On the Road Again

 Saturday, Dec 26 

We are in a series of four hotels in four days, which means a lot of time on the bus.

We left the desert and Erfoud for our two day road trek to Marrakech. Our guide explained that they have explored flying to Marrakech-- but all roads (rather, flights) lead through Casablanca (as we discovered in Turkey, where all flights go through Istanbul . The cost is prohibitive and, by flying, you miss the spectacular scenery (particularly, the Dramamine- or ginger-required High Atlas Mountain pass between Ourzazate and Marrakech).  Our guide mentioned that his wife refuses to take that ride! So, we took a deep breath and the proper precautions. And off we went.

As we pulled out, we saw again hundreds of plastic grocery-type bags dotting the otherwise fascinating landscape. We have seen this in the outskirts of each big city and in the “suburban” areas. Hicham explained that the people do not understand that these are not biodegradable like their normal garbage, and so are careless about throwing them out. This is a big problem and truly a black eye for the country.

Some context about Berber culture. Hicham had explained that Morocco is an Arab-ized (not an Arabic) country. That is because it was first settled by Berber tribes, of which there were many, each with distinctly different looks, cultures, costuming, languages, and histories-- all imparted by oral tradition. Part of that tradition was tattoos and Hicham explained how-- to this day-- many Berbers still differentiate from one another with tattoos. In fact, his mother was a Berber and had these facial tattoos. As different and new groups of people moved into the areas occupied by the Berbers, many took on certain aspects of those cultures, including their religious practices. But they still retained their Berber roots. For example, in the Berber Museum that we visited on Christmas Day, Hicham pointed out the exhibit of Berber Jews. To this day, that group is known for their intricate silver jewelry. As an aside, to the point of Moroccans of different faiths and backgrounds living side by side, just last week the current king's sister accepted an award in New York (from KIVUNIM) for Morocco's protection of the Jews during WWII.  Back to Berber culture, in 1999, the King decided the Berber alphabet (called Tifinagh; resembles and sounds like Egyptian) should be modernized (it's nice to be king!),...
...and now Berber, alongside Arabic and French, are required subjects starting in grade school. English is taught as an elective at the high school level and, indeed, Hicham 's wife teaches English.

This ride (and the one to Marrakech on Saturday) was punctuated by beautiful and varied scenery. The colors of the mountains ranged from grays and browns and sometimes greens (vegetation) and reds, to black in the distance. Some were tree covered, but mostly it was scrub and scree. There were many instances of solitary buildings, or groups of a few, and some small towns (with the requisite mosque/minaret), and thousands of Kasbahs. It looked like all were made of adobe or cinder block, and many had clay roofs. Here is a typical view:

We went through El-Kelaâ M’Gouna, a town famous for its annual rose festival and rose water manufacturing operations (thanks to the gazillions of roses that grow in its valley). There was another town famous for goat cheese. The ride was also punctuated by French lunches. We like tagine and couscous, but we truly appreciate that we haven't been forced to eat those particular dishes 24/7 over the past week.
We arrived in Ourzazate Friday afternoon. The city is pronounced “ware-za-zaht”, but to us it sounds like “Where’s it at?”. Apparently, our chi-chi hotel, the Berbere Palace, is the lodging of choice for directors, production crews, and casts of the many, many movies and television shows filmed on location here, including “Homeland”. We looked far and wide, but had no celebrity sightings. We did, however, enjoy all the film memorabilia in the lobby and here are the photo op results to prove it.

Ourzazate is also renowned for its solar energy innovations. Indeed, the King is arriving on Sunday (and staying in the same hotel!) to inspect the progress being made in that regard. Apparently, Ourzazate is currently the largest supplier of solar energy to all of Africa and aspires to deliver solar energy to Europe within the next few years. In fact, as we headed out of town, we saw several convoys of police and military vehicles and supply trucks, all heading in to prepare for the king’s visit. He will fly in on his personal jet.

Much of today’s drive followed the Oued Draa, which means Draa River, though “riverbed” would be more accurate as it was dried up in many places. This, and other dry oueds are a stark indicator of the severe drought in the country. Hicham again mentioned that normally the mountains would be snow covered this time of the year. We could not imagine driving this road in ice and snow!!!

Our first stop on Saturday morning was the Kasbah of Taourit-- a 17th century Kasbah that is the largest in the country. Our charming guide, Mohammed (he was wearing a leather jacket and jeans under his jalaba)…

… led us through 20 different rooms in this well preserved structure. He pointed out artistic/archaeological Christian, Judaic, and Islamic design elements throughout the building, including the natural-dyed ceilings and carved stucco. He impressed us with all of his factoids and endearing sense of humor. Among those factoids-- there are 99 ways of referring to Allah in Arabic. Who knew?

He also shared that he is often hired by film makers as an extra and also as a special effects consultant!

Our next stop was a beautiful overlook -- the  Ait Ben Haddou village and its fortified 12th century Kasbah, with the requisite tscotchke sellers. We did buy some water colors here and had our first snake charmer sighting.

Then more scenic driving until we stopped for lunch in the restaurant at Ksar Ighnda, featuring French food and amazing Andalusian gardens. (By the way: ksar is another word meaning “castle or palace”.)  This was one of the best lunches so far. We were first served a beautiful plate with a small glass of chilled gazpacho, and a nice slice of leek and herb quiche over a bed of lettuce.

After this, many of us expected to see dessert come out, but NO!, this was just the first course!

Next was the main: skewers of beef, chicken, and veggies, a cup of veggies, and mashed potatoes.

Finally, was a dainty sponge cake topped with ice cream and a hamsa-hand silhouette in cinnamon! And a picture with the chef.

As we were finishing dessert, Hicham came by offering Dramamine to anyone who wanted it for the next section of the drive! Yikes!!!!

The High Atlas Pass ride truly was harrowing, but the scenery was spectacular. It reminded us of the drive in New Zealand (though that had much more lush scenery), and similar mountain switchbacks in California, Hawaii, etc. 

And with that, we're minutes away from Marrakech. So we started the ride at about 3,700 feet above sea level, went up to 7,000 (though the mountains themselves reach 13,000 in some areas), and now back down to 457 feet.  This has been a fabulous trip so far, but we hear that the hotel we’re staying at is tres magnifique and that the town holds many wonderful sights for us to experience. That report coming soon.



1 comment:

  1. Wow I truly felt like I was there with you guys, you are a darling couple and seemed to be enjoying yourself I'm envious. I used to go to school in Paris and travel on cruise ships as a master chef and ice sculpture and I truly miss travelling the Mediterranean Black Sea, met lots of interesting people in Italy! But now that I'm retired at 50 still young but don't have the nerve to travel anymore so kudos to you guys. Thanks for sharing that it was wonderful!