum (Picasso was born here, left at 19 and never returned. Hmm…) Neither museum would allow photography of course. We also saw the cathedral which is soaringly impressive inside. It is almost impossible to capture it from outside as it is squeezed into narrow streets with just a tiny plaza in front, full of cafes.

Malaga, cathedral facade
From the tiny plaza
malaga,cathedral N
Malaga, sanctuary ceiling
Soaring ceilings
Malaga, just loungingJust lounging around malaga,side altar N
A small side altar
Malaga, cathedral 2
Side nave. The cathedral is bathed in golden light
The Thyssen museum was quite wonderful. It sought to show the influences on Spanish art from outside and the influence Spanish art itself had in various movements such as Impressionism. The audioguide was a bit into over-interpretation but the collection was amazing. Carmen Thyssen herself has a charmed life and her final marriage to Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza meant she could collect art whenever she wanted. To be fair, most has been loaned or gifted to the state, as in this museum and the one in Madrid.

The Picasso museum was beautifully curated into rooms with themes, portraits, the sea, etc. So many of his works have a joyous feel that it was impossible not to leave smiling. There were archaeological ruins under the museum, Phonecian, Roman and even middle ages. This city has a long, long history.

We wandered off in the direction of the beach, expecting nice cafes and people enjoying themselves. Instead, we got browny/grey sand, stacked deck chairs and a few dubious cafes. Walking a bit further, however, we discovered a whole area on the waterfront at the marina area of the port and enjoyed lunch at a café under an umbrella where we could pretend to own the lovely water craft nearby.

malaga, beach N
A sad, deserted beach
Malaga, waterfront cafes
A much nicer waterfront at the  marina
malaga,skyline and ship N
Cathedral and a nice yacht

For dinner we tried a very traditional restaurant recommended by a Tripadvisor colleague which was quite good, pork cheeks and then figs in Maraschino for me, fillet steak and choc mousse for Nick.

As we were to fly out quite late to Casablanca, and the day dawned bright and sunny, we took the cheats’ elevator, avoiding the steep road, to the top of the Alcazabar, which has been greatly restored and well looked after. There were the remains of a Nazrid palace and fortifications, plus the steep roadway up/down with many twists and turns to foil any attacks. Pretty gardens and fountains, lovely arches and doorways and even eucalyptus trees. This has become a bit of a theme in the trip; the trees are everywhere so they often remind us of home. We declined the walk up to the higher castle and wandered our way downwards, through the gardens and paths and finally to the remains of a Roman Theatre.

Malaga, alcazabar 1
Arches in the Nazrid Palace
Malaga, alcazar pool
Pool patio
Malaga, alcazabar gate
An arch and a turn in the roadway
Malaga,  alcazabar fountain 2
One of many cool fountains
Malaga, alcazabar fountain
Fountain patio
malaga,alcazabar window N
Gorgeous arch on a window
Malaga, alcazabar garden
Formal garden and fountain
Malaga, window alcazabar
The window of the detail above
malaga, arches
Beautiful arches
The Roman Theatre
Malaga, roman theatre
The Roman Theatre
Malaga, roman theatre steps
Theatre steps

Picked up the luggage and finally, off to Morocco.
Next stop: Casablanca.