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Louaging around Tunisia

Our adventures to the Sahara

Desert sun

Desert sun

For most people, the Sahara conjures up an image of desolate beauty. Harsh winds blow across rolling dunes, seemingly devoid of life save a few hardy camels. A place where only the most fool-hardy would venture. An impenetrable barrier separating North Africa from the Sub-Saharan nations. In truth, the Sahara is all these things and more. Stretching out to the horizon the desert draws you in, playing upon your sense of adventure, tempting you to enter one of the world's ultimate wildernesses.

Of course, reaching the Sahara from the north of Tunisia is an adventure in itself. Our destination was the small town of Douz, the staging point for all trips into the desert. To start the day, we found our way to the local train station, hoping to reach Gabes (the nearest major city to Douz). We bought tickets heading straight to Gabes, and sat down on the long train platform. Our train arrived on time, and we found our seats quickly. This seemed all too easy. It was. Five hours later, in the city of Sfax, we were told the train was going no further. “The price of a revolution, trains can stop at any time!”. This was little consolation for us, looking like bewildered turtles lugging our backpacks through the train station. With 200km to Douz, and no chance of another train that day, our hopes rested on the staple of Tunisian public transport, the louage. A louage is a service taxi, travelling back and forward between cities. The vehicles themselves, old white Peugot vans, have seen better days. Comfort has been sacrificed for extra seating. The fare is low, and the price comes with complimentary high speeds and dubious overtaking manoeuvres! But, despite all this, they offer a fast and efficient means of travel. Just what we needed. We jumped into a vehicle headed for Gabes, and waited for enough passengers to get the journey going. Once the van was crammed full we set off. Speeding along the road gives you a different view of Tunisia to the one you get on train, even if all you come away with is a grasp of Tunisian road rules, or lack there of! We arrived in Gabes within an hour, and were faced with finding a second louage to Douz. We walked through the station, our ears pricked, until we heard what we needed. “Douz! Douz! Douz!”, the driver shouted in between bites of his hamburger. We hopped in and we were off. We finally arrived in Douz almost 12 hours after we had left, exhausted but relieved, though our behinds were a bit bruised. Louage seats are definitely less comfortable after the first few hours.

The desert slowly reclaims its own

The desert slowly reclaims its own

Douz is nothing more than a desert outpost, a drop of civilization touching the vastness of the Sahara. Everything in Douz is covered in a fine sand, almost silt like, which fills every crack and crevice. Gusts of wind blow through the streets, lifting the fine sand particles up into the air and forcing people to turn away or cover their eyes. It felt like the edge of the world. Without any desire to stay in Douz longer than necessary, we organised a trip leaving the next day out into the desert. Our driver picked us up from our hotel the next morning and took us into the desert. With pop music blaring through the car speakers, he sped us out through the dunes, dodging shrubs and the odd camel. At first, the dunes were infrequent, small and insignificant, but as we delved deeper the land slowly transformed into the rolling sand sea of the Grand Erg Oriental. Drive a few minutes into the Erg and you lose yourself, unsure from where you've come and little idea where you're going. We drove further and further, until all we could see was sand. Suddenly in the distance we spotted a small swathe of green, contrasting against the red and white sand. The green was Ksar Ghilane, an oasis in the middle of the Grand Erg. The waters of the oasis have been confined to a small pool, fed by spring water, which makes for fantastic relief from the desert heat. However, as you enter the oasis the illusion of desert isolation is suddenly shattered. Ksar Ghilane is the closest and most convenient rest stop in the Tunisian Sahara, and every tourist, 4x4 enthusiast and general desert lover ends up there. It feels more like a resort than an oasis. We attempted to re-immerse ourselves in the desert, and procured ourselves some camels to travel back into the desert. We rode almost an hour, until we reached the Ksar (fortress) which gives Ksar Ghilane its name. An old Roman fort, the view of the desert from atop the walls is spectacular.

A troglodyte home

A troglodyte home

About as exciting as it gets...

About as exciting as it gets...

Now it's easy to write a blog and simply skip over the less exciting parts. After all, nobody wants to read about the boring day you spent getting lost or sitting around booking flights. But a special mention needs to be given to our second destination in the Tunisian desert. We left Ksar Ghilane by the nearby tarmac road (another thing that slightly spoiled the illusion of isolation!), and were dumped by our driver in Matmata. The old town of Matmata has been inhabited by the Berber's for hundreds of years, and is known for it's interesting troglodyte architecture, which the Berber's used to escape the oppressive desert heat. More recently it stepped into the spotlight as the set of Star Wars, being used in both the original 'Star Wars: A New Hope', and the more recent “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”. We had read a bit about the site and we were expecting the most kitsch place we had ever seen. We wanted to buy a lame Star Wars t-shirt, or a fake “Luk Skywalker” doll, whilst we explored some interesting underground architecture. In truth, Matmata is nothing more than a tiny town with a few old holes dug into the hillside. Most of the troglodyte homes were caved in and filled with rubbish. The few that were in tact have been made into rather shabby budget hotels. And the Star Wars merchandise? “Only in America!”, our rather lacklustre local guide told us. We arrived in Matmata around noon, and by 3:00pm we were back at the hotel, unimpressed, dissatisfied and generally disappointed. To make matters worse, the only bus out of the town left the next morning. It was a very long afternoon. I hate to complain, but lets just say Matmata was not our favourite destination.

With Matmata, our desert experience ended with a bit of a fizz. Although being out in the rolling desert had been exhilarating, and riding a camel across the dunes had been a lot of fun, we felt like we hadn't really got the most complete experience. Perhaps with a few more days in the desert wilderness we could have been immersed ourselves further. Nevertheless, the Sahara is still an inspiring place. An untamed, and untamable, wilderness of sand and sun. Definitely worth an extended visit. Just don't go to Matmata.

Some observations from the Sahara:

1. A camel ride isn't the most friendly on the groin!

2. No matter how good your sense of direction is, you will feel lost in the Sahara.

3. Sand will get into everything. Everything!

Next stop...Tunis

Posted by remoteman 13:52 Archived in Tunisia Comments (0)

A spot of sun worship.

We get our first glimpse of the Med in northern Tunisia.

Bizerte by night.

Bizerte by night.

Squeezed between Libya to the east and Algeria to the west, Tunisia can easily be overlooked on a map of Africa. But the people of Tunisia grabbed their time in the international spotlight in 2010 as they kicked off the 'Arab Spring', holding anti-government protests which inspired the region. But with successful elections held in October 2011, Tunisia seems to have once again slipped into relative obscurity, eclipsed by the more volatile situations in its fellow North African states Libya and Egypt. So, where does that leave Tunisia in 2012? We were uncertain at best. As we disembarked from our flight, we were stepping into the unknown.

Tunis-Carthage international airport feels like it belongs in 1980's Soviet Russia rather than a budding North African democracy. The immigration official, lighting up a cigarette, casually stamped our passports and waved us on our way. We continued on, past the large 'No Smoking' sign, to a point where we were required to walk through a metal detector. The security guard manning the post seemed too intent on the conversation with his friend to care when I set off the detector alarm. Bemused and a little bewildered, we walked off, collected our bags, and exited the airport. We had decided to begin our journey in northern Tunisia, so we boarded a bus headed for Bizerte, a small coastal city on the north-east tip of the country. Tourism in Tunisia is a boom and bust affair, focusing almost exclusively on European beach-goers, who arrive every summer to soak up the sun. With the summer still a few months off, and not a tourist in sight, we were able to land a nice hotel room overlooking the sea for a bargain price, and we fell asleep that night to the sound of crashing surf.

Sunset over the Old port.

Sunset over the Old port.

Our first glimpse of the Med.

Our first glimpse of the Med.

Jutting into the Mediterranean, and under 500km from Sicily, Bizerte, and much of north-east Tunisia for that matter, feels very much like the coastal towns of Italy or Greece. Beautiful white-sand beaches, bordered on one side by white washed buildings, and dotted here and there with the odd wooden fishing boat. The mesmerising deep blue of the sea stretching out to the horizon. Taking a long walk along the beach, it is easy to forget that you are walking along the coast of North Africa. But the beach is not Bizerte's only draw card. The old port, used in medieval times, falls in the middle of the city. The port is flanked on one side by the impressive old 'Spanish Fort', begun by the Spanish in 1570, but finished by the Turks. The calm waters of the port reflect the tall walls of the fort like a mirror. On a weekend evening, restaurants and cafes along the waterway come alive, with local families coming out to watch the sunset across the water. The small size of Bizerte belies the culinary wonder hidden within. With Bizerte's proximity to Italy, and its past as a French colony, the city is full of good food. Small patisseries serve up freshly made croissants until late in the night and posh restaurants plate up delicious seafood. Our nights in Bizerte were mesmerising and delicious, a wonderful first impression of Tunisia.

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Exploring around Bizerte showed us a different side of Tunisia all together. We had chartered a car from our hotel out to Ichkeul National Park, a UNESCO listed park and wetland. Our trip fell on a Saturday, and the park was filled with local families, bringing along their picnics and some even riding their mopeds along the trails! We endeavoured to escape the crowds, so we started out on a path around the wetland. Rising and falling, but never far from a view of the surrounding waters, the walk was a pleasant, alternating between stints in the beating sun and cool meanders under tree cover. We had read that the wetland area was often a haven for migratory birds, but with temperatures rising the birds had moved on, leaving an almost eerie stillness across the park. None the less, as we sat down for our lunch (mostly food we could salvage from breakfast) under the shade of a tree, we were glad we had made the trip out of the city. The trail seemed to follow around the wetland for many kilometres, and we would have loved to continue walking, but we realised that we were behind schedule and had to race back along the path to meet our driver at the agreed time. Although the day ended hurriedly, overall Ichkeul park was definitely worth a visit.

After a few days in Bizerte, we moved further south towards Cap Bon. At the epicentre of Tunisia's tourism industry, the beaches and old medinas of Cap Bon are a beautiful area to explore. The largest city on the cape, Hammamet, attracts many of the tour groups, but we spent our time in Nabeul, a smaller town further along the coast. Although the beach of Nabeul paled in comparison to those we had seen in Bizerte, the town was a perfect staging point for exploring the surrounding area. On our first day we took a fantastic day trip out to the small town of Korba, further east along the beach. The town itself is uninspiring, but the flat wide sand beach is stunning. Separating the beach and the town is Korba lagoon, a long shallow water body which is known as an excellent site to spot migratory birds. Unfortunately, just like Ichkeul, the timing of our trip meant there were few birds, just a lot of mosquitoes. Despite this disappointment, we were still able to enjoy some tranquillity on the long expanses of beach, watching a few little shorebirds run up and down looking for food. Of course, we still encountered the 'rubbish monster', a term we had adopted after the amount of litter we had been seeing on our trip, but the beach was beautiful nevertheless. Our day wasn't over yet though. As we were leaving the beach and walking back to the bus stop we were accosted by a group of young students; dancing, singing and playing music. Through the language barrier we determined they were celebrating, but what they were celebrating we didn't know. They pulled us in to dance with them, laughing hysterically to watch two random foreigners attempt to dance like a Tunisian, and talking to us in French and Arabic, which fell on deaf ears. Their happiness was intoxicating. Eventually, we were dragged over to somebody who spoke some English. We discovered they were all high-school students, celebrating the end of their exams. After showing some interest, we were whisked away and given a guided tour through their school, sitting in the classrooms and drawing on the blackboard. We were thrilled to get an insight into the life of people our age in a different country. Eventually, 3 hours behind schedule, we got on a bus headed back to Nabeul, tired but thrilled to get an insight into the lives of real Tunisians. Unplanned, unexpected but unbelievable.

Bringing in the daily catch.

Bringing in the daily catch.

A glimpse of the sea.

A glimpse of the sea.

Our new Tunisian friends had told us that Hammamet was beautiful and we had to visit. Appreciating the local advice, we planned a trip out there the next day. Less than an hour from Nabeul, it wasn't our most intrepid excursion ever, but still enjoyable. Hammamet is noticably more accustomed to tourists. In Bizerte and Nabeul we were stared at, but very rarely approached or hassled. But with our first step into Hammamet we were accosted for taxis, postcards and all manner of knick-knacks. Having been isolated from this type of behaviour for so long, we were taken a back at first, but our experiences from Marrakech had taught us well, and we were soon batting them away with ease. We made our way down to the beach, which provided some respite, and enjoyed our lunch. Out in the distance we could see sailing boats cruising the waves of the Mediterranean, their white sails reflecting the rays of the mid-day sun. Further along the beach, local fisherman cast their lines out into the water, seemingly oblivious to the crashing waves. Eventually we wandered our way into the Hammamet medina, which was a beautiful place to explore. White washed walls and blue window frames, reminiscent of a Greek town, were covered in flowering Bougainville. The winding streets, dotted with tourist shops selling kitsch postcards, were fun to explore. After a little while, we made our way out and got back on the bus to Nabeul. Hammamet may have been beautiful, but we were happy to leave all the tourist stores (and owners) behind.

Northern Tunisia is something of a paradox, balancing the cultural influences of Southern Europe with the traditions of its people. Without knowing much about the area, we were pleasantly surprised to find a welcoming and beautiful part of the world, and we embraced the fun of getting off the beaten track for awhile.

Some observations from Northern Tunisia:

1. Come outside summer, you'll have a whole hotel to yourself!

2. Look out for delicious Italian food...at a quarter the price you'd pay in Italy.

3. The beaches are beautiful, though the locals don't seem to swim at them!

Next stop...The Sahara

Posted by remoteman 13:55 Archived in Tunisia Comments (0)

Over the hills and far away

We get our kasbah fix as we cross the Atlas mountains.

Looking back at Col du Tichka

Looking back at Col du Tichka

The Atlas mountains slice through Morocco, cutting the country in two. To the north and west of the Atlas lie flat plains and rolling hills covered in olive groves and fields of wheat. To the south and east the thirsty arms of the desert reach across the land, slowly leaching moisture from the ground until you enter the sweeping sands of the Sahara. Almost as evident as the geographic divide is the cultural one. The cities of Morocco have large Arab populations, but once you leave the city and travel across the rugged mountainous barrier you find the land inhabited by the Berbers. With their own languages and culture, and a strong tribal identity, it feels like a different country to the large cities of Morocco we had experienced before.

Beautiful mosaics in Telouet

Beautiful mosaics in Telouet

Telouet kasbah with a mountain backdrop

Telouet kasbah with a mountain backdrop

We embarked on our expedition into this desert frontier with our fantastic driver Salah. We drove out of Marrakech and made for the looming snow-capped mountains. As we began our ascent the olive groves were slowly replaced by forests of pine, shrouded in mist. We climbed further and the trees began to thin, in their place fields of green grass. Finally, after almost 3 hours of steady ascent we left all vegetation behind as we reached the Col du Tichka pass, 2,260 meters high. The mountain Tichka, meaning cold in Berber, towered off in the distance. It was quite a shock to consider that only a few hours ago we had been in the bustle and warmth of Marrakech. Our stay in the cold was only fleeting however, we soon got back into the car and headed again for lower altitudes. Halfway through our descent Salah veered from the main road, weaving through small villages until we reached the kasbah of Telouet. A kasbah is a North African fortress, which was often the residence of local leaders. Of course not all kasbahs were created equal, and Telouet did not at first seem all that impressive. Salah convinced us that it was worth paying to enter. Having experienced some less than truthful guides before we were wary, but we agreed. Entering the kasbah did nothing more to impress us, with old wires lying in the courtyard and crumbling stairs leading to long bleak and empty corridors. Little did we know that Telouet holds a beautiful hidden gem. At the end of yet another nondescript passage, through a large wooden door, we were met with a stunning room. The walls covered in intricate mosaics and the ornately framed windows opening out on to views of the surrounding valley. The contrast between the drab corridors we had just explored and the amazing detail of this new room enhanced the beauty all the more. We spent a long time admiring the intricate details, from the fine tile work to the ornate wooden doors. When we got back in the car Salah asked us, with a smile, “It was good?”. We nodded. He had been right to convince us to go inside. In that moment, we trusted him.

A view of Ait Benhaddou

A view of Ait Benhaddou

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We left Telouet by the scenic route, bumping and jolting our way down the mountain. The air became drier, and we began to notice the heat. Before we knew it, we were driving through vast plains, covered with nothing but a few hardy shrubs. Salah told us that, for a Berber, this was not desert. Desert is the rolling sands of the great Sahara. But to us, as we felt the throbbing heat of the sun on our skin, this seemed very much like desert. We stopped for lunch at Ait Benhaddou, an old fortified town, or ksar, with a number of nice kasbahs. We were now well and truly entrenched in Berber territory, and the differences were immediately obvious. The Berber people have much darker skin than the Arabs, with short curly hair. Not only this, but their sense of identity was also immediately apparent. Everything was 'Berber style', from a 'Berber style photo' to some 'Berber style cuisine', so we were easily able to procure a 'Berber style guide' to show us around the old town. Although Ait Benhaddou has been around for many hundreds of years, it has recently been given a glimpse of fame as the setting for a number of Hollywood movies. The list of credits is extensive, and includes blockbuster hits (Gladiator), as well as some less enthralling films (Prince of Persia). Wandering between the old mud brick walls is a fascinating experience. The town is built on the side of a hill, and the view from the top is unmissable. We looked back over where we had just travelled, gazing over the red desert, punctuated with a sliver of green from the small river running beside the town. Off in the distance, the sharp pinnacle of Titchka punctuated the horizon. In the space of one morning, we had passed through a plethora of different environments to arrive at this little desert town. An amazing experience.

The long and winding road

The long and winding road

The power of the river

The power of the river

We spent our first desert night in Skoura, a tiny town with beautiful views back towards to Atlas. The next morning, after a welcome breakfast, we set off again into the heat. In the dry expanses of the desert, water is a precious commodity. Even the smallest trace of moisture is accompanied with a blossoming of small shrubs and plants, taking advantage of the invaluable resource. But the people of the desert don't have to survive on these meagre pickings alone. In some parts of this inhospitable land permanent rivers still run, and these form the life-blood of many of the Berber communities. As we drove, we could see in the distance a swathe of green, starkly contrasted with the dull greys and browns around us. As we approached, small houses began to pop up, with a few date palms here and there. The settlements grew in size and number, and the trees became more numerous, until we were gazing across a wide indent in the desert surface, cut out by the constant flow of the river. The dry desert wind rustled through the lush vegetation growing along the riverbank. Birds swooped through the trees, and people worked their crops. On the side, sheer red walls towered above the everyday goings on, a monument to the victory of the river over the oppressive desert surrounding it. We followed the course of the river for some time. The farther we went, the deeper the river gouged into the landscape. Eventually, we found ourselves driving through the depths of Dades Gorge, the river flowing swiftly to our left and sheer sandstone cliffs rising to our right. We stopped here for lunch, and were able to walk on foot through the gorge itself, marvelling at the scale of the natural chasm, and the power of the river that carved it.

The first rays of the sun enter Todra Gorge

The first rays of the sun enter Todra Gorge

Looking back on our trail

Looking back on our trail

With our lunch finished we continued our journey to the second gorge of the day, Todra Gorge. Like Dades, Todra Gorge has been carved over millennia by the slow purpose of the river, although the river has been dammed in parts and now only flows slowly through the gorge. We spent the night in a local Berber guest house, with fantastic views over the immense rock walls. As the sun was rising the next day we set off for a walk inside the gorge. When you first enter Todra Gorge you see a paved road and a small hotel, not exactly untouched natural beauty. But, as we ventured deeper, the signs of human presence diminished. Unfortunately, as with much of the world, rubbish presents a major environmental issue. Just as we thought we had escaped from any signs of human impact, we would stumble upon a plastic bottle or chip packet, which would sour the experience. Nevertheless, walking through the gorge, dwarfed by the towering walls and massive boulders, showed us a side of Morocco which is often under-appreciated. A place of fantastic natural beauty and impressive geological history. Regrettably, we had to end our hike after only a couple of hours, and turn our sights back to our hotel. Following a hearty breakfast, we loaded into the car for the last time, headed for Marrakech. We traveled back up the gorge and set off into the desert once again, leaving behind the refreshing island of green. On our return trip we took an alternate route, crossing over immense desert rock formations, cut and sanded to precision, as if by a sculptor. The undulating backs of these natural giants was punctuated now and then by immense power poles, a reminder of how humans had conquered even this most inhospitable of environs. Before long, we were rising back again into the Atlas mountains, passing over Col du Tichka and down into the west. Arriving back in Marrakech our senses were overwhelmed once again by the big city, sounds and smells which we hadn't experienced for the past few days. We said farewell to Salah, and thanked him for showing as a new side of Morocco. Without him, we may never have found it!

Leaving Morocco the next day, we were able to contemplate what we had seen during our small trip into Morocco's desert wilderness. Salah had said that if we had taken more time there was much more for us to see. We felt as though we had only just scratched the surface of the Berber culture and the lands they inhabit. But even so, we were glad to have been given even this small glimpse into this microcosm of Moroccan society.

Some observations from the Atlas:

1. Goats will live just about everywhere!

2. The desert is much more than just sand dunes and camels.

3. Mountain roads in Morocco are not for the faint of heart.

Next stop...Tunisia

Posted by remoteman 11:51 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Magical Marrakech

The alliteration continues in Morocco's largest imperial city

Marrakech by night

Marrakech by night

Exiting the train station in Marrakech, you are hit by a wall of sound. The low hum of traffic, the shrill call of car horns. The sounds of a big city. Marrakech has a population of 2 million, double that of Fes, and it certainly feels bigger. The taxi from the train station, following some hard bargaining, sped along the bustling streets at a frantic pace, weaving in and out of the oncoming traffic. We were dropped at Place Jemma al Fna, the central square of the Marrakech medina, and the differences to Fes were immediately clear. Unlike the twisting, sloping streets of Fes, the streets of the Marrakech medina are wide and straight. Throngs of people swarm through the streets, with tourists quickly accosted by eager shop owners. But the most obvious difference is the mopeds. In Fes, the medina is closed to vehicles, with plodding donkeys your biggest concern. In Marrakech however, the streets of the old city have been inundated with motorbikes, which race down the streets, swerving around pedestrians and blaring their horns. It makes for a nerve wracking walk.

Lilly pond of Jardin Majorelle

Lilly pond of Jardin Majorelle

Cactus garden of Jardin Majorelle

Cactus garden of Jardin Majorelle

Unlike Fes, the souks of Marrakech focus much more on the tourist dollar. The Arabic pop CD salesmen has been replaced by men selling floral parachute pants. The old cobbler is gone, in his place a row of Nike sneakers. It feels much more like a tourist market than a traditional medina. To escape the hassle of the shop owners and the ever present danger of the motorbikes we headed for the Jardin Majorelle. Jardin Majorelle is a small garden just outside the old city. Designed by Jacques Majorelle in the 1920's, the gardens were later bought by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurant. Although the garden isn't large, the paradox of exploring such a tranquil place in the heart of such a hectic city makes any visit worthwhile. In the midst of the garden you can see a strikingly blue building, once the house of the curator and now a small museum. Surrounded by ponds of water lillies and elegant cactus, the gardens were a welcome relief from the constant hassle outside. Of course, when we left we had to bargain the taxi price down ten fold to get back. You can't escape for long.

Cooking up a storm in Place Jemma al Fna

Cooking up a storm in Place Jemma al Fna

Would you like some snail soup?

Would you like some snail soup?

That night we decided to once again venture into the medina towards Place Jemma al Fna. We had passed through the square previously that day, but the activity had been subdued, even lethargic by the standards of Marrakech. But at night the square comes alive, filled with a plethora of food stalls selling everything from calamari to snail soup. As you enter the square you are swamped by stall holders, pushing menus in your face and shouting prices at you. To one side a man is holding a monkey, offering photo opportunities for a price. Flames flare up from the frying pans of one stall, sending out huge plumes of smoke and obscuring your view, and all the while you can hear the whine of the snake charmers pipe. Dining in Jemma al Fna is more about the experience than the food, but one local gem we did enjoy was the fresh roti bread, made by street vendors throughout the medina. Filled with pumpkin and spices, they make an excellent take away option. For desert, we left the square behind and headed down a nearby street to Patisserie de Princes, a local institution selling delicious Moroccan sweets alongside traditional French pastries. When you see a place filled with local families, you know you're going to have a good feed. It was a perfect way to end the night.

A different angle

A different angle

Cascade d'Ouzoud with complimentary rainbow

Cascade d'Ouzoud with complimentary rainbow

The mountainous terrain of Morocco lends itself to some breathtaking natural scenery. In the surrounds of Marrakech can be found a number of waterfalls, the most visited being Cascade d'Ouzoud. At a bit over 3 hours drive out of the city, the cascade isn't the most convenient site to visit, but it definitely is one of the most astonishing. We had decided to join a minibus packed with other tourists heading out to the falls. Our transport looked like it had seen better days, and our driver stopped a number of times to ask for directions, but we got there in the end. We gingerly exited the bus, and walked down to the foot of the falls. The valley around the falls is green and lush, almost tropical, a stark contrast to the flat dry plains we had driven through. The falls themselves, at 110m tall, complete the picture of a tropical oasis. Of course, with any attraction of this magnitude there are always guides and gimmicks. We watched every second tourist, both local and foreign, get ushered aboard makeshift boats (read floating barrels with planks on top) and taken into the spray of the waterfall. Niagara's “Maid of the Mist” may be more sophisticated, but, with luridly coloured flower pots on board, these boats were not going to be outdone for kitsch! Not enticed by the gaudy décor, we chose to keep our feet on dry land, and enjoyed the falls with the help of an overpriced, but welcome, ice cream. We needed something nice to get us back onto the bus for the 3 hours home!

All in all, Marrakech gives a glimpse into a more modern Morocco. Although the city caters a lot for tourists, we were still able to get a sense of how Morocco has entered the 21st century, especially as our visit coincided with a local public holiday! To take us on our next leg we put into practice some of the bargaining skills we had honed over the past week, and got what was hopefully a good price for a driver to take us over the Atlas mountains and into the vast desert beyond. With an early morning planned, and the prospect of the unknown on the horizon, our last night in Marrakech was an early one. We would be heading into the domain of the Berbers.

Some observations from Marrakech:

1. Forget donkeys, you'll need to dodge mopeds like your life depends on it.

2. You will be told that your hotel is closed/burnt down/being renovated. It's not!

3. Photos aren't free.

Next stop...Over the Atlas

Posted by remoteman 06:29 Archived in Morocco Comments (1)

Fantastic Fes

Dodging donkeys in Morocco's imperial city

Overlooking the medina

Overlooking the medina

Look at Morocco on a map. You could be forgiven for assuming that, being so close to Spain, Morocco would exhibit a strong European influence. Once you set foot in Morocco, you can see the reality is much more complex. Although Europe and Morocco may be geographically close, they feel worlds apart. Morocco is the gateway to Africa, straddling a crossroad of cultures. From the east, the influence of Islam and Arab immigration. From the north, the power of Europe, both conquerors and colonisers. From the south, the Sahara and the Berber people, original inhabitants of the land. Together, these influences have moulded Morocco into the country it is today. Magical, ancient, majestic, chaotic, and proud. Morocco is a true melting pot.

Beautiful stucco

Beautiful stucco

A cat relaxes in the medrasa

A cat relaxes in the medrasa

We began our personal Moroccan experience in Fes, one of Morocco's three imperial cities (along with Marrakech and Meknes). As we exited the plane we spotted a local farmer herding his goats beside the runway. We definitely weren't in Paris any more. Following some thorough internet trawling (there we go with that 21st century travel again), we had booked in to Dar Houdo, a guest house embedded within the Fes medina (the old city). Previous guests had recommended, or rather compelled us, to pay for the airport pick up. We were sceptical, but we relented, and so were met at the airport by our driver. We were driven from the airport down long roads and around bustling roundabouts. All looking very normal and fairly organised. We drove through a large, beautiful, key-hole gate. “Old city of Fes”, our driver waved out the window. Then, abruptly, we stopped. With bags in tow our driver led us off the road and turned left. The streets began to narrow around us. A right and down some stairs, small shops began to appear on either side of the street, the smell of olives and herbs wafting from within. A quick left down a little alley, dodging a loaded mule. Right, left, left, right. Before we knew it, we were completely lost. Our only hope was to follow our driver, who had become more like our lifeline. Thankfully he didn't lead us astray, and almost as quickly as our journey began we were ushered through a small door into our beautiful guest house. Our host, Mohammed, greeted us with what we discovered was typical Moroccan warmth and sat down with us and a map. We definitely needed the map.

The Triumphal Arch, Volubilis

The Triumphal Arch, Volubilis

The Roman ruins of Volubilis

The Roman ruins of Volubilis

Morocco's official language, as with the rest of North Africa, is Arabic. But, as Morocco was once a French colony, almost all Moroccans also speak French. Unfortunately, we speak neither (unless you count a few key phrases), and things are often lost in translation. We were told that we could visit the ruins of Volubilis on a day trip from Fes. “Only 1 hour driving”, we were told. Two and a half very windy hours later we gladly alighted from our car in the remains of a Roman city, happy, but regretting the amount of complimentary breakfast we had indulged in. Volubilis was constructed by the Roman Empire during the 2nd century AD, on the site of a previous Punic city. Standing proudly atop a hill, the city implemented an ambitious agricultural project in the surrounding area, felling the forests and sowing the fields with wheat. The fields have long outlasted the city itself, and through the ruined curves of the Triumphal Arch, you can glimpse undulating green pastures. As far as ruins go, Volubilis is fairly well preserved. A number of beautiful mosaics still sit, in-situ, within the walls of wealthy houses. You can still stroll down the broad main street, as people must have done thousands of years before, and you can see the remnants of the Roman drainage system beneath the road. Walking through the remains of bathing houses and temples, you begin to comprehend just how far back Morocco's history goes. Long before the French or the Arabs ever stepped foot there, Morocco was part of one of the worlds first empires. An amazing, and rather humbling, thought.

The Tanneries

The Tanneries

Although we had meandered through the streets surrounding our guest house, passing the odd camel head or bronze goods store, we still didn't feel on top of the chaotic labyrinth that is the Fes medina. We organised a tour with a charming and talkative local named H'aleed. The Fes medina is the largest in Morocco, and as H'aleed led us deeper and deeper into the old city we could feel it pulsating around us like a living creature. Fes is the Moroccan capital of handicrafts (or so any local will tell you), and we were treated to displays of carpets, oils, spices, woodworks, scarves and even wedding chairs. All, of course, came with a complimentary sales pitch. One of the more amazing displays was the tanneries. The tanners in Fes produce leather products from the skin of cow, sheep, goat and even camel, using methods unchanged for hundreds of years. As our guide/salesman told us they treat the animal skins with wild pigeon poo, which probably explains the rather affronting smell. Of course, handicrafts aren't Fes' only attraction. In addition, Fes also possesses some beautiful Islamic architecture, including the stunning Bou Inania medarasa (religious school) and University of Al-Karaouine (one of the oldest in the world). Covered in beautiful mosaics and intricate stucco, these buildings are an oasis of calm in what can be a rather overwhelming place. Lucky we had a guide.

Overlooking the city from the Merenid tombs

Overlooking the city from the Merenid tombs

The day after our tour, with our navigational confidence much higher, we headed through the medina and up to the remains of the Merenid tombs, sitting atop a hill overlooking the old city. Gazing down upon the huge expanse of the medina, surrounded by the crumbling and decrepit walls of the tombs, we felt a sense of accomplishment. We had conquered the old city. Visiting the medina of Fes feels like travelling back in time. People there live in a style that would not have changed for many years. Although the medina is confusing and often confronting for the uninitiated, once we got comfortable we really enjoyed our stay. Unfortunately, our trip to Fes was extended unexpectedly when Elly came down with a severe case of food poisoning. Three days of sickness and a hospital visit weren't the best way to leave Fes. A word of warning for anybody planning a visit. La Kasbah restaurant near the Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate), should be avoided (something that many locals informed us of after the fact). I guess it goes to show that entries in Lonely Planet should be taken with a grain (or bucket) of salt.

Some observations from Fes:

1. Always be on the look out for donkeys.

2. You will get lost (but you're supposed to...enjoy it!),

3. People will try to sell you pot (or maybe that was because of my long hair).

Next stop...Marrakech

Posted by remoteman 14:19 Archived in Morocco Comments (2)

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