The flight from Melbourne to Dubai was civil. Emirates has the best planes, the glitziest stewards and the greatest number of destinations. All bodes well until you step away from their first world destinations. Our fellow travellers to Casablanca haven’t really tuned into the advancements from camel to 30,000 feet. They mill with their boxes and bound bags of life’s possessions two hours before the flight boards.
An hour into the flight a Moroccan guy becomes agitated over something and starts to scream at the stewards. I’m guessing he’d forgotten to turn off the gas at home and wants the plane to turn around or something worse maybe. Suddenly he ups and bolts to the pointy end of the plane banging on the pilots door. I’m only guessing but I don’t think if they let him in he could fly this thing. Thankfully he doesn’t get in to try.
The mood turns decidedly quiet. Lunch is put on hold whilst the crew plan their next step. Rushing down the aisles four stewards and two female attendants overpower the agitated wannabe pilot and cable tie his hands and feet together. Fifteen minutes later they have him strapped securely in a seat with extra seatbelts. He groans, cries out with blood curdling screams, his feet lash out with limited success. We all want to be rid of him but there is still four hours more flying. The minute the plane lands everyone is up and desperate to be away. Our strapped in friend has now quietened and will await his fate from the local authorities.
Out of the Casablanca airport my protective senses turn to overdrive, sadly in this dusty, rough city I expect everyone to fleece me. Beady, curious pairs of eyes dart about in the semi darkness as I search for a taxi. Our poor taxi driver cops my unnecessary suspicions when he doesn’t know of our hotel. Of course he doesn’t, Intrepid tours have us in a barely flickering half star hotel, hidden and unknown to even the locals. The taxi has charged us exactly the standard city rate. Afterwards I wish I could apologise for my guarded, prejudice disposition.
We awake to a very bright sun and the distant sound of car horns beeping without conviction. We stumble downstairs to meet our companions for the next two weeks. Judgemental eyes dart about as we try to unlock the code early on who are the ones to steer clear off. It’s hard to tell, no one shows their hand early. The first drinking session will surely expose the potential ranting axe murderer. Instead I focus on the breakfast and slurp a really good strong coffee and delicious French pastries. This was not my expectation but then I vaguely remembered that the French had colonised Morocco in the early part of the last century. Their bakery skills live on.
We all head out to visit Hassan 11 Mosque, it is the only local mosque that non muslims can visit here. The impressive mosque structure was built in 1993. It can hold 2,500 people and sits dominating the water’s edge with its towering minaret. Tinny speakers attached to the minaret herald worshippers to prayer. After the mosque visit we sit at a street cafe enjoying the morning sun and watching the passing throng bustling along to work. We are early and have taken the prized tables usually controlled by swarthy Moroccan men who sit in pairs eyes reading the passing parade. Within seconds of us rising they land like seagulls settling in for the day.
We roll our pristine travel bags across rubbish strewn, pothole filled laneways towards the railway station. It is a short ride to the Kings Palace but unfortunately only Kings can visit so we head on to the Souk Habbous. My allergic reaction to retail therapy has me twitching but I have no chance of escape as I am drawn into the vortex. The crowd of crazy shoppers literally draws you under. Its no different to the way that an ocean rip will take you far from your intended location. Just as I think I am going to drown in retail bartering Robyn pulls me towards a side door and we pop back out on the Main Street. I draw in a deep breathe like I have just surfaced after nearly drowning. Her navigation skills have always impressed and today she has saved our holiday funds from disappearing.
Back onto a train slowly heading inland towards Meknes. Daylight has faded as have our energy levels. At least our hotel has an illuminated sign which confirms it is at least a one star inn. I watch as everyone’s mood lifts with the silent hopes of a decent bed. We meet later for a mixed grille, my notes refer to it as twisted, tortured, burnt animal but edible. The group is bonding and the laughs come easy.
Out in the street early the next morning, we hail a small fleet of petite taxis. Each city has them in a different colour and they swarm about like bees in plague numbers. We head to the “most beautiful gates in Morocco “ referred to as Bab Mansour. Sure enough the tourism hype will confirm just that. They are just around the corner from yet another Medina but that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Robyn and I wander the narrow lanes trying to grab brief glimpses of life beyond the tiny doorways. It’s hard to decipher exactly what is happening in the gloomy interiors. Suddenly a small army of school children burst from a doorway. They have the same pent up energy of escaping school children the world over. Many of these children head towards their parents stalls where they help serve, sew or clean. Their home, school and work all lived out within a few hundred metres.
The meat sections of these souks are barbaric in comparison to the homogenised, sanitised presentation back in Australia. A clutch of chickens are bound together to avoid hatching an escape. I watch as an astute buyer inspects before buying a pair. Finally there is a brief nod of acceptance. The chickens are weighed, beheaded, gutted and plucked whilst the customer keeps up the banter with the poultry woman. At a distance a couple of healthy cats wait patiently hoping/expecting a few scraps.
Our group gathers at 11am for a local specialty, camel burgers. “Can’t wait” I hear myself repeating out of earshot of the others. It is an intricate purchase, firstly you admire the large camel head sitting proudly front and centre of his stall. Next you tell him how impressed you are with his considered display. It’s by far the best camel meat you’ve ever cast an eye over. The large greasy hump is a sight to behold. I signal to the proprietor that I need enough mince for two burgers. He gives me a nod, a knowing wink then begins grinding a nice mixture of prime aged camel with a good percentage of greasy hump fat. A few local dirham change hands and I follow the others into another laneway where the rest of the group sit waiting near some bakers ovens and grilles.
The guide has done a deal where the local baker cooks the camel patties and a nice burger bun. Meanwhile our group linger around a pokey tea house where locals also sit in a cloud of smoke pulling hard on shisha pipes. Us out-of-towners cough and splutter like we know what we are doing ! Finally the camel burgers are ready. They aren’t bad or is it that what we are smoking clouds my judgement.
It’s teeming rain when we throw our packs onto the roof of a small van for the journey to Volubilis. A flapping sheet of plastic is the luggage cover and is evidently going to protect everything we have. It’s dismal when we step from the mini bus into thick slush. An enthusiastic local guide leads us towards an area of beautiful Roman mosaics. “You are very lucky “ our guide announces, we look dumbfounded. “The tiles are at their best when wet !” I feel my body slump. The guide tries to spice things up telling us he thinks this house may have been a brothel. Standing there in the rain, water running down my nose my imagination isn’t quite as strong as our guides. We slop back into the bus which immediately is like a communal steam bath. Onward to Fez.
It’s still raining in Fez, not our perceived image of desert style Morocco. It’s so cold we huddle fully clothed in bed until it’s time to head out for dinner. All those that announced they were light drinkers are already placing multiple drink orders. We move on down a seedy laneway to a room overflowing with cushions and no chairs. We lounge about and eat exactly one hundred courses. Robyn seems quiet until someone notices she has fallen asleep amongst a cloud of dusty harem pillows. We weave through the streets back to hotel De Nice in our pale blue petite taxis full of holiday laughter.
After an early morning drive to oversee the city of Fez we wind our way back and wander the industrial part of the Medina. Behind hundreds of rather nondescript doors sparks fly as metal is cut, polished and buffed to a high sheen. Young boys who really should be at school are belting and punching metal bowls into submission. Another huddle of young boys mill around an almost finished tabletop tooling intricate patterns into the raw surface. The air is thick with the scent of mountain top cedar. Bored looking repetitive machinists bang out 200 pots / day in squalid conditions oblivious to the snaking line of Western tourists wandering through their workplace.
This is all a warm up show though. We’ve really come to view the tanneries. We smell them long before we see them. Men waist deep in thick stinky, densely coloured murky water. Evidently they get paid quite well. They’d have to as the work of lifting heavy squelching hides would break your spirit and then your back. Surprisingly the only place to take panoramic photographs of the kaleidoscope of tanning pits is from the front steps of the leather goods shops perched strategically, opportunistically high above. Location, Location.
We visit the nearby Fez museum full of dusty, ancient artefacts. I’m drawn to the more modern roof top view, thousands of 21st century satellite dishes beckon towards the heavens. Yet back down at street level it’s of biblical times. Did I just see Jesus pass by on a donkey? We wander past the Fez mosque under reconstruction. I’m impressed with the ‘bowing bar’ as you head towards the entrance. A heavy hovering overhead steel bar set at such a height as to force you to bow or end up with a headache. A physical necessity or religious acknowledgement ?
Over another banquet sized lunch the group talks of the surprising amount of things they have found themselves buying in the medinas. My eyes roll. These are the worlds longest serving traders, having honed their skills on hard nosed Middle Eastern customers prepared to walk if the price isn’t right. We naive tourists are lambs to the slaughter against selling techniques never considered in the Western world. Later we try to lift our heavy Western bodies from the fluffy pillows vowing not to eat again till… tonight.
We visit a silk factory full of elderly, wiry men working massive, yet intricate weaving machines. Under these looms more agile, wiry men adjust tension, repair broken threads and whisper sweet nothings to these ancient contraptions. The fact that these wheezing machines can produce such beautiful, delicate silk wedding fabric is difficult to comprehend. I admire but keep my hands firmly in my pockets. Our day finishes as it started with another vista view over the city, this time from the North. Our little blue taxis weave through the city and back to Hotel de Nice, which it isn’t.
Today we head towards the mountains. “We shall pass a ski resort” our guide announces. I visualise my complete wardrobe lashed to the mini bus roof and it doesn’t match our destination. Sure enough at a Swiss style resort high in the mountains I am sipping a large hot chocolate whilst clinging to the cup for warmth. We start to pass snow drifts on the side of the road. Cloud cling to the surrounding mountains giving us few glimpses of our final destination.
Ever upward bouncing along when suddenly the winding road disappears. In front of us it is just a wide vista of barren sand ? There are a million tracks we could follow and other than knowing to keep the sun on one side the driver seems to be making last minute guesses as to which track best suits him today. Our mini bus shudders along, there are few objects to identify our location and the horizon is one long straight line. We finally arrive at a small fortress styled hotel. It suits our imagination of Ali Baba and his forty thieves. Nearby stand fifteen camels topped up with a weeks water and ready for a stroll into the desert.
Our time in the vast Sahara desert was impressive, just to see Robyn wrapped in scarves gyrating on top of the ship of the desert as it loped towards our desert camp will stay with me for many years. My own memory was more eye watering. The camel’s gait was rhythmic on the flat but as the ungainly animals lurched up or down the sandhills my pubic bone was battered against the camels pronounced hump. I arrived at camp walking like my childhood hero John Wayne at the O.K Corral.
We eat an early dinner. A fire crackles away with a tagine of chicken and potatoes on offer. We eat dinner with our hands. Robyn and I look at each other sure that death awaits each scoop of food into our greedy mouths. We head to bed as darkness arrives. There is little else to do. Robyn was not the happiest person in our camp when two wise old camp cats decided to snuggle up to her in the night. I get up for a pee late into the night. The sky is a spectacular shower of stars, snoring rumbles from the communal tents. Our string of camels sit quietly as I stumble towards the little tin outhouse. As I settle back to sleep I can hear cat allergic Robyn. “Shoo, shoo” she whispers into the dark.
Robyn wakes pale and poorly from her night in the tent. As they day progresses her condition steadily deteriorates. She is bundled into the front seat of the bus, the sick bay, and shivers uncontrollably. The faster we reach our next hotel in Todra Gorge. My notes mention the breakfast highlight being the warmth radiating from the dirty glass of murky coffee. Lunch is forgotten in the quest to get Robyn to our hotel before she runs out of toilet stops. You can only hold on for so long.
We get Robyn to bed wrap her tightly in as many blankets as we can find but she is delusional and shaking. She tells me she loves me, actually I made that up. I cannot leave her in this room it’s bitterly cold. I lay down and wet her face till eventually her headache recedes. Finally she sleeps, the toilet dashes stop but the smell of vomit sticks. She is a pale, grey, smelly specimen in the morning but is talking.
Eight of our group climb the gorge. Our guide has kindly offered to watch over Robyn whilst a few others are also a bit green. We are wearing all our clothing as we leave Todra Gorge forever cast in shadow through the Winter. As we climb beyond the gorge and the sun hits us we are suddenly stripping off layer after layer of clothing. At the top we peer along the craggy mountain range which goes on and on. We meet some nomadic farmers as we head back down living a rather frugal lifestyle with their herds of goats in this rather barren land. So rough and steep is the terrain that one goat herder has splinted the legs of four of his sure footed goats who have fallen on this crumbly rock. I take note.
The bus grinds out of Todra Gorge, it’s as if the spluttering engine has asthma. Our progress has slowed to a crawl as the mountains have become ever steeper. Then we drop down and travel along a gushing river lined with towering date palms. A tropical plant which seems well out of its comfort zone when all around us is freezing cold.
The group is a mixed bag, as is life A couple from NZ are great fun. Duncan, a Pharmacist is quiet until the music starts and then he starts rapping to the Moroccan music and then takes over the drums and even sings his interpretation of berber / arabic ……. very funny then he finishes off with some serious rap head spinning on the threadbare berber carpet. Megan has a quick sense of humour and has infused laughter into all of the group.
Half our group have come from London where they are on working holidays, All sleeping together in a traditional gite at snow level was a bonding moment for the whole group. It was freezing cold and we were spread around the perimeter of the stark room no one gave up any personal warmth. An outdoor kerosine heater was being used inside which warmed the room but made you dizzy from the fumes, go figure……cold vs death ? I dragged Robyn out into a smaller heater free room aware of the risk from the heater.
After a bus ride through the mountains that had everyone a bit grey in the face we have arrived at Essouira, a southern coastal town reknown for its wind surfing and local laundries, well it is now. After a week of wearing every layer of clothes we have brought, today they will all be flying like the Moroccan flag from clothes lines throughout this coastal city. I even had to barter for the timing the laundry would be ready/dry!!!!!! We exhausted the poor hotwater service at the hotel on our arrival last night. Today has been wandering the Medina and looking out to sea. Then in typical European custom, people watching in a square whilst eating non typical Moroccan food and coke. Actually the orange juice and sweet chicken pastries, pastilla were very good.
On to Marakesh and a bus driver that scared the daylights out of all aboard. Chuffed that he hasn’t been overtaken once in three hours of driving. He ignored the screaming from all aboard when he missed an old woman crossing the road by millimetres….I am careful and sedate in comparison ! Had a good new year in Marakesh, thanks to our guide who was determined to have a good time, even at our expense, it wasn’t cheap but the alcohol flowed freely in a city not so acceptable of the evil drink.
Over the two weeks most of the group were sick in some way, some more violently than others. The critical thing was always the timing. A day later I started to feel ill. In fact I began to feel ill an hour before hotel check out and spent all the time before our flight on a sun lounge, stumbling distance from the hotel’s public toilets. After a while I noticed I was the only patron !
I was doubled over for most of the check in and thought I was over the worst. A visit to the shabby airport toilets verified I was not quite there yet. I was overtaken with the stench and began vomiting. Sorry about this. By the time the cleaner had made the place respectable again I was back to ruin his good work. I was shivering and sweating at the same time I simply wanted to curl up and die.
Somehow Robyn got me onto the plane and into my middle row seat with the sweating subsiding. I closed my eyes and breathed steadily trying to block out the world. I was fine until the aroma of food hit my nostrils. I lurched from my seat and made it half way to the toilets when I evidently wheeled and collapsed in the aisle. Robyn told me she screamed as I lay there with my eyes having rolled up into my head. Anyway a doctor from New Zealand helped us, she also thought I had suffered a heart attack. I eventually got to the toilet, managed to clean myself up then the cabin crew cleared a full row of seats to lay me down to Barcelona. I was washed out, exhausted and cannot remember anything before falling into a deep sleep. This is not the way to get an upgrade.
The Spanish passengers returning home from Christmas holidays were very kind giving me water and asking Robyn if she needed help. As we shuffled slowly and silently towards customs Robyn turned to face me “We were catching a taxi straight to the hotel.” I nodded sapped of any will to argue. Besides the public had seen enough of me today.
Barcelona still does not give up showing me new things, yesterday under a fair bit of pressure we went to a tour of the concert/music hall where the orchestra were rehearsing. It is a magical room built to represent a garden. We also did the market and a walk along the los Ramblas, a walk of actors pretending to be statues, pet shops, nasty cafes and the weird and wonderful. I mistakedly showed some interest in a couple of shops which was a green light to Robyn to make a few purchases, nothing like doing a spot of bargain shopping betwen tourist stops, that familiar smell of the plastic card burning..
Have had a day of the arts today. Caught the vernicular to the top of the hill overlooking the city and then strolled to some exhibitions. First Miro,where his crazy paintings were easier to understand than the difficult access to the exhibition. Found the cloak room, the toilets and the temporary exhibition before finding the unmarked entrance. The Spanish really shine when it comes to presentation and as per the Picasso Exhibition we saw a few years ago the buidings and rooms really help you to see the art in a moody way. I wished I owned a cravat and a moustache I could stroke.
Walked through some gardens to the main museum where I was dragged through one section depicting the naives of early 12th century roman churches. I thought I would hate it but it was exceptionally well done with tiny models of the 28 small scattered churches of Catalonia (this area of Spain) and full scale frescos of the naives and the various styles. I guess with time these small churches were difficult to manage and protect so they have redone them here before they disappear. All of that aside it was very interesting. Again you walk out the huge glass front doors to be knocked out by the city vista.
The day wouldn’t be complete without some eating and Robyn pointed me towards the old harbour and eventually some baguettes of jamon and cheese and a little sweet thingy a few more hundred yards along the promenade. More impressive were the local surfers riding a shore break whilst the local clock said it was only 3pm, clear skies and nine degrees……….. Trying the same restaurant as last night, although I have to take Robyn’s word that the calamari I ate was the best I have ever eaten. I think I will enjoy it more tonight although the stomach is still a little weak. Tomorrow afternoon we head to Majorca and our place in the mountains for a week. Robyn is walking slowly but isn’t limping any more, fingers crossed she is up for a few walks. Better go, whilst I’m in here typing she is moochin around those shops,finding little georgous things……………
The breakfast room appears gloomy the window normally has squinting sunshine streaming in. Today all I can see are the tips of umbrellas steadily passing as I embrace my morning coffee and pastry. We hopscotch the nearby laneways trying to avoid the deepest puddles hoping the weather will break alas our plans will have to wait. All our spare time evaporates as we make our way to the airport for the short flight to Mallorca. There are major works occurring on the subway and with little Spanish language between us we are all darting eyes and follow the leader. We have to catch 3 seperate trains and change platforms to get there. We arrive together with a gaggle of other wide eyed bewildered passengers ten minutes before our flight is called..Phew.
It might be raining steadily but that doesn’t mean I am going to be able to take the smooth,quick freeway to Fornalutx. I know Robyn will want to take the coastal road. A twisting turning goat track with little chance for the driver to either relax or catch a glimpse of the spectacular scenery. So it’s the wrong side of the road, manual car and a thousand gear changes. Airport purchased baguettes are devoured whilst staring out the windscreen out onto a grim Mediterranean reflecting the fat dark clouds steadily rolling our way.
Our hotel, https://www.fornalutxpetithotel.com/en/ is as good as previous and even better we are offered an upgrade to the luxury suite. Robyn’s face is one beaming smile. The stone paths are still awash when we head out for dinner. Our little cafe is busy, tomorrow is a Spanish public holiday, Epiphany, when the children get their gifts. The cafe is buzzing and children weave between the tables struggling to contain their enthusiasm. We are crammed on the smallest table hard against the front door but don’t begrudge watching local life unfold before us. For the record Robyn went straight to the suckling pig, followed by a lemon meringue and a bucket of vino Blanc.
In the early morning I admire the nearby mountains iced in snow. I forget just how high these mountains are. Over the orange press and pastries we decide to head to Orient. It’s a pretty little village with a church that is as old as time itself. A local woman concentrates on a tapestry but you know she has one eye on you as you poke about. On to the castle of Alaro which is on an even smaller track which has become a muddy slick after a few days of rain. We feel like explorers until we arrive at the full car park. Surely they didn’t all use that road.there was a war at the castle in the 12th century it went in for two years. Today’s war is fighting the German hikers to get a slice of almond cake and a hot chocolate. After a hearty walk we return and slurp a bowl of Mallorca cabbage, cauliflower and bread soup. Delicious and warmed our bellies.
We head off on a day walk to Lluc. I can feel a bit of uncertainty coming from behind. This is the worst part I throw into the conversation hoping it makes it a little more bearable and sooth any thought of mutiny. The vista are stunning and worth the scrambling and many, many steps. We finally step over a stye and out of the forest. We are on a rocky, well worn path with crude terraces built hundreds of years ago to provide the now gnarly olive trees some flat ground to grow on. Sheep graze quietly under the tree canopy . Finally to the monastery where there is talk of a black statue of the virgin. I’m unsure… it just looks a little grubby.
On to Sa Calobra where I imagine riding my bike through an amazing series of switchbacks snaking all the way to the coast. Instead I am fighting the little gearbox of our hire car to keep it on the bitumen. There is a sneaky little tunnel which takes you to a secluded beach. Well it is secluded in Winter but come Summer I’m sure it is heaving with tourists. Back along the road heading North to Pollenca and a rather tacky foreshore. Cala Sant Vicente is where we turn around. The guidebook sums it up describing the “tragically built Don Pedro hotel as consuming the pretty beach.”
Everyone has returned to work after the short Christmas break. We have the whole hotel to ourselves. The receptionist comes in to ask if a television crew could interview us ? In English we ask ? Sure… and we are frogmarched to the end of the nearby laneway to be asked why we would want to stay in an old monastery. The village also has frescos painted on the underside of the eaves tiles from hundreds of years ago. We had not noticed them until pointed out. Everyone seems surprised we knew nothing of them.
A steady walk from Fornalutx to Soller via Biniaraix. The narrow path an easy stroll with the background noise of jangling sheep bells as they jerk their heads at tufts of grass. We pass an ancient olive press being coaxed along to consume giant baskets of olives. Tractors are waiting silently for their turn to squeeze their harvest into thick olive oil. We have probably our best meal today. The view out over the Port of Soller probably helped but simply cooked sea bass and a full bottle of vino Blanc. We sit back with dappled Winter sun causing our eyes to droop. The bus back up the hills to Fornalutx is only one Euro. Nothing is one Euro. It’s a bargain, we are groggy from lunch and besides it’s all uphill !
Our last day. I smuggle a couple of bread rolls full of salami and cheese from the breakfast room. It’s cool but clear skies as I head first towards Biniaraix then North to Font does Noguer, a small lake. It’s all steps and body breaking work for the few small farmers. No flat ground anywhere so when I see a small motorised wheelbarrow creeping up the steps I am impressed. Afterwards I imagine this land was only ever able to be farmed with donkeys quietly shuffling over the slippery steps. What a hard life.
Besides surefooted sheep my only other companions are a handful of crazy German walkers who eat this type of terrain then lay back basking in the watery sunshine. I arrive back at our hotel five hours after waving goodbye. Robyn is still on the balcony enjoying a late lunch of jamon, chips and chocolate. I join her it’s all delicious. We sit staring out over the slowly melting snow capped mountains and feel a little special. Tomorrow we head for home.