Posts Tagged With: atlas

Riding on the Marrakech Expre…Oh Never Mind

Our hotel in Ouarzazate (there will be a spelling quiz later) was quite the place, by far the nicest of the our lodgings so far. In fact, it felt like we were trespassing, but I’m not complaining. The decor was Desert Movie Prop; remember that Ouarzazate is the “Mollywood” of Morocco, the center of the film industry, and…

WAIT! WAIT! I just had another can’t-miss idea for a locally produced, Moroccan-themed TV show. It’s a reality game show called “Survivor: Sahara”, and the idea is that contestants get voted off the oasis, one by one, like in the American version except that unlike in the American version they are kicked out into the Sahara where they actually die. Pure ratings gold! But anyway…

The hotel lobby and common areas are decorated with the actual movie props from assorted desert epics that were filmed in the area, including Gladiator and the granddaddy of them all, The Ten Commandments. And indeed, just off the lobby is a familiar-looking seat, namely Yul Brynner’s pharaonic throne! You can even sit on it and pretend to be pissed off at Charleton Heston. Although on reflection I realize that because of his gun control views I am in fact pissed off at Charleton Heston. But I digress. Here’s the throne:

“Moses, you may lead your people to the breakfast buffet by the pool.”

As our luggage was getting loaded onto the bus we realized that ours was not the only vehicle departing the hotel. There is an auto rally going on, a Madrid-to-Marrakech race by a British group, and they were all revving up their beautiful but pretty beat up classic cars in preparation for the final leg. Here is one of the cars: notice the Sahara Challenge tag in the front.

Here’s another, with their route painted in the side. They had been underway for 10 days and were in their next to last leg.

They were all very dashing looking, and I fell into one conversation with a handsome cigarette-smoking throwback to the 1930’s, complete with aviator scarf. He asked about our trip and I explained that we were in a small group touring the country for three weeks. He responded slightly ruefully, “I’ll bet your vehicle is all comfortable and air conditioned, isn’t it?” I agreed that it was, and observed that though it might be a lot less romantic than their means of travel, it did have its virtues.

The rally cars, about a dozen of them, went roaring away amidst much din and exhaust smoke and adjusting of goggles, and we pulled out rather less dramatically a few minutes later. Not far out of town we passed the two largest movie studios, both set back from road and both marked at roadside by very retro-looking movie scene clap-boards (or wherever those things are called):

This particular studio was in a compound that included a hotel, surrounded by an adobe wall and gate that was guarded by giant Egyptian statues that I assume were left over from one or another movie. You can see them here (though not very well since the studio was a ways off the road). Notice the scenic Atlas Mountains in the background; this whole country is one giant movie set.

The movie industry brings in something like $100 million per year into Morocco’s economy, much of it spent in the Ouarzazate region, which as a consequence sports a lot of very modern looking apartment buildings, wide streets, and of course our hotel. Morocco is an attractive place to film a movie: the weather is pretty reliable, labor costs are low, and if you need a lot of extras for (say) a battle scene, you can rent the Moroccan army. Yes! This is true! I have no idea how much it costs to rent the Moroccan army — I assume they charge per soldier — but you have to agree that it opens up a world of possibilities.

We didn’t have enough cash with us to rent the army, so we continued driving for another hour or so until we reached the hilltop village called Ksar Ait Ben Haddou. The ksar is a fortress-like warren perched on a hilltop overlooking the town across a nearly dry river, otherwise surrounded by desert. It makes for quite the panoramic view from the top, as you can see in the two photos below. 

The ksar as seen from town


…and the other way around.

It took a couple hundred steps to get to the top, but the view was worth it. When we finally did reach the summit, we were serenaded by a beggar playing a stringed instrument with a haunting, almost Asiatic melody, a perfect background to the view.

Berber families have occupied the ksar since 11the century. It can hold 20 families but there are only only seven there now. Vendors line the narrow twisting, uneven, up-and-down streets, selling drawings and paintings of the ksar, movie-related postcards, and assorted merchandise — clothing, knives, musical instruments — that unlike in the northern part of the country have a strong sub-Saharan theme. These include the instruments and castanets that we had seen the Sudanese Berbers play.

We spent most of the rest of the day driving….slowly. In order to get to Marrakech we had to once again cross the High Atlas Mountains, the road being tortuous in the extreme and sometimes more than a little scary both for its extreme narrowness and for the occasional gaps in the guardrails. The narrowness in particular seems like a an act of extreme traffic engineering insanity; passing an oncoming bus on a tight curve involved clearances of inches, a very small distance indeed especially when compared to the several hundred foot drop that awaits you if you get it wrong. Here’s a view of the terrain, not far from the 7400′ (2260 m) crest of the road at Tichka Pass.

At one point we faced a truck in what can only be called a Moroccan Standoff since the road was clearly not wide enough for both. The problem was solved by the truck driver folding in his outside mirror and innnnnchhhhhhing forward, oh so slowly, and squeezing past us with perhaps two inches of clearance.

We arrived in Marrakech around 5PM, cruising past golf courses and expensive hotels — there is clearly a lot of investment going on here, and more of a sense of both money and Westernization than in most places we have seen in the country. But it is very unevenly distributed, as you might expect; our lodging, a very beautiful riad, is located on a rather seamy looking side street about halfway between the royal palace and Marrakech’s famous souk, known for its 5000 shops and 500,000 pickpockets.

We’re a straight 5 minute walk from the main square outside the souk, and so Momo matched us there for dinner on the street. I’ll post some pictures of it tomorrow, but it was an extraordinary sight, an utter madhouse of people and food stands and smoke and beggars and street performers. It is energetic in the extreme, an overwhelming cacophony of shouting and smells, and getting variously bumped into by people or brushed by motorcycles. It’s a vast plain of Third World free enterprise, a cauldron of people buying, selling, begging, stealing, cooking, eating, strolling, dancing, playing, and probably a whole lot else that I never even saw.

Momo led us to a favorite food stand (number 55, if you happen to be in the area), known to be honest and acceptably hygienic. We crowded onto benches under the open air tent, sandwiched among the other crowded stands, and had quite a good meal — kabobs, couscous, tagine, etc — for about eight bucks a person including tip. There were other kinds of food at other stands — escargot seems to be popular — as well as fruit places, and hijabi women pushing around desert carts loaded with cookies and baklava-type sweets. It was, in short, total sensory overload, and we had a grand time. More tomorrow!

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Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Atlas Drove

…and drove, and drove. Today was a travel day, and we spent a total of 11 hours working our way from Fez to Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara. The distance is about 260 miles, but we made some stops along the way, and at no point did the road resemble an interstate highway. We were in addition slightly slowed down by another one of our group falling ill and requiring a number of impromptu pit stops. Everyone takes this in stride, recognizing that it literally goes with the territory, and happily she is already feeling somewhat better. But the bottom line is, that there was not a whole of jam-packed activities today other than watching the scenery go by (which I will describe in a moment). 

We headed due south towards the desert, our first geographical landmark being the Middle Atlas Mountains, which are only a few thousand feet high (they peak at about 5000′). That is more than enough to notice a significant change in climate, though: the air is much cooler and drier, and the hills forested with cedar and pine. Indeed, this region is rather incongruously referred to as the Switzerland of Morocco, a metaphor made even weirder by the fact that there is in fact a ski resort. They don’t get an enormous amount of snow, but it is apparently enough to ski on; we could see a couple of trails and lifts on the hillsides. It was in this area that we made our first rest stop/coffee break in the town of Ifrane, whose architecture, signage, and heavily German tourist population indeed suggest that we somehow stumbled through a wormhole into some bizarre Islamic corner of Bavaria.

Once we crossed the crest of the Middle Atlas, we were on a high plateau, the plain between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains; the Sahara is on the far side if the High Atlas. This plain is a rocky desert with scrub vegetation, the road mostly straight and way too narrow: a single skinny lane in both directions with no median strip, guardrails, or shoulders. It was clearly built in an era when this region had no traffic at all, but now that the Moroccan government is investing in a number of southern towns there is a steady two-directional flow of passenger cars, trucks, and buses like our own. The narrow highway and generally marginal road conditions make every oncoming encounter — and they are frequent — an opportunity for terror, as the clearance between northbound buses and our own is about 6″.

All in all the terrain closely resembles much of the American Southwest, albeit with more terrifying roads. However, the Southwest does not have nomadic tribes shepherding herds of sheep and goats across the rocky scrub. The nomads construct makeshift-looking compounds of varying permanence out of a wide variety of scrounged materials, and these constructions are visible on the hillsides every hour or so as we drive. We stopped at one, that you can see here.

The ground surrounding the structures was rough with coarse grass and stones, and littered with animal bones. Dung beetles about 3/4 of an inch long wee all over, diligently rolling up balls of animal dung about the size of acorns and popping into their burrows when our footsteps alarmed them. The rocks were peppered with pretty little orange beetles with geometric hourglass patterns on their backs, looking like robot ladybugs.

The compound itself consisted of a few dimly lit rooms — they do have electricity, courtesy of a solar panel — adjacent to some corrugated metal paddocks variously holding turkey’s and sheep. Seven people live here, from two families; that’s one mother and child in the photo, and there was a grubby looking second child running around on his own. The families vacate this compound in the winter, leaving two of their number behind to keep squatters from occupying it. They return in the spring. They are illiterate, unwashed, and of low life expectancy: the woman above was 22 years old, looked about 40, and had been married since 13. But she baked a mean loaf of bread: she shared some with us that was still hot from the oven, and it was delicious.

Now here’s the strange part: completely belying this otherwise primitive existence is the fact that they have television. A modestly sized TV with one of those ubiquitous pirated cable boxes was fed by a small satellite dish and powered by the solar panel. They probably only have enough juice to operate the TV for a small part of the day, but sure enough, she turned its on for us and we could see the channel guide from the satellite (which she, of course, does not know how to read). But she also flipped through a couple of stations with some kind of soap opera going on, which kind of put a dent in my personal mental image of the isolated nomad.

We crossed the plain between the two mountain ranges and ascended into the High Atlas, where the road became twisty as we climbed and not any wider. There were at least guardrails, although frequently damaged or broken through by what we can only assume was some prior horrific accident. The terrain also became even more sparse, the soil turning redder and the vegetation becoming even more sparse. But there is enough water to be found in wells and the occasional shallow river to allow the construction of bricks and adobe, and the architecture in the towns by the road reflect this. Take a look at the image below: the town is made from adobe, and if you remove the tall structure at right, which is the town minaret, the scene could very well be somewhere in northern Arizona. 

If you’re not altogether in agreement with that statement, then check out the next image and tell me that it couldn’t equally well be in Arizona or New Mexico.

What you will not find in Arizona or New Mexico, however, is groves of date palms like you see in the picture below. The trees sit in a strip of land a few hundreds yard wide in a valley below the winding road, and they follow it for miles. Dates are a major part of the economy here, and the are a number of varieties with a wide range of quality and corresponding price. At the top of the line are Medjool dates, which are quite expensive (and not the ones in this grove).

We arrived at our hotel in Erfoud at a little after 7 PM and upon entering it immediately felt like desert travelers encountering an oasis. Below is the courtyard. You can see the pool in the middle of the photo; what you cannot see is the white camel that they keep on the grounds. This place is nice, and will doubtless in retrospect stand in sharp contracts to the more primitive lodgings that we will have for the next couple of days. We head out into the Sahara for real tomorrow, leaving behind most of our luggage and abandoning our bus for several 4 x 4’s that will take us to our tented camp for the next two nights. There, we will be riding camels into the dunes, meeting desert Berber tribes, and — my astronomer self smiles — enjoying some truly spectacular night skies. What I will not be doing, however, is transmitting any blog posts for the next few days, as we will be well and truly off the grid. I hope to be back online with suitable Rich and Alice of Arabia stories in a few days.

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Fez Up! (or, Cranking Up the Volubilis)

We are now heading inland, and as we move further from the coast the weather gets noticeably hotter and drier over a surprisingly short distance. We are approaching the Atlas Mountains; whereas the Rif mountains delineate the wild and wooly northernmost part of the country (centered, more or less, between Tetuan, Casablanca, and Chefchaouen), the Atlas range sets off the Saharan south. So as we head east and south and approach the Atlas (which we will not cross until after we leave Fez), the countryside gets hilly as well as dry.

Before the terrain dries out completely we pass through the town of Khemisset, which appears to thrive, and is in the vicinity of lots of fruit farms. And indeed, just outside of town there is a row of curbside vendors about a quarter miles long, all selling melons and squash…definitely the largest agglomeration of melons in one place I’ve ever seen. A lot of pedestrians and passing cars stop to fill up, including one determined woman in a donkey cart who loads up on day-old melons to feed her animal, then does an intrepid U-turn across 4 lanes of traffic to head back from whence she came.

The donkey gets an impressive 34 miles per melon

It doesn’t take long after we leave Khemisset for the landscape to go more or less to hell, an endless expanse of brown hills punctuated by the occasional olive grove. It is like some kind of prelude to the Sahara, but this seems not to stop the farmers, who till what to our citified eyes looks like an endless expanse of burnt dirt. Here is the view from our bus.

Definitely not Kansas

There is no irrigation and so not much of anything will grow until the rains come in the winter. Still, there’s enough plant activity to sustain a sparse local economy and, apparently, some very determined animals: we can see the occasional small flock of sheep and random cattle standing stolidly in an endless expanse of scorched earth, grazing on the rare blades of grass that only they can see. And the olive trees tough it out: that’s the greenery in the photo.

We continue through this unpromising terrain for hours until we reach Meknes, the sixth largest city in Morocco with a population of about 750,000. Its claim to fame is having been the actual capital for a short time around 1700, under the reign of Alpha Sunuvabitch Moulay Ismail. Old Moulay’s nickname was “The Bloodthirsty”, which is probably a lousy nickname for your Match.com account, but it seemed to suit him. He was a big fan of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, and so decreed that his imperial palace and the town’s architecture be modeled after Versailles. It is doubtful that the admiration was reciprocal insofar as, unlike with Moulay Ismail, there are no reports of Louis XIV festooning the walls of Versailles with the heads of 10,000 decapitated enemies.

It is certainly true that Meknes has rather French looking broad avenues, and its architecture does have a hybrid look, Islamic with some French influence but certainly a lot more of the former. (It does not have nearly the ornate columns or cornices that I would think of as French.) Our first stop was a market square across from the royal palace (this country certainly has a plethora of Royal palaces, doesn’t it?), where the area’s reputation for olive growing was quickly confirmed. The outdoor portion of the market was a successful-looking concern of pottery vendors, like this…

 …but the indoor part, in addition to the butchers, sweets, and spice vendors, was Olive Territory in a big way, with many stalls resembling this one:

My dirty little secret: I don’t actually like olives.

Meknes’ two biggest attractions are an enormous granary and a stable that could hold 12,000 horses, both from Moulay Ismail’s reign. The former is a network of high-ceilinged rooms, otherwise empty as you would expect for a storage area; the former has lost its roof and is a series of parallel rows of archways that, with some imagination, one could see as a stables. And here they are:

Granary


Stables

It is said that Moulay Ismail learned of a very talented architect who was languishing in one of his prisoners, and had the architect brought before him. He asked him whether he (the architect) was capable of designing a stable even greater than the 12,000 horse one that Ismail already had. The architect — who was indeed very skilled — said that he could. So Ismail…

POP QUIZ TIME!  WHAT DID MOULAY ISMAIL DO TO THE ARCHITECT?

(a) Said, “Wow, pretty impressive!” and sent him back to prison.

(b) Said, “Wow, pretty impressive!” and freed him so the architect could design a new and bigger stable.

(c) Said, “And who the hell do you think is going to hire you to do that?” and had the architect executed.

The answer is of course (c). The moral of the story is that a guy who decorates his city walls with 10,000 heads is pretty tough to impress, and if he asks you something you should assume that it’s a loaded question.

You know who else was tough to impress? The Romans, that’s who. They were here, of course, and left an impressive set of ruins in the town of Volubilis, a little bit north of Meknes. They date from about the first century AD, an impressive 100-acre site that includes a triumphal arch, a large temple colonnade, and the remains of some very luxurious houses where you can even see what’s left of some swimming pools and hot tubs. There are a number of surprisingly intact floor mosaics (there good state surprising in part because they are unprotected and completely exposed to the elements); the tiles have remarkably retained much of their original color because they are natural stone, not dyed. Here’s the temple colonnade (the bricks are restorations):

This was really kind of the boondocks of the Roman Empire, the endpoint of the Appian Way. (The other end of the Appian Way is Hadrian’s Wall in England. The Roman Empire was big.) As the Roman Empire began to totter and fragment around the 4th century AD, Volubilis did not hold up; it was overrun by one or another barbarian tribe in 285 AD and the Romans never returned.

We rolled into Fez at about 5 PM or so and before heading to our riad we had a delightful little side visit to Momo’s apartment, where we met his wife, 8 year old nephew, and 6 year old niece. His wife Amal was welcoming and gracious and prepared an astounding array of sweet snacks for us, including a homemade cake. Here they are:

Mohammed, Amal, and their niece and nephew

 
The spread that Amal prepared was spectacular: a variety of pastries and a world class cake. Gotta tell ya, whatever else we take away from this trip, the Moroccans take their pastries seriously and are really good at making them. We were very impressed by the visit.

Our riad is a sight to behold, an old family dwelling dating to the 16th century that has been owned by the current family since about 1948… the handover being in that year, I suspect, because the previous owners were a Jewish family (this much we know to be true) who I am guessing hightailed it to Israel at the same time as all the other Moroccan Jews. In any case, the current family converted it to an inn several years ago, and we get to enjoy it now. 

Tomorrow: city tour of Fez, and lunch in the souk!

 

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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