Monday, October 20, 2008

Essouaria

It takes 3 hours to drive to Essouaria from Marrakesh. This time our taxi is a new Mercedes van and very comfortable. We stop along the way to photograph the goats in the argan trees, and get cranky with the goat herds who get cranky with us when they demand 100 durhams and we only give them 20.

Arriving in Essouaria after 3 hours of stoney desert, is lovely. The sky does that thing where somehow it looks different when you're on the coast. Gulls wheel and squeal, the sea crashes on the sand and our spirits lift. We hadn't expected such a large town, and I certainly didn't expect to see another walled medina, right on the beach. Our Riad Al Medina is a let down after the Riad Slitine and we have to ask for an extra bed. Almost everywhere we have gone, even though we stressed to the travel agent to make sure they asked for 3 separate beds, we have found ourselves with a double bed and one single bed, so we have to go through the whole routine of getting a portable bed added to our room. The beauty of Essouaria, is that it is both well laid out and small enough that you can walk the whole place without getting lost. It is a real fishing village. In the port blue hulled dories, trawlers, fishermen with cartons and barrows of fresh catch and the large atlantic gulls are all being studied and painted by artists of varying capabilities.
The main street leads down to a large town square, ringed by restaurants on two sides and opening to the seawall and beach on the third. Facing the beach is a row of blue and white marquees, all selling fresh catch cooked in front of you. It is too tempting and we decide to risk food poisoning and order Sardines, prawns and calamari. The prawns are good, the sardines excellent and the calamari woeful. The beach to the south of the 17th C Portugese fortress and port, is arching and windswept, flowing down to a spit with sand dunes and camel rides for hire. It is the end of the season and although warm, the sky is overcast above the broad promenade. The beach chairs are empty, vendors forlornley try to sell us their junk and camel rides, teenage boys play soccer on the sand. In one spot the boys have made up a game, half burying a giant swiss `fitball' in the sand and using it as a launch pad to spring somesaults in the air. One muscular teenager perfects a triple somersault and the watching crowd applauds. Kite surfers slice up the sea and sky, the beach is one of the worlds best for wind & kite surfing. On our way back to the riad, we stop for a beer at a seaside cafe, and sit in a glow of late afternoon sun, watching as it silvers the sea, talking aobut partners and children, admitting to missing loved ones and feeling the first pangs of being ready to go home.

There are still suprises ahead, though. The first is a restaurant called Elizir, a wonderful eclectic restaurant housed over three levels, with a rooftop terrace and art noveua / 60's fusion decor. The owner & chef is a local who spent 9 years in Italy, and the menu is a fabulous Italian / Maroccan fusion. We are served tapas compliments of the house - Cheese, olive, pumpkin and aubergine tapinades, fresh bread and Tiny Tom tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and herbs. Then I have hand made ravioli, in the shape of little bon bons, with ricotta and spinach and walnuts, and a beautiful creamy sauce. Gill has the same and Cath has Risotto with black cuttlefish, a delicate and exotic flavour. The following day it's discovering Chez Boujmaa, the first euro style delicatessan we've found in Maroc. We purchase Baguettes and chees and get them to slice and prepare the rolls for us for lunch. Dinner is intended to be at Le Cinq, another of the guide books recommendations, but when we try to find it, we can only find `After 5', which ouf course turns out to be the re-invention of Le Cinq. It is a little pricey, but we we decide to eat there. Large square chairs with deep cushions, dim lighting, arched wall alcoves, a fireplace, terrific African / Moroccan art work on the walls. A half decent French red ( the Moroccan wines are pretty ordinary) and we are settled. Unfortunately there is a language misunderstanding about my order of Lamb ribs with herbs, first I get Bream with herbs, which I send back, then I get Lamb tagine (I'm over tagines!) it goes back, and finally my Lamb ribs arrive - otherwise known as cutlets in Australia. The lamb is not to Australian standards, a little tough, but beautifully herbed and cooked and presented with some of the best mashed potatoes I've had in ages.
Essouaria has a reputation for art and music, and these two restaurants certainly reflect a local culture that is different from all the other Moroccan towns we've visited.
Gulls sqwaking accompany my waking thoughts. These large Atlantic gulls with their mottled wings and rimmed eyes, circle above the medina chasing smells of fish scraps from the port and the kitchens. Their cries are penetrating, "awk awk", with a ringing resonance almost clamoring like bells. I sit on the sea wall letting the sun warm my knees as the ocean rolls in with languid, lapping waves. The only people around at 9am are local boys and men and the occasional tourist. Its time to go home.

3 Days in Marrakesh


I'm really sick by the time we get back to Marrakesh. We stay at Riad Slitine and the receptionist arranges for a doctor to come and see me. Riad Slitine is heaven after our time in the mountains. The Doctor is a lovely Moroccan, who speaks french and a little english. It's not hard to pantomine a sore chest though and everyone understands `Diabetic'. He asks about my BGL's and checks my lungs and blood pressure, then prescribes antibiotics, anti inflammtory for my lungs, and a bronchitis medicine, to loosen the phlegm. He laughs when I tell him how hard it is to explain to Maroccans that I don't want sugar in my mint tea. The sugar intake here is appalling! They just pile it into everything and lollies and soft drinks are consumed by everyone. We bought some M&M's one day and they were disgusting. Much more sugar than the ones in Australia. Cath and Gill attend a cooking school which I have to miss out on.


The western medicine Pharmacies here are small shops, sticking strictly to stocking only medicine. They are usually staffed by women in white lab coats and headscarves, and have no advertising or extra products. When you walk in, there will be a few bare shelves beside the entrance, a counter and behind that some shelves with stocked medicines, no beauty products, baby formula, bandaging, perfumes or anything. For those you go to the traditional herbalist pharmacy, where there is a profusion of products. As you walk into these herbalists, you are assailed by beautiful scents from the baskets of dried herbs and spices, lining the shelves along the walls. Old men and women in djebellabas sit, leaning on walking canes. Young mothers nurse children and the attendants wear white lab coats and headscarves and try to look professional. These shops are generally light and bright, not dim and witchy as you might think a traditional herbalist would be.

Once I've got my medicine, I go out and about. We spend these few days shopping, having hammam (a proper one this time) and treating ourselves to meals at highly recommended restaurants. The first is an Italian restaurant, recommended for its pizzas. When I look at the menu, I notice that the pizzas with meat, have `minced meat', not good Italian sausage. I decide to ask for one of the steaks that are on the menu, and get told, "I'm sorry Madame, there is no beef available." We should have left then, but we stayed and orderd pizzas which were woeful, the mushrooms, artichokes and asparagus on Cath and Gill's pizzas are straight out of cans. The next night we eat at La Sultana, which has a lovely rooftop bar and a very good menu. I had Chicken and Almond pie for entree, and a mouth watering steak for mains. Three Arab musicians provide pleasant music, the seating is in alcoves around a pool scattered with rose petals and lit by candle light. Worth the money, although a little `created' and definitely upmarket.



Sunday, October 19, 2008

Trekking

The day before leaving Marrakesh to start our trek, I meet up with Sue, my Diabetic Nurse Educator, (Alfred Hospital). Sue is also on a tour, but has been in Turkey and Spain, and is heading to Portugal. Sue warns me that my glucose meter and pump may play up at high altitude, and be less than accurate! Cath reminds me that sometimes peoples cameras stop working at altitude.... All very reassuring (not!).
Riad Kasse - gorgeous - very french, lots of books to read in the rooms. We get a rooftop suite, apparently it used to be the owners rooms.
Gill gets food poisoning from the dried fruit I bought in the market. (I did wash it) I end up giving it to the mule driver for the mule. We have been staying at Riad Klass in Marrakesh, and the manager offers to look after Gill, while Cath and I go trekking. The riad people are so lovely, but we arrange to go to Ourgane, in the High Atlas and stay an extra day at a riad, `La Bergerie', postponing the trek a day until Gill is ok. I'll write about Riads and people in separate blogs.
Trek - Day 1
What a day! Blithely we set off. The first hour was lovely, out of the town through local villages, along streams under the shade of figs and walnuts. We have a guide, Charif, a muleteer Mohammed, and a mule Shamaysha.

I elected to carry my packwith about 4 kg in it. (What a mistake). We began the climb. Up and Up and up. The next 5 hours were continuous climbing. Over the course of the day we climbed from 1000m above sea level to 1800m asl. By lunchtime I was exhausted, while Cath and Gill were able to keep up the pace. Gill having had food poisoning the day before, was now climbing like a mountain goat. I had a head cold and was having difficulty with my breathing. (by the time we finished the trek, I had a raging chest infection and needed antibiotics). The mountains of the High Atlas around the Ourgane valley are red clay, granite, hematite, shale and various other stone - it looks like there have been many upheavals and recompressions of rock over millenia, creating a very mixed range of stone materials underfoot. Charif and Mohammed set up our lunch spot under a shady tree. They begin a routine that becoumes a lunchtime ceremony over the following days. We are told to sit on the rug they have taken off the mule, and to wait. They disappear! After 10 minutes we are beginning to wonder if we were supposed to bring our own lunch. Suddenly Mohammed reappears bearing a tray laden with orange cordial and a dish of nuts and biscuits. This is follwed 10 minutes later by a beautifully presented dish of finely chopped tomato, onion, green capsicum, cucumber and sardines, liberally sprinkled with cummin and drizzled with olive oil. The salad is accompanied by local bread and more orange cordial. All of this is followed by a plate of melon and orange slices. My stomach is still feeling the effects of my bout of diahorrea, and I wonder about the hygiene of preparation, but there is nothing for it, it's `eat or starve' time. I was still exhausted after lunch so we put my pack on the mule and I was able to keep up a little better.

Photos courtesy: C. Rule
The vegetation changes as we go higher, from walnut, fig and almond orchards, to juniper, small cypress and oak, then low scrubby herbs. There is wild thyme and lavender that the goats love to graze. Eventually we are over the top, then following a gentle downward slope to meet the road into our village for the night. As we come closer to the village there are palmate leaved palms whihc bear a small date fruit. The village `Assif Zagrawn', is situated in a deep cleft between mountains. It is extraordinary to see how steeply situated the houses are and to contemplate how much walking up and down hills, the people do. Charif tells me it is common for the people to live to well over 100, even 120 years old. The houses are built of stone patched with mud. There is no electricity into the village, yet our host house has solar panels and a satellite dish. There is also no mobile reception in the village. As we walk the final kilometeres into the village, we come across a group of a dozen or so people out on the roadway about a kilometre from the village. They are there because it is a good spot to get mobile reception, so they are all sharing one phone and making calls!
We are not introduced to the host family, but are taken to the roof top where we are given the never ending mint tea and fresh walnuts. After refreshing ourselves, we peer into the kitchen where the women of the house are cooking tagines on charcoal stoves. We have a lovely conversation of mime and broken french and giggles. We are served dinner on another terrace and join a group of 4 Belgians who are also trekking. Fortunately the two Belgian women speak good french and adequate english, so we have a lively dinner party. While we wait for dinner, Mohammed, our muleteer, breaks into traditional Berber singing, and of course everyone begins to join in, clapping, stomping feet, drumming on the table. When dinner is served, our hosts perform the lovely tradition of bringing around a kettle of hot water and a dish & towel. They invite you to hold your hands above the dish and they pour the hot water over them. The meal is rabbit tagine. Our sleeping quarters are in a room with no beds, just Berber carpets on the floor. We do a sponge wash in the toilet room. The toilet is a traditional `squat' hole in floor arrangement. We fall asleep, but all wake at about 2am. Impossible to get back to sleep, the cold from the concrete seeps up, even though we have put down blankets on top of the carpet. I have a raging sore throat and put it down to the dust from sleeping on the floor.
Day 2
We climb another 600m in 2hours. I think I'm going to die! There are spectacular views, although blurred by the dust whipped up by yesterdays winds. I am wearing my scarf berber style, to keep the dust out. The mountain geology changes from red basalt and granite to jagged shale.

Photos courtesy: C. Rule
We walk with the Belgian group and it is lovely to have company. As we climb, Mohammed breaks into song every time we have a break, and the Belgian men join him, dancing and singing on the roof of the world. They stay in the village at a hotel, then go home in the morning.Then it is, as our guide Charif says "down, down, down" and we slip, slide, tentatively step, across sheer loose scree faces of mountains along goat trails and invisble paths. From 2400m asl, we descend to 1200m in 5 hours. Much of it is heartstopping as the shale slides away underfoot and scatters down ravines. By the time we finish, I am telling Charif, my legs are saying 'We want to go up!"
We stay in a very different more modern house tonight. It is large and tiled and clean with town electricity. The village is called Tassa Wirgane. Our sleeping room is amply furnished with divans and cushions. Again we don't meet our hosts, but Charif has been promising us we can get a hammam at the house. Our minds are filled with thoughts of hot water and a rub down. He tells us to ask the lady in the kitchen about the hammam. We are led to a cold concrete room and luke warm water from a tap. No rub down! We think it is so funny. Dinner is served at 8 and is the absolute best Cous-cous with meat and vegetables. Apparently our hostess grinds the grain by hand and then steams it. She has a reputation of making the best cous-cous in town.




Day 3
An easier day, starting with a short steep climb, then down to the valley and through a village. Out the other side we follow a river bed, with Charif showing us the many types of quartz crystals, telling us there is amethyst around. When he finds a rock that he says is ameythyst, we decide it is more like smokey quartz, than amethyst. We visit 2 salt mining works. The first creates salt from artesian water, raising it by bucket from wells and flooding concreted salt pans. In summer it takes 4 days to evaporate and leave the salt behind. Salt is sold at 1 durham / kg, and the bags are 50kg. Families own licenses and each family has built a mud and stone store to protect their bagged salt from rain. Temperatures in this river valley reach 50deg in summer. It is hard to imagine anyone being able to work in those conditions as the heat rises and the the salt pans glare white.

Walking out of the river valley, we stop for lunch under a pine plantation planted by the French before their departure in 1956. After lunch we visit a salt mine that takes rock salt from the mountain and dissolves it then evaporates off the water and mills it on site. We are shown around the mill by a little berberman who seem delighted by my inadequate french, when I am able to understand `mille neuf tronte' as the year that the mill was started.
Photos courtesy C. Rule
The final milling process includes having a charcoal fire under the mill building to keep the atmosphere dry. There are three grades of salt including one producing iodinised salt for Unicef, for goitre ccontrol programs. It was the best fun as he tried to explain it to us using a mix of pantomime and french - I finally got it as he kept using his hands to describe a goitre'd throat, and I said "Iodine!" "Oui, oui!" he exclaimed.

Photos courtesy C. Rule
Then climbing anouther small mountain, we reached `Ouchfifnel' our destination for the night. Our host house was most unusual. We approached it from the river road, where we walked under broken slipping cliffs. There had been landslides the week before. The house stands between the road and the river and from the outside has the appearance of no more than a row of mud brick sheds.

We stood silent and uneasy as Mohammed and Charif unpacked Shamaysha. Glancing at each other, trying not to give away our thoughts. We were led, ducking our heads under the low lintel, down some stairs, to find it open out into a gracious 3 story terraced house facing the river. Our room had divans and mattresses on the floor. Our hosts served us mint tea, corn bread, olive oil and honey on the verandah. Once again the family has a garden along the riverside, producing figs, olives, almonds, pomegranate, all their vegetables, turkeys and chickens. I saw 2 huge pupmkins on one of the roof terraces. This time we were invited to `help' with the preparation of the evening meal and we went down to the kitchen where we were seated on low stools at a low table and were given the vegetables to peel and the mint to chop for tea.
They still do all their cooking preparation on the ground. The mother was working the clay oven that produced the charcoal to put under the tagines on a separate tagine stove. Then she made the bread dough in a large wide bowl, on the floor. She simply stands bent double and kneads the dough in that position. There are no hip height tables any where. I think that she and her mother in law still considered themselves lucky as they were close to the water nad didn't have to climb up and down mountains to fetch it.
Gill and Cath have both suffered bites. Gill's appear to be mosquitoes or midges, while Cath woke us all in the night with shrieks of "Somethings biting me!" She had two good bites on her stomach and brest. I think it was probably an ant that got on her while she was outside, then got in her sleeping bag. I keep referring to vampire bats.
Breakfasts each day are local bread and pancakes with jam, olive oil and mint tea. We are all so sick of mint tea, that we are making jokes about giving it to each other for birthday presents.

Day 4
We walk along the river into the gorge leading to the new dam above Ourgane. We went up along the mountainside, through a gorgeous stone village with terrific gardens. This side of the mountain is very `garden of eden', with large cedars, birch and oak, the other side becomes harsh and dry with lavendar and thyme again.

We cross the dam wall and walk down into the Ourgane valley and back to La Bergeriac. We all stink! Gill & I head straight for the bathroom while Cath orders drinks. I ask her ot order me a couble gin & tonic, and walk out ot the bar to find a glass 3/4 full of gin, they've run out of tonic!!! We are just about falling over, laughing.
Our taxi arrives on time at 4pm and we have an uneventful (for Maroc) journey back to Marrakesh.