Despite the lure of the goats posing in the Argan trees on the road from Marrakesh, we didn't unveil the camera until we got to Essaouira, the town that according to its name and the accounts of many visitors is as pretty as a picture. It's also the town where our leader, Kristy Larson, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1980's.
Essaouira was a Portuguese stronghold in the 17th Century, and is only now being overrun by tourists. In between it had a brief career as the Moroccan film capital. Orson Welles filmed his "Othello" there, and thus it is that there is a Hotel Desdemona, which is where we stayed.Like many a riad that has been put to new uses, the Desdemona has some peculiarities, almost all of them pleasant. Here is a view of the space outside our room, which, depdending on how the doors are operated, could be the sitting room of a very large suite. Here's our own little sitting room, and the view out the window to the gardens below.
Essaouira has a pleasant little medina, the sort you wouldn't be afraid to get lost in, a well-preserved Portugese fortress, and a busy harbor, largely devoted to catching fish. Speaking of which, you've got to have places to eat them. The Desdemona served only breakfast, but the Riad al Medina, a long-time favorite local inn, gave us a couple of splendid meals.
A walk along the beach reveals a ruined fortress, which also affords a good view of the island where the Roman emperors got the dye for their purple robes, back when the place was known as Mogador.
An intermediate wave of immigration took place in the 1960's and just after. One famous sometime resident was Jimi Hendrix, who spent some time at this ruined palace, said to be the original of "Castles Made of Sand."
We did go to Marrakesh -- honest! -- but we only took a couple pictures outside our hotel. One of these is the obligatory view of the Koutoubia mosque.
The La Mamounia aims for a bit more elegance than the Desdemona. Our room, beyond this little sitting area, had a little corridor leading past some of its utilitarian parts, and then the most elaborate bathroom doors yet encountered. Our window looked out on one little bay of the twenty acres of gardens that tempt the guest at most times of day. Here's one of the pathways through the grounds. Just after our arrival we had lunch at the outdoor restaurant by the pool, and our last evening there we ate at the Italian restaurant downstairs by the casino, but mostly we did business with the Orangeraie, the restaurant not far from this (actually quite large) fountain. Here are pictures of Alex in her new jellaba surveying the gardens, from inside and outside one of the stairways. The royal palace of course is right next door. Here's a link to the La Mamounia website, if you'd care to have a look and come back.
We didn't get any pictures of the hotel's several lobbies, but they are on the same scale as the gardens.
After our last night at La Mamounia, we put on clothing to get us past the front desk while also allowing us to hike, and met our mountain guide, Omar. With him, Kristy and Aziz, our driver from the previous days, we headed south toward Oukaimeden, a few miles from Jebel Toubkal, which is the highest point in northern Africa, at 13,761 feet. The summit is a popular tourist destination, but due to weather this year the route was not in condition and parties were diverting to other destinations.
Our diversion had occured some time earlier. At Oukaimeden (8,528') we met our cook and staff and the mules that would carry our camp. Once the trail becomes steep it stays steep up to the pass, Tizi n'Eddi. Here's a picture of Alex at the top, and another with Kristy and Omar.
The trail down is steep as well, but the journey is relieved by the sight of lush green settlements terraced into the hillsides. It was still a long way to Tachedirt and our campsite beyond it; and, the next day, a long way back down the Imenane valley and over another pass. Alex took this opportunity to get to know one of the mules, Jubilah. Reaching the road at last, we returned to Marrakesh for another brief stay at the Hotel Imperial Bordj, where we had spent our very first night after arriving in Morocco.
Our last night in Marrakesh was the one night that it was hot there, and the air conditioning at the Bordj didn't seem to be doing much. All the better to dry some clothing we had washed out, and it was up and under way early for our little band, over the great pass of Tizi-n-Tichka, through Ourzazate (the current film capital), for a lunch stop at the ancient oasis at Skoura . The restaurant, Chez Slimani, is in an old casbah, a fortified dwelling. Here's a photo of the roof of the building. A few meters away is a more famous structure, a casbah whose picture appears on the 50 dirham note.
Another stop for provisions (I saw great bunches of cilantro and cheese with cumin seeds in it) at El Kelaa M'Gouna, then up to the road's end where we met our new staff, our new mules, and, best of all, our same cook, Hussein, whose work we already admired and which deserves a wider audience.
Up the lower valley of the M'Goun, past more habitations. Camp was not far, but we stopped to rest and I took a picture of this aggressive little thistle. Many plants in harsh environments guard their resources jealously, and this one clearly wasn't giving an inch to anyone. The broader landscape was also fascinating, its sedimentary strata apparently turned sideways to provide great fin-like walls, as shown in this picture from outside our first camp near Ait Said.
The next day we spent walking up the valley. Here are pictures of a village, with storks nesting on its chimneys and our camp site on a bluff near Issoumar.
The next night's camp was near Tiranimine; and then it was into the gorge of the M'Goun river. Gradually the banks disappear. Here the travelers pause in the shade -- Scott, Kristy, Omar, Mustafa (and Nariman). Here are two pictures looking back through the narrowest part of the river.
The winter's storms saved us a climb up these ancient stairs ascending the cliffs, but may have destroyed a route that has been in use for centuries. At any rate, we arrived at our lunch stop early, giving Kristy and Nariman, our "people" mule, time for a ride. The walk after lunch rewarded us with the first view of snow on the ridge of the mountains we would eventually cross. At the end of the day we camped near Imi Nirkt.
The next morning found us back on the trail, resuming our trek toward the ridge. The trail itself became quite narrow at some points. I took a lot of flower pictures on this day; the reader is directed to the List of Pictures for the complete set. Here's our last camp, near Tighermt n'Ait Ahmed, and the fields near the river below.
Setting out on the last day of the hike, we pass the tighermt, an ancient granary, sort of a casbah for barley. The country opens up a bit and then (after a bit of effort) we are looking back down the M'Goun valley from the pass (Tizi n'Ait Imi, elev. 9512'). Ahead of us are the M'Goun massif and the valley of Ait Bougoumez. (We imagined that we'd be through walking when we got to that first green space, but it turned out that was just lunch. . . ).
At least it was downhill. Here's a look back towards the pass, from the valley of Ait Bougoumez, and a picture of some houses. Kristy and Omar were looking forward to attending a wedding here (that of our host in fact), and since weddings are week-long projects with the Berbers, we were pretty sure that we'd be attending as well, though without gifts or suitable attire. We were ultimately excused, and the others stopped in the village and obtained the appropriate present -- a cone of sugar.
Here is in fact our lodge in Ait Bougoumez. Our door is seen through the window on the left . Here's the courtyard from the breezeway outside our room; also from our room, a last look at our mules.
We had spent time days away from the nearest road, and now we were ready to get back to civilization. At Afourer, near Beni Mellal, we met another lavish hotel, the Hotel Afourer, which caters largely to Germans and was practically deserted when we arrived. It is also apparently the center of nightlife in the area, and livened up a good deal after we retired for the evening.
The next day, on our way to Fez, we stopped for lunch (trout from the King's favorite farm) at the Panorama Hotel, a Protectorate-era French hangout, at Azrou. On a side-trip above the town we finally located some scarce Barbary apes and Alex got some family portraits.
We got to Fez in the afternoon and had a look around this large old city. We saved most of our sightseeing for the next day, however, when we visited the royal palace, the wonderful woodworking museum where I took this somewhat unauthorized picture of a 20th-century 'oud, and from whose roof a fine view of the old city is to be had -- here's a picture of Alex among the architecture. Another excellent spot to look at the city is this one, the roof of a rug merchant who is thinking of adding a cafe. And here's one of the city's gates -- inside and out. Located there also are the university's 9th Century buildings, these used now only for religious studies. Here's another entrance. We did a little shopping, ate lunch, said goodbye to Kristy and left with Aziz for Casablanca.
Well, we did go to the medina on our own and got lost. There are no pictures from that part, but there are a few pictures of our hotel, the Hyatt Regency. There's more information on their web site, but don't forget to come back.
Here's our sitting room, and another view back toward the desk. The bedroom, too, was a very pleasant place, but we didn't get to enjoy it fully. We left in the small hours of the morning for Amsterdam and our home in Seattle and a very different lifestyle.
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