Morocco Diary - March 13

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Monday, March 13

Another splendid, cloudless morning. I took a photo of the mosque and gardens visible from our bedroom window, and then it was time to leave (though we shot photos as we headed for the front door). Myriad birds chirped and flitted among the abundant trees and flowers of the enclosed courtyard. As we crossed the courtyard, I again noted that the clientele is primarily French.

Stop number 1: to see a large movie studio that is thinly disguised as a massive Kasbah.

Stop number 2: overlook with view of Aït Ben Haddou, a fabulous, ancient Kasbah/ksar used in Gladiator, Samson and Delilah, and other movies. It was built in the 10th century. This Kasbah (Aziz called it a Kasbah, but it is also a bit like a ksar or douar, with the multiple houses) and others in this area were actually not created as palaces, but rather as caravansaries, to accommodate the caravans moving between Marrakech and Timbuktu.

Agadir—fortified granary on top of hill above Aït Ben Haddou. If your food was safe, you could withstand a fairly extended siege.

More than 100 families once lived in Aït Ben Haddou, making their living off of hosting (and taxing) the caravans. Only six families now live here, farming and looking after tourists.

Aït Ben Haddou is now a World Heritage site.

A bit farther down the road, we disembarked the bus again and headed off on foot through a small village, down to a broad, muddy river where sandbags had been placed across the river to act as steppingstones. Some of the bags were fairly far apart, so I was glad for the crowd of young urchins waiting to help tourists across.

On the far side was Aït Ben Haddou, and we entered and wandered the narrow, stone-paved streets among the adobe buildings—and among the vendors waiting for tourists. But vendors were not numerous, and we left them behind. We eventually came to a dusty courtyard near the front of the Kasbah, where a donkey and a few simple implements for pounding and grinding grain showed that this is an area where people live. A couple of women greeted us from a doorway. Nearby, we ducked through a low door into a tight stairwell, where we climbed four stories of high, uneven stairs to the roof between the guard towers. This afforded us an incredible view of the Kasbah, agadir, and surrounding land—as well as of the stork with nest on top of one of the guard towers. Parts of the roof were broken, and we had to be careful, but we were delighted we had come up.

Back down from the roof and outside the outer walls, we were once more assisted across the stream by the crowd of youngsters, and then we were on the road again, cruising through a rough, winding, and increasingly impressive landscape. Hills became mountains. Red rock, yellow, olive-green, tan, dark brown, and pink rose up, all with the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas as background. Towns remained picturesque, clinging to slopes or nestled in valleys. More greenery as we headed north—and purple and yellow wild flowers.

At last—a photo stop, to capture the amazing colors (too rough a road for photos out the windows).

Along the narrow road, we saw small piles of whitewashed stones. Aziz said that this shows where the road will be widened. Because some of the white rocks are on fairly substantial cliff edges, this will clearly be a big job.

Lunch stop at a cliff-side hostelry. Vegetable soup to start, with fresh, warm bread. Soup was thick with finely chopped carrots, celery, onion, turnip. Salt and cumin on table, instead of salt and pepper. Soup needed both—but then it was great.

The next course was a “Berber omelet”—scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

The main course was chicken shish kebab, rice, and French fries. Far from being the best meal on the trip, but pleasant. Everything was good quality, just under-seasoned, but perhaps that’s what the general tourist traffic demands.

Oranges for dessert, and then out to the terrace for tea—and what a view. Then a brief stroll through a nearby gift shop (some amazing mineral specimens!), and we were off again.

Up into the High Atlas. The pass through which we crossed to the other side was about 7,320 feet high—though the peaks still towered over us.

Photo stop. As with virtually every other overlook, pull off, or tourist vista in Morocco (or, to be fair, in any other country at a similar level of economic development), there were vendors. Up here, most of the vendors have small, cliff-side homes, as a commute would be impossible.

Below us, we could see the switchback roads that would take us down the other side—and saw trucks laboring up those switchbacks. Aziz told us that the road actually follows the old Marrakech to Timbuktu caravan route through the mountains. The trip took a camel caravan 52 days. Aziz said that the distance from Ourzazate to Marrakech is seven miles as the crow flies, but is 112 miles by road, because of all the switchbacks.

Dramatic difference between north and south sides of the mountain range. Protected from the desert wind, the north side is greener, with terraced fields of crops growing between stands of pine trees. It’s as if we were in a completely different country.

Down out of the mountains, through villages, among farms, and along tree-lined roads, past innumerable, wonderful little scenes of people’s lives.

I have taken hundreds of photos here, but there are thousands of images more that I could not capture, either because we were in motion or because it would be inappropriate and unwelcome. Sudden vistas of farms or mountain peaks, a shepherd hurrying his flock home, children in school, colorfully dressed women walking along a mountain path, donkey carts in traffic, fields of orange calendula or yellow mustard flower, food carts along the road, a white-bearded man in turban and jilaba riding his donkey through an ancient village, wildly eroded rocks in improbably intense shades of red and green, terraced fields filling a valley, all the women of a village by the river’s edge doing laundry—so much—too much to capture with a camera, but I’m glad to have seen it.

Fields of strawberries and honeydew melons growing on both sides of the road—both available year-round in Marrakech.

Past golf courses, including the Royal Golf Course of Marrakech, and country club and mansions while still well outside the city.

Gardens everywhere, as we entered Marrakech, including vast numbers of rose bushes (it is known as the “City of Roses”). Tree-lined boulevards, fountains, elegant buildings— Marrakech is a beautiful city!

And our hotel—Hotel El Andalous Marrakech—is spectacular. Marble floors, elaborate decorations in the spacious lobby, extensive amenities—a high-end, big-city hotel—and again, we have splendid views from our fourth-floor rooms.

Dinner at 7:30. Spectacular dining room with brass doors, carved plaster ceiling, and extensive buffet. Salads and mains were nice but unexceptional (though more varied than last night), but there were a couple of highlights—excellent potato soup and braised fennel. And, of course, good company.

Internet café here. Spent an hour checking messages and deleting junk. So now one aspect of my going home will be easier.

To bed by 11:20—a record late night for this trip.

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