Friday, 28 March 2014

27th March - our last day.

Reluctantly, we left Granada where it was a bright but chilly day.  Our destination was Seville about 3 hours way but via 2 points of interest.

Incredible karst scenery
Our first stop was El Torcal park, a park famous for its dramatic karst limestone scenery.  The guidebooks weren’t kidding – it really was incredible.  We followed a way marked path which took us about 1.5 hours and gave us a good flavour of the natural rock formations.  On route we say a large wild goat plus rock buntings and redstarts.  There were also 2 different but very beautiful Euphorbia growing profusely here one of which I’m almost certain was E. Wulfenii.

After the walk, Chris did some running repairs on the car.  He’d already established the cause of the car’s sudden loss of power.  A large hose in the engine had got a big split in it and was letting air into the engine causing the problem.  Chris took the hose off and wrapped a load of tape around it, and thankfully it’s made all the difference.

We then drove on the Laguna De Fuente Piedra, which has the 2nd largest colony of breeding flamingos in Europe.  The visitors centre was shut but from there we got a good view of the lake which is huge. Luckily for us, the flamingos were at this end of the lake so we got a god view of them albeit it from a distance.  We then wandered along some boardwalks and I identified black winged stilts, coots and northen shoveller ducks.

The mushroom.....
After that we drove to Seville.  I’d booked us an apartment in the back streets of the old town.  We had a somewhat hair raising drive as the streets were very narrow and our sat nav. didn’t know about some of them being one way or blocked due to road works.  Anyway, we got here in the end!  The receptionist recommended that we go and visit the “mushroom” a new and bizarre building, which has a walkway giving good aerial views over the city and only 10 minutes walk away.  She was right – it is a very strange structure and looked as it was built with balsa wood, which turned out to be curved steel plates all bolted together.  In the bottom of the structure were the remains of a Roman town, which we toured and then above there are supposed to be shops on a couple of the levels.  We went straight to the top and after a drink, toured the walkway which was a bit like a roller coaster.  We all loved the “mushroom” and thought it a very apt name.

After that, it was tapas time.  We found a very nice one to start in and then moved on to a very crowded one which the receptionist had recommended, which was fabulous.  Hanna kindly treated us to the last night’s tapas as a thank-you for driving and organising the trip.  It really was a great way to end our holiday, so thank-you Hanna!!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

26th March

Today is Alhambra day – very exciting for me as have wanted to visit this for years and my dream will finally come true.  Hanna had visited before, but a long time ago, but warned us that we might be disappointed as we’d seen so many fantastic Islamic buildings in Morocco.

Court of the Lions
Anyway, after a light breakfast we set off walking up the hill towards the Alhambra.  Our hotel had told us that the walk should take about 20 minutes, which was pretty accurate.  I’d pre-booked tickets so all we had to do was to put the credit card that I’d bought them with into the machine and it spat them out on the floor very quickly.

View from Alcazabha
Our entry time for the Nasrid Palaces was 11am and we were told that we had to be there on time as hey were very strict about it.  As the time was 10.30am at this stage, we had plenty of time to saunter along the edge of the plateau admiring the gardens and various buildings along the way.  We found the queue for the Nasrid Palaces and were duly admitted.  It was quite crowded (impossible to get photos without people in them), but not so crowded that you couldn’t get to see and enjoy all the views and incredible Moorish architecture.  It was very similar to what we’d seen in Morocco, but still fantastic and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  We especially enjoyed the Court of the Myrtles and Court of the Lions, which both had traditional Moorish water features in them including rills which we just hadn’t seen anywhere else.

Interior courtyard of Charles V Palace
The Nasrid Palaces took an hour, which just flew by.  We then came back to the Palace of Charles V, which had a huge central round courtyard reminiscent of a bull ring.  It also housed two museums.  After that, we visited the Alcazaba, one of the oldest parts of the Alhambra and its military area.  There were several huge and imposing towers which we climbed for incredible views all around us – the old town below us on one side and the snow capped Sierra Nevada Mountains on the other.  Just stunning.
After that, we walked through the Partal area, which includes the portico of the Partal Palace, the gardens, which are very formal and have lots of clipped hedges and topiary, the Palace of Yusuf III and some ramparts with various towers.

Inspiring views of the Generalife
Out final stop was the GeneralLife which includes a Palace and beautiful gardens, which were used by the monarchs as a leisure area for relaxing.  Some of the gardens were being renovated with old clipped cypress trees that were past their prime being dug out and replaced.  The use of water in these gardens was just magical and was my absolute favourite spot of the whole complex.  Great long courtyards with buildings at either end were connected by covered walkways.  Within the courtyards were large pools in the centre with lovely fountains along the length of the pool and then gorgeous colourful flower beds either side. 

Alhambra in the setting sun - fabulous!!
We ended up spending 3.5 hours in the Alhambra and we all thought it fantastic.  We then walked back into the old town and had some tapas and a drink before going back to the hotel to shed some clothes as it had warmed up a bit.  Chris decided to take a break so Hanna and I wandered off to see the Cathedral, which was so large and enclosed by surrounding buildings, it was hard to get a good view of it.  All around were various squares full of tempting bars and cafes.  As the cathedral was shut due to a long lunch break, Hanna and I chose to visit the adjacent Royal Chapel instead as wanted to see where Ferdinand and Isabelle were buried – monarchs who both resonated with us and important as under their rule, Spain became united as one kingdom.  Apart from their marble effigy in the main chapel, we also visited the crypt where we could see their immense lead coffins.  We also saw Isabelle’s crown and sceptre and Ferdinand’s sword in the adjoining museum.

After that, we returned to the hotel and joined up again with Chris to enjoy the hotel’s free tea service which was very welcome.  Feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, we then decided to embark on the suggested walk around the old town.  This was wonderful and we got to see the Alhambra bathed in the evening sun from the St. Nicholas viewing point and very beautiful it looked too.  Our walk back town into the old town took us through a medina area very reminiscent of Morocco full of shops selling tempting wares.  Finally, we got back to the hotel and decided to chill out for an hour or so before going out to hunt for tapas and some beer/wine as most bars don’t open until 8pm.

We’ve been out and had a lot of fun in the crowded, friendly and noisy tapas bars.  Had a superb selection of tapas plus beers, wines and sherry!!   We have come back to our hotel feeling very mellow and content.  WE ALL LOVE GRANADA!!!!!!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

25th March

We met up with Hanna at breakfast who had also been woken up at 3am by loud voices and slamming doors, so we assumed that there must have been some sort of “do” on somewhere and these were the revellers coming back to the hotel.

We got out of Tangier relatively easily as the traffic was a bit lighter at 7.30am  Getting through the port was also quite easy especially as some chap offered to get us the exit forms, fill them in for us and get our tickets.  Of course, he wanted payment and asked for “twenty”.  So, Chris gave him 20 dirham, which he wasn’t impressed by as he wanted 20 Euros!  We gave him another 20 dirham and just drove off!!  We then had our passports stamped, sorted out the car documents for exiting the country and then the car was scanned by a huge X-ray machine along with 3 other vehicles.  We all passed that test and then sat in a queue of cars waiting for the ferry to arrive.  It finally arrived at 10am – when we were supposed to leave! Our car was loaded just before 11am and we finally departed about 1.75 hours late....not bad at all based on our outward bound experience!  We have bets as to how far behind schedule we’ll eventually be when we actually get off the ferry in Spain.  Hanna and Chris’s money is on 1.5 hours late and mine is 2 hours and I already know that I’m the winner and was far too optimistic.

Yep, our 12.30 pm arrival time slipped to 14.40, but luckily our itinerary had allowed for that.  We had a 3.5 hour journey ahead to Granada on motorways so straight forward or so we thought.  At first we just couldn’t believe how easy the driving was – all cars going one way on the motorway, no sheep or cows to contend with, no pedestrians, no buses stopping for passengers, no police road blocks, no donkey and carts, people driving within marked lanes, no horns beeping........

However, we were driving up a reasonably steep hill (the drive to Granada from Algerciras is up hill as it goes through a lot of mountainous terrain), when the car just didn’t seem to want to go.  Chris had his foot flat on the floor and we just kept slowing down.  We’ve no idea what the problem is (a consultation on the web lists a multitude of possibilities ranging from a cheap repair to a write off scenario), but we hope the car will limp on to Seville (a short drive from here, and then get us home. 

A tantalising glimpse of the Alhambra from our hotel...
We’re now in Granada – in the old area - and it’s an absolute delight. We’re staying in a fabulous hotel and have been upgraded to superior rooms.  We arrived just in time to get our free afternoon tea which they finish serving at 6.30pm – of course, we foolishly sampled every cake there was and then went out for tapas.  We started off in a very modern and sleek tapas bar that specialised in seafood.  We ordered 2 dishes but also got 2 dishes free which was an enormous amount of food.  From there, we decided to check out another recommendation from the hotel which turned out to be a traditional, old fashioned tapas bar.  We just wanted a glass of wine, but ended up being presented with another free tapas plate, which we picked at. We decided to have one final night cap and this time turned away the next free tapas dish.  We understand now – a round of drinks gets you a free tapas dish.  We shall be much wiser tomorrow night.
24th March

We said good-bye to Rabat and set off towards Tangier.  It was reasonably easy to get out of the capital city and we crossed the bridge into Salé, a huge conurbation said to be very anti the West.  We were looking for the exotic gardens just north of Salé, but managed to miss them so had to turn round and ask at a petrol station.  Coming from the opposite direction they were much more obvious so we parked up and went to investigate.  A uniformed guy came rushing up to us as we were peering through the gate and told us the gardens were shut but he would check if it was okay for us to to go round them anyway.  He disappeared for a while, but eventually for less than €2 each we were allowed in.  The gardens were created in the 1950’s by a Frenchman and then restored in 2005 and taken over by the State.

Some frisky terrapins!
We were advised to follow the red route which we dutifully did.  The gardens were quite narrow at the top, but widened significantly as we moved down them.  Initially we weren’t impressed at all as they looked rather overgrown and unkempt.  However, as we moved down they turned into a mini assault course with steps , winding paths, stepping stones over ponds and rope and slatted wood bridges.  There were some beautiful coral trees there and also some of the biggest bamboo I’ve ever seen.  In one area, there was a lovely double rill with lots of jasmine in flower growing over a pergola – the scent was wonderful.  We also saw a lot of terrapins and birds.  So, all in all, we thought the visit was worth it.

We then got onto the motorway for a while to save us some time and got off at Larache as wanted to visit the Roman remains at Lixus.  The instructions to find the Roman town varied from guide book to guide book, but a seemingly new road (partially collapsed in one place) didn’t seem right.  We followed it to some sentry boxes guarding the entrance to a golf resort but were turned away.  We tried virtually every road in the area but failed to find Lixus which was frustrating as the description of the amphitheatre, acropolis, temples and fish sauce factories sounded really interesting.  One guide book told us that Lixus was close to being designated a UNESCO world heritage site, so we just couldn’t understand why there were no signs to it.  Hanna had flippantly said much earlier that maybe the Golf Resort had “consumed” Lixus, and we decided later she was probably right.

Having abandoned Lixus, we drove onto to Tangier where there were huge flags on all the approach roads and a huge police presence with masses of road blocks.  We were pulled over just once where a policeman checked our insurance documents and then waved us on.  We parked up at the hotel and, this time,were given pretty grotty rooms.  At the hotel we discovered that the King was due in town which explained all the police and flags.  As we had to get up early the next day, we opted for an early dinner at a “posh” restaurant as had run out of the local money and needed to pay on a card.  Hanna directed us to a hotel recommended in her guide book and w plumped to eat and drink in the wine bar.  This was about 6pm and we found out that food wasn’t served until 8pm, so we had no choice but to kill a couple of bottles of wine before dinner with several plates of almonds and crisps.  The dinner was delicious and we all went for the lamb chops.
We then wandered back to the hotel and an early night.  At this point I realised that we had a persistent and loud, steady and very intrusive buzzing noise in our room, but did my best to ignore it.  However at 3pm, we were woken by loud voices in the next room and lots of doors slamming.  At 4pm, the television in the room the other side was switched on at which point I got up and kicked their wall in frustration before stuffing my ears full of loo paper.  I did manage to get some sleep but didn’t want to get up at 6.30am when the alarm went off!!

Monday, 24 March 2014

23rd March

Hassan Tower
Yesterday at the car park, we had arranged to meet a guy at our Riad who would act as a tour guide and show us the highlights of Rabat.  Our agreed time came and went, and like all our arrangements with unofficial tour guides turned out to be a dud.  Undaunted, we set off armed with our guide book and local map as all the attractions are close together and easily walkable (as long as the weather isn’t hot).

We started off at the Hassan tower, which is the incomplete minaret of a mosque that was going to be the largest in the world when it was started in the 1195.  However, Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour died in 1199, so all construction work was halted.  The tower is about 140 feet tall – about half of its intended height.  The rest of the mosque is also incomplete with just the remains of about 200 columns and a few walls.

Mausoleum of Mohammed V
The tombs.....
Also on the complex is the mausoleum of Mohammed V, who returned from exile in 1955 and was recognised as Sultan after active opposition to the French Protectorate.  In February 1956, he successfully negotiated with France for the independence of Morocco and in 1957 took the title of king.  Commissioned by King Hassan 11 in 1962, it was completed in 1971.  It is a magnificent white building crowned with green tiles (green being the colour of Islam), the mausoleum is lavishly decorated and adorned with a wealth of traditional artwork.  Together with its namesake, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V is also the final resting place of King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah his two sons.

A mounted royal guard
Outside the complex at the 2 gateways, stand mounted horses complete with guards in their traditional red winter uniform and very grand they look too.  Similarly attired guards stand at each of the 4 doors of the mausoleum and are both tolerant and bored of being snapped with various tourists.  More buildings are to the left of the mausoleum looking towards Hassan tower, but I’ve no idea what their function is – the doors were closed, but we could see some magnificent fountains in them – sadly not switched on when we were there.

The Chellah ramparts
We then walked to the Chellah, which is a necropolis and Roman and medieval ruins all encircled by large crenulated ramparts.  The Roman city was an important port and we could clearly see the remains of the triumphal arch and forum.  In the 14th century, the site was used by the Merined sultans and you can see the remains of a mosque including the lavishly tiled minaret complete with stork nest as well as various tombs.
A lot of the structures were badly damaged in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.  Today, the site is really a tourist venue and now has some rather nice gardens which were heavy with the scent of orange blossom when we were there.  There are also an extraordinary large numbers of stork nests in the vicinity – I have never before seen so many and so close together.
Minaret and various stork nests

Roman remains
After the chellah we walked on to the gardens of the Royal Palace which our guidebook told us were unmissable.  These were a disappointment and it was mainly municipal type of planting with avenues of trees and lawns including some very nice coral trees.  We didn’t hang around long and walked back to the hotel via the new town and a light bite to eat.

We got back about 2.30pm all feeling a little tired.  Hanna retired to her room and Chris and I read our books on the sun terrace for a while and then went back into the medina to buy some Moroccan style lamp shades and sconces.  We then continued reading, but got a bit cold outside so moved down into the courtyard of the Riad.  Hanna is still not interested in food so Chris and I went out for a bite to eat in a restaurant by the river before coming back to the Riad and having some wine in our room. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

22nd March

We regretfully left our delightful Maison D’hote and decided to take the motorway to Rabat which was scheduled to take about 3 hours.  We skirted the edge of Casablanca, which sounds so romantic but in the flesh looked very different, although to be fair areas near motorways of any major city are never the most picturesque. 

Completely over the top....?!!
The motorways make for interesting driving as they’re only 2 lanes with crash barriers between the 2 directions of traffic appearing intermittently for just small stretches.  Add to that, people cleaning up rubbish in the verges, buses stopping to off load passengers, people riding in the open backs of trucks, police road blocks and sheep and cattle plus the shepherd grazing at the edge of the road – you realise it’s very different driving to health and safety conscious Europe.

Chris once again did a brilliant job of negotiating the chaotic traffic in the city centre and we ended up parked near out hotel.  We’d been told to look for a large hotel as the landmark for where to park our car, but never saw it so Chris pulled up around the corner.  I then phoned the riad, and within 10 minutes a very charming man appeared who took us to the correct parking, fixed us up with a guide for tomorrow and then led us to the riad.  

Part of the Andalusian garden
The riad itself is lovely with the usual cool courtyard with a central fountain surrounded by the rooms.  We’ve got 2 rooms upstairs which are lovely and close to the roof top pool with its unappealing murky cold water.
We then set off to the Kasbah which is very close by and looked fabulous in our guidebooks.  In reality, it wasn’t quite so nice but I enjoyed the Andalusian garden and especially the tiny kittens playing in it!  We then wandered through the medina stopping off to look in various shops for Moroccan style wall sconces for our still to be designed Moroccan style rood terrace over our garage.  We found some nice ones but baulked at the price (about €20 for two), but having subsequently checked the prices on the web have decided they’re a good deal!

We’re now back at the riad relaxing before dinner here at 8pm.  It has very good reviews on trip adviser so am hoping we’ll be having a nice meal!!
21st  March

We started the day with brekkies up on the roof top restaurant of the riad with its fantastic views over to some large rocks where we’ve enjoyed watching locals collect shellfish accompanied by very nimble and fearless sea cats.  We booked a porter to wheel our bags through the town to our car, which had only been pushed a little bit down the road, but was thankfully still there, albeit with an accumulation of dust and some seagull poo.

We then drove up the main coastal route, which was actually inland a bit, to Safi, a large industrial port with rather toxic air from the cement and petrochemical plants which had both Chris and myself coughing.  We got a bit lost here too, but eventually found the correct road out of town that hugged the coast line and was a lot more interesting.  The land was very intensively farmed here with clearly demarcated fields on the flat land right by the sea and lots of delicious looking vegetables for sale by the side of the road.

The beautiful lagoon at Oualidia
Our next point of reference was a town called Ouladia that our guidebook suggested was an eyesore but had a superb protected and very picturesque lagoon – perfect for swimming.  We could see the lagoon well before we reached the town so drove down to it and parked up and went for a short stroll.  We passed by fisherman selling their fresh catches of various shellfish such as mussels, oysters and razor clams as well as huge spider crabs.  Some of their boats had been pulled up on to the beach and others were still out fishing.  We walked past them to the edge of the lagoon which really was extraordinarily lovely and not something any of us had ever seen before.  We enjoyed watching some kite surfers getting their gear ready, but we didn’t hang around long enough to see them go out onto the lagoon.

Oyster beds at Ouladia
We then decided to go to Ostrea 2, a restaurant famous in the area for its oysters as it’s literally located beside oyster farm number 7, which is in itself famous for its special French oysters and its high quality produce to rigorous EU standards apparently.  We followed some signs to the restaurant down an unpromising rough road and eventually arrived at our destination.  What a little gem this place is – a fantastic location overlooking the lagoon, which was much larger than we had appreciated, plus the oyster beds.  Chris ordered half a dozen of the oysters, I had the gratinated mixed seafood dish and Hanna the pasta with smoked salmon as she wasn’t feeling too well and wanted the simplest dish on the menu.  We were not disappointed at all - it was fabulous.

I then took over the driving and it was fairly uneventful until we reached El Jedida.  Our instructions for the hotel were rather sparse with directions and the sat nav, wasn’t as accurate as I would have liked. As a result I ended up on a toll motorway heading for Casablanca!!  We managed to get off it pretty quickly and annoyed the toll collector at the exit as we only had a 100 dirham note for a 3 dirham toll.   There was then a lively exchange between the driver and navigator (where Hanna wisely kept her counsel), but eventually we got onto a road that took us back in the direction we’d just come from.  There was one heart stopping moment when I was going round a roundabout and we heard the terrible screeching of brakes and realised that a car was coming on to the roundabout and heading towards the side of our car – thankfully, he managed to stop in time and I merrily continued on with a somewhat accelerated heart beat!!  I’m not sure if i should have given way to him on this particular roundabout or vice versa, but anyway, we got away unscathed.

We retraced our route back quite a way and eventually got back onto the road we’d been on about 20 minutes before.  This time we spotted a sign close to what our directions gave us so decided to give it a go.  We went up a very rough track that just didn’t feel right, but eventually arrived at our hotel.  Once we’d arrived, we were told of another much more straight forward way of getting here, but hopefully we’ll find that to get out of here tomorrow.  This place is delightful – a small boutique hotel with a very welcoming owner and a large black and white cat with attitude – he’s only attempted to bite both Chris and myself once each!  Hanna was still feeling unwell so retired at 4.30pm.  Meanwhile, I caught up on the computer and Chris relaxed reading his book in the garden. We then met up with some very well travelled and very nice Americans and spent a pleasant evening in their company swapping travel experiences as you do.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

19th March

OiLibya for an O'Clean and the truckers mosque.
Before we left town, we decided to get the car washed as it was brown with accumulated dust and looked awful.  We chose the 1st petrol station we saw which happened to be Oi Libya.  For less than £2 the car had the most thorough wash it has ever had - we were worried than any loose bits of body work might fall off!!  They even opened the 2 front doors of the car and managed to blast the inner door frames with the pressure hose without soaking any other part of the car - quite a feat! Also, if we felt the need there was a mosque!

We then headed for Essaouira further north and on the coast. What we wanted to see goats in trees. We knew there was the “Goat Tree Tourist Trap” en route, which we planned to avoid as we wanted to see the real thing rather than a goat tied up in a tree and 10 D’s for picture of you holding a goat. We also wanted to see the cascades at Imouzzer. That required going cross country and relying on the sat-nav and the map – uh oh! After turning off from highway N1 we climbed and climbed, the views were stunning and snow capped mountains picked out from the haze in the distance. The terrain was dotted with Argan trees which grew more and more stunted as we climbed. 

Yet more stunning scenery
We reached Imouzzer and followed directions to the cascades. Hmmm, I’m sure the cascades are stunning when they’re flowing, but not today. As we had noticed road distance counters to Essaouira along the road we decided to continue following the map and the sat-nav. As we dropped the other side of Imouzzer the scenery changed again to more lush vegetation especially in the valleys below. Some distance on we saw what we had been looking for, goats in Argan trees that were not tied there as a tourist con. We continued after much photo taking and eventually we came to a reservoir that was not marked on our map or the sat-nav. Tamsin slowly drove over the dam until we came to a barrier. Fearing the worse as a soldier appeared I would the window down. All he wanted to know was did I have a cigarette as he raised the barrier – phew!!
Real goats up the argan tree....

Shortly after we approached the main road to Essaouira and turned north. Arriving at Essaouira we had to leave the car parked outside and walk into the medina as our hotel was inside and there are no cars allowed inside. As we walked through the medina we bumped into Jane and Michael who we had arranged to meet there. After a brief exchange we parted to meet later for dinner. Our hotel was on the north outer seawall of the medina and had the waves crashing below - a great location.

Cannons on the ramparts
We did a brief foray around the town and got onto the ramparts with a long row of impressive looking cannons.  The view from the ramparts is fantastic as they’re literally on the sea edge as is our riad.  We then wandered around various fairly similar looking alleys all lined with shops.  Strangely, there was no hassle from the merchants and most things seemed to be fixed price – I almost missed the hassle and haggling from before!  There are also loads of cats here in all shapes and sizes – most of them in very good condition.  The same can’t be said of the people.  We haven’t seen so many beggars anywhere else or deformed or crippled people or others seemingly somewhat deranged and obviously suffering from mental problems.  Initially we liked the feel of the town, but scratch very lightly under the surface and the seedy, scruffy and slightly unsavoury nature of the place soon becomes apparent.

We all met up back at the hotel at about 6pm and went to have a drink in a bar overlooking the ocean. It was pretty chilly due to the strong cold wind coming off the ocean and it wasn’t long before we were the only people mad enough to be there.  So, we decided to forgo a 2nd drink and go to the restaurant next door early.  There we had a very nice fish dinner ( Michael had lamb) and I had the best John Dory I’ve ever had whilst Chris had the largest sole I’ve ever seen!  After dinner we decided to have a night cap back at the hotel only to discover tht it’s a dry hotel – Qeul horreur!!  So, we broke into our emergency supplies and had our last bottle of Spanish plonk which was just the ticket.

18th March

Glossy ibis
The plan for the day was to chill out, rather apt as it was a cold and overcast day at the hotel. We read books and did other things until about midday when we decided to go out to the bird sanctuary area south of Agadir – Souss-Massa. We realised that it was late in the day and our chances of seeing much was limited, but if you don’t try... As we entered the park area we were stopped by “guides”. We had read elsewhere that you didn’t need a guide which was true, but after discussion with Mustafa he said that was so but if you wanted to get around the whole part you needed a guide. I tested him on English names for birds and he produced a booklet with them in which satisfied me that he knew something. We agreed a price as we only had about 2 hours to see anything given our late start. 

Little owl
Over the next few hours we saw “Flying Martinis” (Mustafa meant Martins flying – we think??), Little Owl, Glossy Ibis, Cormorant, Grey Heron plus other small raptors, the thing we wanted to see was the Bald Ibis, we went all over the place including long periods on the dunes looking for them. We saw some in flight on a couple of occasions, but didn’t get closer than that – very frustrating!! As time was getting on we wanted to head back as the light was fading.

Monday, 17 March 2014

17th March

Chez Momo 2
Chris left yesterday with us arriving at Chez Momo 2.  What he failed to mention was that it was an absolute delight.  Very nice staff, beautiful gardens with small one storey bungalows in the grounds.  The rooms were rustic but comfortable enough.  There was also a resident young, very friendly female black and white cat.  She was really sweet but unfortunately suffered from either mites or a fungus so was scratching around her ear which was a bit of a mess.  After we petted here, we made sure we washed our hands!

The main dining area was huge and very nice.  They had lit a very inviting fire in an enormous fireplace which I made a beeline for as it was chilly at night.  We had some drinks before having our half board meal – an artichoke, a tagine (yippee!!) and then a very rich and tasty chocolate mousse.  We washed this down with a a couple of bottles of red wine from Meknes.  We’ve only found one wine we’re not keen on so far, but the choice hasn’t been huge.

Common Bulbul
Before we set off, I got a glimpse of a bird that instantly reminded me of a bulbul.  Several photos later, we established that it was definitely a common bulbul, which seems an unfair description as its song is far from common.  It has the most extraordinary melodious song which easily rivals the blackbird or thrush.

Some of the winding roads
Today, we had to drive to Taroudant which involved some tortuous mountainous roads to get out of the high Atlas.  I’d drawn the short straw as Chris has done most of the driving so far and wanted a well earned break.  The views were still hazy which was a real shame as this is one of the best drives in Morocco and renowned for its incredible views of the high Atlas Mountains.  However, the scenery was still incredible even without seeing the snow clad peaks clearly - seeing those would have been the icing on the cake.  Unlike most European countries with roads along high stony rock faces, the sides of the mountains are not clad in any sort of webbing or netting to catch loose rocks or stabilised to prevent landslides, so the roads are littered with chunks of rock and you can see where rock falls have been cleared.  We came across a lot of road works where the narrow road had been made even narrower as part of it had collapsed down the hillside.  At one point, I have to admit to having an attack of vertigo, which somewhat alarmed both Hanna and Chris.  However, I decided just to focus on the road ahead of me instead of glancing at the sheer drop just a few feet from my side of the car!

Tea stop.......
Once we’d cleared the high pass and were on the long descent, we stopped off for a well earned tea/coffee break and feasted our eyes on the amazing views from the back terrace of the road side cafe.  We even managed to avoid carpet sales there as there was a small shop, but don’t know if it had any carpets......

Eventually, we descended to the lower plains where it is arid and hot.  At long last we have a chance to wear our hot weather gear!   Our hotel, where we’re staying 2 nights, is wonderful and has scored 5 stars for the last 2 years on Trip Advisor.  We’ve been upgraded to suites, which suits us down to the ground!  This hotel also has beautiful gardens stuffed with lots of scented plants – lemons, oranges, roses, brugmansias, rosemary etc. etc.  There are also tortoises resident in the garden.  Each bungalow has a private, shady patio where we can hear and see the abundant birdlife here which includes the very melodious common bulbuls.  Chris and I even found the time to go and sit in the large and heated Jacuzzi late this afternoon, so now feel totally chilled out and relaxed and ready for drinkies and dinner!!

Yes- we have to slum it by this pool....
Okay – update from drinkies and dinner.  In a word – FAB!!  We couldn’t believe that we were served HAM on sticks as an accompaniment to our pre prandial drinks.  Dinner was light – fingers of fish in a light batter for H and myself, thinly sliced duck breast salad for C and then scallops all round for main. No room for pudding.  We’re now all having a brandy on H’s patio listening to cicadas.  Perfect.  No sign of the tortoises.
16th March

Wild flowers on the high, arid plateau
 The next destination was Ouirgane which is 64km, by road, southwest of Marrakech, so a leisurely day ahead driving wise? Our initial destination was Asni a small town that had been mentioned in the guide. Just short of there we decided to do a detour to Moulay Brahim as one of the guide books said that the views were good from there and the scenery different.  Coming out of Marrakech we had already commented that the views of the High Atlas were hazy so didn’t expect much of a view. We climbed a bit from the main road and eventually came onto a high plateau of limestone. The land was being worked, but looked poor, however, there was lots of planting of some type of grass which could have been wheat. Despite the poor soil, it looked green.

Spot the donkey.........
We continued on, as the map showed a smaller road to the left that would take us back to the main road just south of Asni. Going through small villages we were waved at by the villagers - on we went but didn’t find the illusive left turn (of course there are no sign posts). Tamsin mentioned that there was a larger loop that went around a lake. The sat-nav at this stage had been telling us to turn back, which we ignored as we couldn’t find any via point in its memory to use. As we came down through another village we passed a small hotel and then came across a left turn, which we took. The sat-nav then stopped telling us to turn around and showed a route, which we followed. This took us though village and on towards another. Just outside of this village the sat-nav was telling us to go through what looked like a quarry. I found a road around that and the device seemed happy, then the road got far worse and took us into a gorge where the road was now a rough track. After some discussion it was decided to turn around. We searched for an alternate route, but ended up on the wrong side of a river, time to turn around. Retracing our steps back to where we had turned left. I decided against Tamsin's wishes to press on rather than retrace our steps all the way back to the main road.

Scrubby Junipers with the hazy mountains in the distance....
At this point we were passed by some guided tour groups which gave me some hope, after which we entered Lalla-Takerkoust which sits at the top of a reservoir and dam. This was on the map so we turned towards Amizmiz, also on the map. At some point we were passed by a coach and the road was improving, this gave us some hope – wrongly as it soon transpired. We entered Amizmiz which looked more like a building site rather than a town. All the roads were being dug up and there were people and cars everywhere at this point we passed a road sign pointing to Wiregane (Ouirgane??). Still, the sat-nav seemed happy right up until the point it tried taking us down another rough road which was not in keeping with the map. As we turned around and found another route out of Amizmiz we went back to being told to take a U-turn. Tamsin deduced that we needed to go east towards the mountains and road was doing that so we continued. The scenery changed here to green deep valleys with fast flowing rivers and sweeping vistas with the mountains distant in the haze – simply beautiful.  We asked a local lad if we were on the right road to Ouirgane and he told us it was only 5kms away (this we doubted), soon after we came across and interesting set of road signs. None were to Ouirgane, but all roads seemed to go to Ouzguita! Armed with this useful information we carried on. As we dropped down towards a river we passed a road sign stating that our speed could be monitored by a speed gun for the next 5kms. Expecting to come across some decent road and a town as our speed had been less than 40km/h for some time it was a surprise to find the road got worse as it turned and went across a bridge and a river. Climbing back up the other side we noticed that there was a lot rocks and soil that had recently been shifted to clear the road.

More wonderful scenery!
Leaving a small village behind, we continued to climb out of the valley negotiating around boulders and other debris that had been brought down by what we think was a storm a few days before. We also passed another sign in the opposite direction about the speed cameras – can’t think how many tickets they must have issued. Finally we dropped down into another valley and connected with the main road. Our hotel Chez Momo 2 was not far. (N.B. Chez Momo is under the waters of the local reservoir created in 2006).

Saturday, 15 March 2014

14-15th March

At 09:30 we met our guide for Marrakech in reception. Abdullah was a pleasant guy with lots of information. I asked him what the agenda was for the day as I wanted to avoid any carpet sales. He deftly avoided the answer, which had me a bit concerned, but there was no need to worry.
Inside the first tomb

First stop was the Saadian tombs. These are some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in Morocco. The first tomb has all of the male heirs, the women all being in another tomb close by. This tomb has a beautiful cedar wood ceiling with gold leaf inlay In between the two tombs, the slaves are buried. Apart from the first burial plot closest to the mihrab (altar) all the others in accordance with Islamic tradition are unknown. In the male tomb the first plot is that of the first sultan and in the second is his mother. You can tell from the size of some that they were children.

One of the covered courtyards
The next stop was the Palais Bahia, this is owned by the Ministry of Culture which is bit like the National Trust in the UK other than it is goverment run. It is currently having an area refurbished so that we could only see part of what is normally open to the public. We entered into a compound that is lined with oranges and other plants. These are Seville oranges, but it is not the fruit that they’re grown for, but the flowers which are harvested to make orange water for cooking. On the other side we entered a normal looking building that was anything but as it opened up into a courtyard. It has an exquisite reception area which overlooked a courtyard with a fountain. Also off this courtyard is an administrative office and an area for conducting business. None of is furnished now, but would have been very comfortable in its day. The next courtyard is for family and had rooms on either side for each of the Sultans 4 wives and their families. Beyond that was another courtyard which was for the Sultan himself. This is where he would entertain his family with a room that was specifically for him and an area where he would entertain one of his wives. Each successive courtyard was more and more lavish culminating in the Sultans personal quarter.
The dyers palate

From here we walked into the medina, as it was a Friday it was relatively quiet. We stopped at a dyers workshops (souks) and had the colours explained to us. Interestingly the colours on the palate didn’t produce the dye colours that you would expect - for example, an iridescent green dye actually produced a purple stain when mixed with water. The next stop was the woodworkers souk. Here Tamsin and Hanna were given a necklace that he produced on a Berber lathe using a bow and his feet to hold and turn the wood whilst using his hands to carve the wood. We bought some lovely bowls for crisps etc. We also walked through the metalwork souk and the leatherwork souk.

We entered the main square of Place Jemaa el-Fna. This is the place to be at night.  However there were still many stalls mainly based on horse carriages that sold oranges, fruits, vegetables as well as nuts and dates.

A view of the Majorelle gardens
From here we got into a car and went to the Majorelle garden. The gardens here were started by Jacques Majorelle in 1919 and contain many plants, mainly succulents from around the world. The gardens were renovated by Yves St Laurents and Pierre Berge and opened to the public place. Tamsin has tried to create a pastiche of this garden in Portugal and was keen to see how it stacked up – many photos were taken.

We returned to our hotel for the afternoon and decided to go back to the square for the evening. Here we were accosted by almost every food stall owner there. Almost all could speak with a cockney accent complete with rhyming slang, a bit like spivs. There patter was amusing as they seem to have an answer to everything we manage to move on until we came full circle and decided to eat at the first place where the “spiv” told us he had lived in Essex!!!? We wanted to have one plate to share, the idea being that we would work through the menu, sadly they had other ideas and brought us 3 plates of the same rather than one. Needless to say we filled up fast. I think we all lost out in the end as I’m sure we would have taken longer and ordered more food – oh well.

Sat 15th. Tamsin and I had a Moroccan cookery course booked with a 09:30 pick up – or so we thought. The receptionist came and found us at 09:00. The taxi took us across town to another hotel. Here we met Wafa who was running the course and the other 7 people taking part. After a quick introduction that included the various types of tagine we moved to the kitchen and took up our stations. First we were shown how to make bread and each of us got to knead the dough. We were then taken to the hotel shop and shown all the herbs and spices that are used in cooking here.

Rose "sculpted" by TJV
Our kitchen after we'd finished.
On our return we started chopping vegetables. I was making a vegetable tagine and Tamsin a classic chicken with lemons, both with a side of cooked vegetables and a salad. Guiding us through this process were two cooks the Dada (head chef) and her helper. They showed us what to do from their station and walked around helping us if needed. In preparing the tomatoes we had to skin them like an apple and use the skin to make a “rose” to decorate it.  During all this was quite a bit of banter from the chefs and participants and was a lot of fun. When we had finished cooking the food we went outside to a table to eat it. At the end we were all full and returned to the kitchen to pick up or cooking diploma and a surprise small tagine. All in all a lot of fun.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

13th March

Impressive High Atlas Mountains
Woke up to brilliant sunshine and a tantalising glimpse of the snow capped high Atlas Mountains at the bottom of our valley – phew, my promise to Hanna had been fulfilled!

The drive to Marrakech took us through the high Atlas Mountains via the Tizi-n-Tichka pass at 2060 metres, so we knew we’d see some really stunning scenery.  Before the pass though, we took a 20km diversion to Telouet where there was supposed to be a highly decorated but abandoned Kasbah built in the 20th century but not lived in since 1956.  This drive in itself was just jaw dropping as we followed switchbacks along the valley to eventually arrive in Telouet.

Inside the Kasbah at Telouet
Mohammed, our guide....
We parked up near the Kasbah and Mohammed, a local guide, took us round.  He was very interesting as his ancestors had been enslaved by the local pasha to build the Kasbah, and he’d traced them back to Timbuktu.  He was absolutely passionate about the Kasbah and the 20 dirham entrance fee went to towards its conservation – a monumental, but seemingly impossible task.  We were taken to the main state rooms which were still splendid and had miraculously escaped the ravages of time and neglect.  We saw beautiful painted and carved cedar wood ceilings, intricate carved gypsum plasterwork, the colourful ceramic tiles on the lower walls and the marble tiled floors. We were then taken up on to the roof and duly admired the mountainous scenery all around us.

We were just making for our car on the way out, when Mohammed asked us to come and look at some carpets!!  Well, it would have seemed very rude not to have done. So, we looked at a few and I ended up buying a small rug to go my side of the bed – it’s made from the fibres of the aloe succulent and camel and sheep hair and I think will look great.  Mohammed asked if we would give a lift to a local shepherd back to the main Marrakech road, which, of course, we did as were happy to oblige.  In the very mountainous section of the drive, seemingly at very viewpoint or bend in the road there were men selling rock lodes cleaved in half with the most revolting, highly artificial looking , gaudy pink or red crystals inside – we managed to resist these gems!!

We then continued our drive to Marrakech.  The pass actually recorded some 40 metres lower on our sat nav than our guide book stated, but still, the views were outstanding.  From there, it was downhill, so to speak to Marrakech through more amazing countryside.  As we got closer to the city, more and more vehicles appeared so we ended up going in slow moving convoys, which made for dull driving.  Our sat nav got us to the hotel fine – it looks nothing from the outside, but is a haven of peace and tranquillity once through the front door.  So much so, that we’ve all decided to veg. out this afternoon and relax.  We have been on the road now for some 12 days and I think all need some quiet time to recharge our batteries.
12th March

Driving to the Dadnes Gorge
Today we had to pack a lot in.  We started off with the Dadnès Gorge and then we were driving the route of the Kasbahs.  These are fortified castles lived in by one family, which generally have square turrets joined by crenulated battlements based around square courtyards.  They are made from local rocks or mud bricks and mud which are compressed and are then plastered with a mix of local soil, water and straw – not dissimilar to lime render being put on a cob wall.

Dadnes Gorge
The road to the Dadnès Gorge was much better than the one to the Todra gorge and we drove through some lovely countryside for about 20 kms before we got to the gorge proper.  On route, we drove along one side of a river valley with fertile, cultivated plains below and the most astounding rock formations forming the sides.  The gorge itself was amazing with lots of switchbacks in the road to get us to the top where we parked up.  One of our guidebooks described the gorge as looking as if a huge sword had been wielded and cut a huge cleft in the limestone, which we decided was pretty accurate.  Chris got chatting to a local hotel owner who was very friendly and invited us in for tea and some cake and a view from his balcony.  The view was incredible and we were most grateful for the hot beverage as it was pretty cold up there.  As we took our leave from our host, we were ushered into his carpet shop “just to take a look”, but nothing appealed so we left empty handed. 

We continued up the valley a little further, but when the valley opened out and the scenery became less dramatic, we turned round.  We had hoped to pick up a minor road, possibly not tarmacked, so we could drive back to the main road via the Valley of the Roses.  However, we never found the road so had to retrace out steps completely, which was not a hardship at all as got to see the incredible scenery from the opposite direction.

Amerhidil Kasbah - panoramic
We drove on towards Skoura, which is surrounded by a huge palm oasis laid out in the 12th century.  Some of the most beautiful Kasbahs in south Morocco are to be found here.  We stopped off first at the recently restored Ben Morro Kasbah, which is now a hotel.  We were warmly welcomed and had a cup of tea and then a tour of the rooms and taken to the roof for the panoramic view of the oasis.   From there we could see the imposing Amerhidil Kasbah, part of which has been fully restored and is used as a guest house but the rest kept as a living museum. 

Similar to the image on the 50 dirham note......
We decided to drive to this Kasbah and again, had a tour around it. The rooms were incredibly dark with tiny windows, but I imagine the thick walls kept the rooms at a constant temperature throughout the year.  The image of this Kasbah is actually on the 50 dirham note.  It was really interesting to compare the newly restored pristine Kasbahs with older ones in various stages of decay.  Our guide then directed us through the oasis to an area which gave us the most fantastic panoramic view of the whole oasis which is 25 km long.  Unfortunately, low rain clouds obscured the snow capped high Atlas Mountains which all our guide books showed as being the incredible backdrop.

Ait-Benhaddou from the granary
We continued our journey on to Ait Benhaddou, a picturesque village tumblling down a hillside on the left bank of the Wadi Mellah.  It used to be fortified and has an abandoned igherm, or granary, on the top of the hill side, which really stands out.  The village is now a UNESCO world heritage site.  We enjoyed wandering through the narrow winding streets and followed the steps up to the granary to be rewarded with a stunning view of the surrounding countryside.

We then drove on to our accommodation which was an unexpected delight – Kasbah I Roccha in the tiny hamlet of Tisselday.  Our rooms were off a small central courtyard.  Another door off the same courtyard led to a couple of large and cosy dining areas heated by a log fire and some gas heaters as it was rather chilly.  From here, you could get to a large outdoor terrace with lovely views up and down the valley.  We had a superb dinner here – the best chicken tagine yet washed down with a couple of bottles of the delicious Sahari Reserve red from near Meknes.

When we went to bed, it was raining quite hard, but I’d promised Hanna that the rain would stop for the next day so we would have some superb views of the high Atlas Mountains – I had a good feeling about it!!