Monday, 2 April 2012

Planes, trains and auto mobiles.

A warning in advance, after a few weeks off, getting back into writing mode was painful. This is distinctly lacking in eloquence.

I am sure for many people following our exploits, it appears that we are always traveling and on holiday. With a teacher's calendar and about fifteen weeks holiday a year that is something of a reality.

For our Spring Break we had planned yet another grand tour encompassing the front and the back of the High Atlas mountains. We planned to drive down the front of the mountain range, crossing over them at Marrakesh and then returning along the desert side. Due a the sad loss of a family member our plans had to be changed to include a trip home for a funeral. This could only be a quick trip as we had a friend booked on flights to meet us in Marrakesh. It was this time restriction that led us into our own version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles all so we could scrape forty hours of time at home to be with family.

Our journey commenced with a 1 hour drive to Fes Airport, where we might have had to wait just as long for coffee and stale croissants if Nick had not suggested to the incompetent woman behind the counter that it would be quicker if he went behind the counter and made it himself. We then had a 3 hour flight to Paris where we had a 6 hour stop-over. This we filled 1.5 hours of when we went into Paris to meet friends for a sunny beer in a park. Then back to the airport to wait for a 2 hour delayed flight to Liverpool before a 1 hour drive home. Door to door in just under 16 hours.

We learned two important things that day. Never buy coffee upstairs in Fes airport, it is probably one of the most uncivilised international airports in the world, and never plan on eating dinner in Charles De Gaul airport, it is only marginally more civilised than Fes airport, and you have to walk about three kilometres before you can do anything.

From Manchester to Marrakesh....


Up until now Fes has been the biggest tourist centre we have seen in Morocco. There are endless places to stay and guides leading tourists on winding trails through the medina. While Fes has undoubtedly the best medina, Marrakesh has got the pick of accommodation. Fes has a large number of riads, but these are overpriced and dated when compared to what's on offer in Marrakesh. Not only are the riads trendy, modern and affordable, there are also numerous kasbahs in the surrounding area offering glamorous rooms and large swimming pools for $16 a night. 

Our first night was spent in possibly the best budget riad we have seen. Riad Al Az overlooks the palace gardens and has six spacious rooms overlooking a colourful plant and cushion filled courtyard. For a change all the decorative lanterns actually got lit at dusk, bathing the whole place in a warm welcoming glow.

Djemma el Fna

First on our checklist of places to visit while in Marrakesh was Djemma el Fna, a grand square on the edge of the medina. This vast area is part market, part meeting place, part road, and at night a giant restaurant. As the sun goes down people scuttle in with tarps, poles, tables, chairs and BBQs. Smoke begins to fill the air and the party begins. There are over a hundred stalls selling more or less the same thing, barbecued meat, Moroccan salads and cous cous, and they are nearly all full. This square is the place to be. Not only is it the main eating area, it also hosts the worlds oldest street theatre. Snake charmers, bell ringers, story tellers and witch doctors all do their stuff to the constant beat of drums that come from pockets of musicians sitting amongst the chaos. Navigating through this smoke and darkness around people crowded around their performer of choice is tricky, especially as there seem to be no rules for road traffic, cars and bikes appear to criss-cross through the people willy nilly. You have no idea which way to step to get out of the way.

We enjoyed exploring the chaos and happily settled at a choice table, ordered food and watched the world go by. Sadly, and it really pains me to say this, we had not learnt from our recent lessons and got completely scammed by a wily restauranteur. Thinking back to the days of Thai street food we failed to demand a menu and as a result got brought things we had not ordered in great amounts. A meal that should have cost at most $30 cost $50. this left us with a slightly bitter taste and a now mantra of 'always check the price first', 'always check the price first'. Not the best way to have to begin your eating experience. 

Marrakesh surrounds

As well as showing Philippa around Marrakesh, we felt the best way for her to get some much needed de-stressing time was to escape the congestion of the city and head for the hills. Hire car collected we set off on our windy route up to Oukaimaden. The last time we went up to the Moroccan mountain resort there was snow. Snow draws crowds and being there on the busiest weekend of the year we were there to witness hordes of Marrakeshis descend on the snow and cause absolute chaos in a farcical way. This time couldn't have been more different. There was no snow so all the car parks were empty, the stores closed and all the restaurants deserted. Staying in the Club Alpine Fran├žais was spooky, empty rooms and corridors. You expected Jack Nicholson to jump out brandishing an axe at any minute. Apart from the shepherds, numerous wild dogs and odd hopeful ski equipment seller, we had the place to ourselves.


Ourika Valley

From the highs of the mountain to the lows of the valley, we drove down into Ourika valley the next day. This is a lush river filled valley filled with gardens, fruit trees and riverside restaurants where sweltering Marrakeshis escape the scorching heat of the Marrakesh summer. After the basic accommodation of the CAF refuge we were in for a bit of luxury at Ourika Garden Hotel. This is a small hotel set on a hill with fruit and herb gardens, swimming pool, two inside eating areas, and twelve terraces all for four guest rooms, each with own fire place and lounge. The rooms are rustic and decorated in colourful Berber style. During our stay here we discovered two new Moroccan favourite foods; Zaaluck – smoked aubergine salad, and beef and fig tajine. Surrounded by lush green and red poppy fields and blossom filled fruit trees with the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains with a skilled Moroccan chef at your beck and call, it is a magical place to unwind. 

Venturing out from Ourika Garden was hard, but we were beginning to feel guilty about showing Philippa Morocco fomr the inside of hotels and inside of a car. The next morning we set out with the determined air of explorers. We were going to drive up the valley and hike to one of the nearby waterfalls. Sadly as there are so many small riverside restaurants along the valley and so few tourists this year, the restaurant touts were out in force, not just being pushy but also aggressive. There is nothing that riles us more than people who lie to you to make you stop. When one man said that we had to park at his restaurant because the road ended round the corner it riled Nick so much that he stopped on the return journey just to wind the guy up. We know they are just trying to make a living, but is annoying nonetheless. In the end this onslaught from the locals squished our motivation to get out and explore. We nipped out to take our picture on one of the many precarious rope bridges across the river, the rest of the time we sheepishly viewed the valley from the safety of the car. This is a place we will return to and hike through on foot one day.

Marjorelle Gardens

One of Philippa's finds from her fanatical reading of an additively good guide book was the Marjorelle Garden. This surprisingly small garden is an absolute haven of piece and quiet. Surrounded by high walls secret garden style, and with picnics and children banned, it is really my kind of garden. Designed by French expatriate artist Jacques Marjorelle, it is this garden and in particular a distinct cobalt blue he used all over the place that he has become famous for. The garden is serene, cactus and bamboo filled with quiet corners and relaxing water features at every turn. It was for this reason that Yves Saint Laruant bought the garden in 1980 and requested his ashes be scattered upon his death. As well as the piece and quiet, it is the colours that make this place unique, as well as the blue, there are bright yellow and orange pots which contrast brightly against the green foliage. This is a photographers dream, and whether you are a fan of gardens or not, it is a must see in while in Marrakesh.

Last night disappointment...

During Philippa's visit I had gone to great lengths to arrange a broad spectrum of Moroccan life. We had seen traditional riad, basic mountain refuge, rustic Berber cottage and finally for our last night a bit of modern riad chic. There are literally hundreds of riads to choose from in Marrakesh, choosing our last night rooms at Jardin des Reves took a lot of research. Having been ill and more than a little lack lustre for the duration of my oldest friends visit had left me with the guilty feeling of a poor host. The thought of our last night of luxury eased this guild some as I knew that it'd be an experience even if I couldn't leave the room.

Upon arrival we were settled by the plunge pool while relaxing music played and we were served tea and Moroccan pastries. This was the riad experience I have been waiting for for a while. Sadly after about half an hour of friendly chat from the owner we were informed that they had not received our full booking and only had one room available. This was apparently no problem at all as they had an equally nice riad next door. Alarm bells started ringing at this point and sadly rightly so. If I hadn't had such high expectations of our stay I would have been quite happy with the other riad, but as it was it felt like the forgotten cousin. The finishing touches just weren't there. Sadly I completely succumbed to a major sulk and had to be put in a hot bath before I could make it out the room. A very disappointing last night's stay. 

I had anticipated lots of amaing photos from here, but what's the point of taking pictures of the place 'you nearly stayed'. Here are some from around the medina instead.



Anonymous said...

Amazing detail and photos as usual Tanya - hopefully you'll have your scam awarness sorted before we arrive!
Love Val xxx

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a tad behind with my readings but brilliant, as ever. I would have had a very major tantrum, a hot bath and a smuggled glass of G&T before I could have got anywhere near getting over the bad ending to your trip! Maybe another time, eh.
Take care