Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Morocco tour 2007

Hi Everyone,
I'm in a very stuffy cyber cafe with one crazy European keyboard so I apologise for the mistakes sure to be in this email.
It is two years since I last toured Morocco and there has been some changes in that time but thankfully a lot of the traditional ways of life remain as they have for centuries. Improvements can be seen in the roadways and housing development with impressive large villas exploding on the outskirts of the old cities. Architecture is now open windows and balconies, distinctly different to the enormous walls and closed doors of the streets of the ancient Medinas. Some restoration and preservation of superb old buildings is evident but sadly there is a long way to go. Most notable is the change in the lifestyle of the women.
Morocco is a Kingdom. The present King is in his early forties, married with two young children. He was educated in France and is very popular as he gets out and about amongst his people. 60% of the population of Morocco are aged under 40 so it seems they identify with him and welcome his progressive ideas and changes to the laws of the country. Women now have a voice and can seek a divorce, they can say 'no' to the man chosen as a husband by their family. Men are now allowed one wife only.
The film industry is booming particularly around the modern central town of Quarzazate (pronounced 'what is zat') We stayed in the same hotel as the cast of The Gladiator so I well may have slept in the same bed as our own Russell!

This is a country of surprising diversity. It is colourful and bustling and yet the Moroccan men seem to spend a good part of their day happily just sitting or lying around drinking massive amount of coffee or mint tea. Women on the other hand are busy doing the work. In the countryside the nomadic Berber lifestyle is slow and very simple with a great sense of community with happy children playing in the fields and along the roadside.

Fishermen & Fort at Essaouira

We have a happy small group of ten persons traveling in an eighteen seat Mercedes bus with a extremely competent driver and a excellent local guide. Right now we are staying in the small 16th century fortified fishing port of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. Occupied by the Portuguese until the 18th century, Essaouira has an amazing mixture of Berber and Portuguese military architecture, blue and white buildings and a wonderful Medina and market place which was once a slave market plentiful fresh fish and seafood of all types which one can select the catch of choice and have it cooked on the spot, plus one very crappy cyber cafe!,

In the past 14 days we have had many fantastic and varied experiences. The highlight for me was our night spent in a Berber camp nestled in the serene sand-dunes of the Sahara.

Camel riding over the majestic Sahara

After an hours camel ride to top of a high dune we sat quietly and watched the sunset. The playful camel guides (Berber 'blue men') ignited the child in every one of us holding our ankles and sliding us down the side of the massive dune to our patiently waiting camels. What fun and what a surprise when we finally reached our camp to find a circle of tents erected especially for our group on brightly coloured Berber mats, hot showers, comfortable mattresses with clean linen.

Our Berber camp at sunrise
Five musicians to entertain us plus delicious food and a very well stocked bar! I could not think of a better way to spend our 35th wedding anniversary. Our wonderful guide produced a bottle of French champagne and John sang a love-song he had written for me and the occasion. The girls in the group all had a cry. After much merriment our group declined the invitation to be woken at 5am to watch the sunrise. Luckily I woke early to discover it was not too cold. I wandered barefoot outside the camp, up the dunes and marveled in solitary bliss at the most magnificent sunrise over the dunes of the Sahara desert.
Twice our group has been herded into carpet emporiums and twice the merchants who would put our used car salesmen to shame have managed to part with a couple of carpets at 'a gift of a price'! My Amex account may not agree, - yes guilty again, another wonderful handmade Moroccan rug of all colours and textures for our home.
After attending two cooking classes, you could well be treated to a delicious and flavour-some Moroccan dinner party at Chez Savage. One class was in a remote Kasbah on the fringe of the Sahara desert and the other just 20 miles outside Marrakech in a gazebo kitchen in the middle of the fragrant herb and vegetable garden of a restored Kasbah and member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

Prepared vegie tajine, tajines cooking and our orange dessert.

We cooked with views across Berber villages, the Atlas mountains and olive grove plantations.

Herbal foot spa & Massage - Heaven! Inspecting the vegie & Herb garden
Whilst the tajines were cooking we sipped local Rose and luxuriated in individual herbal foot-spas followed by a foot massage. Heaven! Then lunched on our culinary masterpieces - a delicious vegetable tajine and a chicken and preserved lemon tajine.

Jealous yet? No, then let me tell you about the beaming smiles on the faces of the children when we give them coloured pencils, crayons, notebooks, balloons or sweets; the women in colourful jellabas washing clothes in the streams and gossiping; the town of 'one eyed women' where the women are dressed completely in black with only one eye showing; our scenic drive to a gorgeous Berber village following by a mule ride to lunch in a restored fortress or Kasbah with 360 degree views of the Atlas mountains and surrounding valleys; the breathtaking Toudra Valley and gorges - not unlike Petra in Jordan; the drive from Quarzazate to Marrakech over the Tichler pass of the high Atlas mountains with stunning landscapes of light and colours of pink Moroccan hues thanks to the different minerals, soil and rocks; the beautiful new forests planted to stop erosion and the cultivated grasslands for grazing; sunset in the famous Djemaa le Fra square in Marrakech with it's smoking food-stalls, dancers, boxing bouts and snake charmers; following our guide through the car free winding alleys which twist into lane-ways whilst dodging the laden mules and donkeys in the mystical Medina in Fez; the fruit and vegetable souks jam-packed with brilliantly displayed olives or every kind, huge bunches of mint, preserved fruits and nuts and the aroma of fresh spices and freshly squeezed orange juice; haggling for goodies in the souks; the tactile happy Moroccans openly greeting each other with genuine hugs and kisses on both cheeks; our increasing waist-lines - testament to the Moroccan hospitality to ensure no visitor goes hungry - food, food and more delicious food.

Djemaa el Fna Square at sundown.

I could go on and on. If you have already visited this stunning country maybe I have revived memories. If you are still to come here I hope I have painted an enticing glimpse of this vibrant, diverse and safe Kingdom. One tip is to get a good guide. We have been blessed with our guide who invited us to his home in Marrakech. A palatial villa on a hectare of manicured gardens complete with swimming pool, self contained garden cottage, rose garden, an English dress-designer wife, one son and two spoilt dogs.

Our guide Abdul's home in Marrakech
One of our group suggested our guide should be tipping us - not the other way around!

Only a few days left before we board our Emirates flight to stopover in Dubai and then home around May 12. Look forward to seeing you soon.
Jeanette - 6 May 2007