Digital Socks

Words from an Irishman on his way home...

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


If we're going to continue with this theme of me seeing the towns of Morocco in different colours, then Fes is definitely the creams, beiges and yellows of sandstone. The photos below are all from different locations around the city.

Because of all the hills, the place has a perched, panoramic quality. Dare I say it, it even reminded me of Luxembourg a little in parts. 

A Moroccan guy I got speaking to on the train called Fes an 'authentic' city, and I think that's a good word for it.  Compared to the other places I've visited, Fes doesn't feel like it's aiming itself at tourists.  It feels like a place where real life is going on.  Also, Fes doesn't have the crazy traffic of Marrakech, and it even has quite a few pedestrian crossings. But nor did I discover any wonderful oases of calm in Fes: I guess you have to taste the bitter to really appreciate the sweet.

I certainly experienced plenty of local colour and stereotypical backpacker moments getting here: the bus breakdowns; the mad running with the backpack to make a connection; the sharing of one's seat on a train with live chickens.  I kid you not...if you look at the photo, you can see the girl holding two chicks in her hands.  The mother is busy packing more chickens in and around my seat.  All I could think was BIRD FLU!

I also had more run-ins with my taxi demons.  On one ride from hell, we went the wrong way up a one way street, made an illegal u-turn in the middle of traffic, and stopped for shouting matches with other drivers. It was like a scene from one of the Bourne movies.  If I never have to take another taxi after this holiday, it will be too soon.
So big surprise, I spent most of my time in Fes visiting museums, looking at old buildings, and sitting on terraces watching the world go by. Who'd a thunk it? I'm nothing if not original. Fes has its own unique take on the terrace experience. In addition to the regular offers of shoe shining, they try to sell you all manner of weird stuff as you sit sipping a coffee.  I mean, random stuff like air freshener or quartz clocks or shoes. Fes has a more aggressive trade culture than the rest of Morocco.  It's the only place where I've been almost dragged into shops in souks or taken 'to my friend's very nice place' by 'helpful' guides.  Maybe I'm just feeling a bit souked out, like when people who travel to Europe get cathedral fatigue.

The Nejjarine fondouk is a national landmark and is probably the most famous sightseeing place in Fes.  It's a pretty building and now houses a museum of wood. Even though I love wood carving, and even though the standard of craftsmanship is really high in Morocco, the place still had a bit of a 'museum of buttons' feel about it.

Another 'must see' in Fes would be the Merinid tombs.  These are the remains of a 16th century palace that over look the medina.  You really need a guide with you or you have to read up in advance when you come to see the tombs. Otherwise there's a danger that you find yourself just standing there looking at some old walls. Can you guess the mistake I made?

I also liked the Dar el-Makhzen (Le Palais Royal).  This is a huge complex of palaces and gardens right in the centre of the city, and tourists can only access a fraction of the facilities, but what you do get to see is pretty nice.

I continued to have spectacular weather here. I've been so lucky - it's been blue sky, sunshine and hot temperatures for a whole month. I've rarely experienced such uninterrupted good weather in my life.  Honestly, it has only rained on me for thirty seconds in the last four weeks as I moved from the door of a station to the door of a bus.  I have no doubt that Ireland will soon make up for this lack of precipitation, though.  At least I will always have my memories.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Atlas Mountains and Ouarzazate - fever, flies and FAIL!

Let me start by saying that the Atlas Mountains are spectacular and I am so glad that I had the chance to tour them. You see such a variety of colour and landscape that you feel you're seeing Morocco, with some Swiss Alps, some French Pyrenees and a bit of Mars thrown in for free!


Visiting the small mountain villages, you get some idea of how basic and hard - but also how surrounded by beauty - life is up in the Atlas.

They seem to have a few fields of crops and a few sheep or goats to subsist on - if they can ever get to goats down from the trees!

In the mountains, you also see some very traditional Moroccan restaurants. I was taken with the tagines cooking outside on the street. They put a tomato or lemon on top to control the steam and add to the fragrance.

As far as the natural beauty thing goes, it may be that you can have too much of a good thing. When I took one local bus right up amongst some of the most breathtaking scenery, my fellow Moroccan passengers either fell asleep or pulled their headscarves over their faces, while I was oohing and aahing and snapping away. This may have been an effort on their part to counteract motion sickness, though, as the roads up in the mountains were really winding. One poor woman on a bus I took spent a good thirty minutes yawning up a  rainbow. I was struggling at the time not to join her.

Usually, when I go away from the tourist trail and join the locals, I try to avoid the 'human zoo' thing and respect other people's privacy and not treat them as some sort of  exhibit for me to enjoy. But sometimes I can't resist, and I had to catch this sneaky snap of the henna  tattoos on the hands of an old woman beside me.  You see a lot of this decoration every day over here. It's not just for special occasions.

I was supposed to be heading from the mountains into the desert for a trekking expedition. Unfortunately, I caught cold and had to cancel this plan. I knew from my time in other deserts that they are amazingly beautiful, but also that you boil during the day and freeze during the night, and I just wasn't physically up to that.  Instead, I decided to spend a couple of days in Ouarzazate, the doorway to the desert.  This was a mistake as Ouarzazate does not have much going on.

There is a pretty impressive kasbah, Kasbah de Taourirt.

To be honest, you see a lot of the same goods - scarves, pottery, wood carvings, etc. - so it was really the old buildings housing the goods in the kasbah that were of interest to me.

There is also a  fun museum of cinema.

This is located across from the kasbah and has sets from films like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Babel that were all shot in the area; but aside from that the town of Ouarzazate has a market, a lot of flies and a lot of beggars.  I'm being pretty negative about the place, but I think after the splendor of the mountains and the disappointment of no desert trek, if felt like a letdown. I got feverish on my second day of sightseeing around town and spent the rest of my time there in bed. I was not sorry to say goodbye to the place and move on.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Essaouria - The Med of Morocco

Essaouira is a seaside town on the Atlantic coast about 3 hours west of Marrakech.

The wide expanse of beach and dune was just the contrast I was looking for after the craziness of Marrakech's Medina and souks. I wanted to breathe sea air and have space around me. Some of the best moments of the trip so far have been as simple as sitting on top of a dune, listening to the crashing waves, feeling the wind blowing the sand on my skin, and just trying to be in the moment. I found it a real kick to have camels walking up and down the strand.

I have never seen this anywhere before. The locals ply a good trade offering rides up into the dunes. They must work the beasts pretty hard as this guy looks plain tuckered out.

The surrounding landscape is one of rolling olive groves which makes it feel extremely Mediterranean - the local Argan olives and olive oil are famous, apparently. I can safely say I have never eaten so many olives in my life. They come as a side dish to everything, whatever the cuisine. Like pickles in Korea.

The town, too, feels like it's on the Med. It was once a Portuguese colony, I guess, and where Marrakech was all pinks and terracottas, the colour scheme here is the white of the walls and the blue of the shutters. The place has a wind-worn elegance.

The centre of town is made up of the same narrow winding streets as other Moroccan Medinas, but Essaoiura's Medina is more chilled out, less frantic. Think art galleries, craft shops and little mysterious courtyards, rather than hard-sell souks and bustling trade.

The pace of life here is slow, and I loved listening to people just chat from window to window as I passed through the streets. (I could understand some of the rare bits in French.)

And I wasn't the only earwigger.

I spent my days in Essaouira going for long walks on the beach, sitting watching the sea, taking my time over sun-kissed meals, hanging by the pool, and just really relaxing. It was idyllic. I really didn't want to leave and ended up staying an extra two nights.

My stay was without incident except for my stray dog stalker. On a particularly warm day, I headed up to the dunes to enjoy the sun with a bit of a sea breeze when this stray dog comes along and starts chilling by my towel. And I mean right by it.

If I moved off, she would 'casually' follow me.

I guess in the past people have given her food and so she's learned to do this tag along act. I am not that great with animals - even the ones I know well – so you can imagine how comfortable this all made me. So after a few attempts at shaking her off, I walk away really determinedly and she finally gets the hint and targets some other dune-dwellers. Cut to a few hours later, I'm at a beach side cafe enjoying a drink when I look around to see...

Cute and all as she was, I can barely take care of myself, never mind a Moroccan stray. We parted company shortly after I had snapped this shot.