Monday, 1 June 2009

Over the Atlas to Marrakech (Day 14)

We caught an early bus to Marrakech (also called Marrakesh or Murrākush) and left Ouarzazate behind. This time we took a CTM bus. We always tried to do that but on some occasions CTM was not an option. The bus was quite new and really decent even by European standards. Nevertheless we were the only foreigners on board.

Considering the narrow, winding road over the high Atlas mountains and our experience so far, the bus driver was driving very carefully, slowing before every tight turn. Nevertheless some of the local passengers were not taking it too well, throwing up every fifteen minutes.
At first it was quite awful but eventually we got used to it.
Five and a half hours, several puking bags (fortunately not by us) and a few stops later, we arrived to Marrakech.

The first stop was next to an improvised fruit stand. Actually to be accurate, it was an apple stand. A guy, obviously the bus driver's acquaintance, was standing next to the road and had ten boxes of apples to sell. Passengers seemed quite thrilled - almost everybody got at least a few apples.
Next stop was in a small village which consisted of a few houses and an all-in-one café, butcher's shop and grill. A cow curiously looked at us through a door of one of the houses.

It was quite interesting to watch most of the passengers gorging on whatever was on offer, just to puke it all out a few minutes later.

At the Marrakech CTM bus station we caught a petit taxi which took us to the old town center. He dropped us near the main square - the famous Djemaa el Fna.

We were looking for a specific hotel that was recommended to us back home and we soon found it. Despite a very friendly receptionist, we couldn't get a room. It appeared to be full, so we decided to try our luck again on the next morning.
Finding another hotel was not so hard, but we still had to check out a few of them to find at least a half decent substitute. Since it was just for a single night we settled for the Hotel El Kennaria, which turned out not to be the best of choices (besides relatively clean sheets, everything else was bellow our not at all high standards).
We quickly got over the check-in formalities and left to explore the city. First we walked around the Djemaa el Fna for some time and then plunged right into the maze of narrow streets behind the square.

We were a bit disappointed - from all the stories we had heard we expected the city Medina to be something really special. Instead it just looked kind of fake and touristy - it just couldn't compare to the one we saw in Fes.

Soon we found the Museum of Marrakech and went in. It wasn't all that special, but still worth a visit. The atmosphere was really relaxed and some of the wall carvings and tile works were quite stunning.

When we were done with the museum, we also took a look at the nearby buildings. It didn't take us long to find Medersa Ben Youssef. Medersa or Madrasa is a word for school in the Arabic world.
This one in particular was an Islamic college and is today open to public. It offers magnificent examples of calligraphy, carved in stone and wood all over the place.

Two of the small student cells had been decorated in a supposedly authentic way. One represents a poor students cell and the other one of an aristocrat. By today's standards both of them are quite modestly furnished.
The atmosphere was nice, peaceful and really reminded me of a monastery in the Christian world.

We ended our day with another stroll around Djemaa el Fna. By this time it was transformed into one large barbecue. More then hundred stalls was offering freshly cooked, fried and grilled dishes. Thick clouds of steam were rising high into the air. A strong mix of smells was impossible to ignore. We tried our luck at one of the stalls and ordered some squids, shrimps and lamb kofta (local version of meat balls).
We rounded it all up with a cup of mint tea at a fancy café, overlooking the square.


Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Ouarzazate aka Moroccan Hollywood (Day 13)

After a a long (6 hour) ride from Erfoud to Ouarzazate we didn't have much trouble finding a suitable hotel.
Our Lonely Planet guide book proved to be quite handy once again. This time Hotel Royal was our choice. It proved to be OK but not much more.

It was still early when we got up and headed for the Ouarzazate Grand Taxi station on the next morning.
We were expecting another bargaining session and we were right. As soon as we got there we found someone who would be very happy to take us to Ait Benhaddou. This was our destination of the day.
I thought it would be easier to lower the starting price for the ride there and back. The story was, M. and I would have to pay for all six (yes that's 6!) places in an old Mercedes (you can read more about grand taxi habits in Morroco in this post).
Although many of the drivers standing around were assuring us that definitely there were no other passengers going our way, we decided to hang around for a bit longer and wait for someone willing to share a ride with us.

We didn't have to wait long. Soon a foreign looking group of three stepped out of a petit taxi. We approached them before anyone else started talking to them. As we expected, they were also heading our way and it didn't take us long to arrange a ride.

During a ride to Ait Benhaddou in an old Mercedes we learned, that father and daughter of Korean origin were coming from US and have a local guide with them to show them around. We were told he was a friend of a friend and a really valuable asset when traveling around Morocco.

After a photo stop or two we arrived to our destination and went on a quick tour around the city made out of mud. It was quite interesting and soon we realized residents are probably never bored. The walls have to be constantly repaired - they are damaged every time it rains. Luckily that is not too often.
We saw a group of locals preparing the muddy mix. Most walls are obviously made from such a mix of mud, water, straw and supported by wood. Supposedly only nine families live in the mud city today and they are trying to keep it in a reasonably good shape.

This UNESCO site is often used as a movie set and is quite famous.

On the way back we passed Atlas Studios and we decided to check it out. They offer guided tours around most of the movie sets still standing today. Some of those are really old (for instance the F16 airplane from the 1985 movie The Jewel of the Nile is in a pretty sad state), others were reasonably new.
We also saw other famous movie sets (Gladiator, Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatre, Kundun etc.) of which the most fascinating was a real-size castle for The Kingdom of Heaven. Supposedly it was built for 20 minutes of the movie.

Despite a 50 Dirham entrance fee per person and a pretty touristy feel to it, we still liked it (after all it was the single one attraction of this type on our three week trip).

Potential visitors beware: Because of the price and at moments a bit industrial feel to it, some of you might see Atlas Studios as a tourist trap.

After a quick tour of the studios (our guide was constantly rushing us from set to set) we caught a city bus to our hotel. After a quick stop we went out to grab something to eat. Since we still didn't have enough of attractions for one day, we walked to the city Kasbah. Kasbah of Ouarzazate is supposedly the largest in Morocco. It truly is magnificent!

After this we were really exhausted and literally fell into bed. We slept like dead until the morning.


Sunday, 12 April 2009

Flies come with the season of dates (Day 12)

Once again a swarm of annoying flies woke me up half an hour before sunset. It was impossible to ignore them, so I got up.

I found it quite strange to see so many flies in the middle of the desert. Later that day I asked one of our Berber guides about those annoying creatures. He explained that in the desert with the season of dates also comes the season of flies. Obviously those few palm trees we saw had dates on them almost ready to be picked.

Since just getting up was not enough to shake off all those flies, I grabbed my trusty Olympus photo camera, a bottle of water and headed up a nearby dune.

Flies followed me almost all the way up. At the top I just sat in the sand and simply enjoyed the silence. It is almost unbelievable how quiet it can be in the desert. I guess one could feel really alone on one side of a dune even with a group of drunken Scots attending a death-metal concert on the other side of it.

It really reminded me of those winter days with heavy snowfall, which muffles all the sounds of nature... without all that snow of course.

There was not even a bird to disturb this atmosphere. As a matter of fact, I was looking closely for some kind of a sign an animal left in the sand. All I could find in three days were dromedary tracks, dromedary droppings and some kind of desert-bug tracks.
I was also expecting to find at least some snake and desert fox tracks.

While soaking in the peaceful atmosphere and heat from the rising sun, I took some nice photos.
It is hard to resist pressing on the photo trigger all the time while in an environment so picturesque and unusual (for me anyway).

Before I knew it, it was time for breakfast again. I was the same as the day before, but we didn't complain because it was quite delicious. After cleaning up the table we formed our little desert caravan for the last time and headed back to where we started - Auberge LaBaraka.

A couple of days ago, when we were getting ready for the two night desert trip, we were a bit worried about different disadvantages of being in the saddle for too long (for instance heavy butt and leg pains). I think it is safe to say that none of us had any problems of that kind.
Also my clothes didn't smell so bad as I feared they would. Dromedaries were obviously well cared for.

When we got back to Auberge LaBaraka we had a hot shower, drank a pool of water and just relaxed in a shade for a while.

After a short discussion M. and I both agreed to leave on a first bus to Ouarzazate. Our friends from Switzerland also thought it would be better to move on. They even agreed to drop us off at the Erfoud bus station, to where we got just in time to catch the bus.

We kissed goodbye and left separate ways again. We were really sad to part with them. They were really nice and fun to be with. Andrea, Simone and Kim: thanks once again for everything!
We were sad to leave the dunes of Erg Chebbi behind, but there was so much of Morocco left to explore and (as always) so little time.

Together with M. we just had to agree that visiting a real sandy desert is such a strong experience, everyone who can afford it should do it at least once in a lifetime.
To really get a feel of it, you should stay at least a couple of nights.

This post belongs to a series of posts about our Moroccan adventure. If you liked the post, you should probably click on the suggested link to check out the rest of our trip.

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