by Mirdza Jaunzemis

Our group of intrepid lady travellers.

This past September a group of us went on a guided tour of Morocco with G Adventures. In all we were twelve, divided into a younger and an older group – all women. Six of us were from Hamilton: Janina, Anita, Denise, Gillian, myself and Helga, our token Hamiltonian (from Etobicoke). The others were from various parts of the world: two from the United Kingdom (Joanna and Lauren), one from Germany (Julia), one from China (Shuang) and two from the USA (Anet and Sue). Our guide, Khalid, a Berber, was very helpful, and escorted us through the various parts of Morocco. When walking with him, it was as though we were the ladies of his harem… It was refreshing to see four women in our group traveling alone, expecting to meet other travelers – and we all connected in various ways discussing many topics that arose during our excursion.

Morocco has a population of almost 40 million, two-thirds of which are Berbers, or Amazigh: the indigenous people of North Africa; Arabs make up most of the rest. Arabic script is very different from Berber: the latter looks almost like Greek lettering. (A Note: Arabic /Berber names / words when written in Western script often change their spelling depending on source materials.) The majority of people are Sunni Muslims, but there are also Christians and Jews, and this country can be considered a model of the three major religious groups living together in peace and harmony. In school the dominant language is Arabic, French is the second language taught, then English and Berber. Education is free and compulsory until age 15, for both boys and girls. In 1955 Morocco gained independence from France, which had colonized it since 1912; thus the reason for French being taught in school, but recently the thought has been to phase it out of the school system. There are private and public schools, and health care has the same set-up. Madrasas, once schools where philosophy, science, religion and music were taught, are now mainly museums. It has the longest seacoast in Africa and the second highest mountain (Toubkal in the High Atlas Mountains; the highest mountain is of course Kilimanjaro).

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, and the present king is Mohammed VI – Prince of the Faithful. It is a bicameral parliament and there are twelve administrative regions; the king decides who will be the governor of the country and is also ruler of the army. He has a palace in every major city in the country (fourteen in total) which he inherited from his father. He had only one wife (he set a trend, and this has become a standard) and a son and daughter. (Unfortunately, they divorced in 2018.) His son will be king; there are never any queens: wives of kings are called princesses. The same family has ruled Morocco for 23 generations. There are 38 political parties, and the country is considered a democracy, but in its infancy; much work needs to be done to weed out corruption and encourage people to vote, as many think that nothing changes no matter who is in power. The current prime minister is very rich, but he has not really improved the lives of his constituents. (When the earthquake happened, the king offered condolences to the people affected by it; the prime minister left a message on his Facebook page.) There are some women in government, and a woman is leader of one of the opposition parties, but they have very little power, as they need to strive to overcome the current political establishment and establish some integrity. There is a saying: “Moroccans cannot rely on the government, but on themselves.” I hope that with time a new attitude will prevail, but there is work to be done.

Muslims pray five times a day (but not necessarily in a Mosque – any spot will do, as long as one faces Mecca). Throughout our travels we heard the calls to prayer – they are adjusted to the length of the day, the first being at dawn, the last at sundown. Morocco follows the lunar calendar – there are 355 days in their year. Another well-known saying: “Religion belongs to Allah; the land belongs to everyone.”

The Hassan II Mosque.

Our journey began in Casablanca, the financial capital of Morocco. Soon after our arrival, we went to the Hassan II Mosque – the biggest in Morocco – named after the father of the current king. It had taken six years to build, and it can hold 7,000 people inside the building and 120,000 to 200,000 on the plaza in front of it. It was spotless, grand and spacious, with beautiful inlaid wood, ornate ceilings, tile work (also called Zellige) and Moorish arches everywhere. It was located near the Atlantic Ocean and the grounds contained the tallest minaret in the world (210 metres high). The architect built it so that the grounds have water on three sides, and used local building materials such as wood and marble.

One of our travelers (Anet) organized a trip to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, on Friday – this was done before our official excursion began. Our guide wore a djellaba, a long, loose-fitting robe with full sleeves; he was very knowledgeable and took us to the King’s palace, which had a library and museum attached to it. However, the king does not live in it– he just conducts official business there but lives in the district of Salé. Rabat is located near the Atlantic Ocean, and for this reason has a large fort: Kasbah des Oudaias/ Udayas overlooking the ocean – a very strong defensive location to protect from pirates from the sea and the land. And close by was an intriguing concert hall – designed in the shape of a cobra’s head, the work of the late architect Zaha Hadid. We also went to the mausoleum near the palace where three kings have been laid to rest: Hassan, his father Hassan and his uncle. Close by is the Hassan Tower in front of which are 55 pillars – they were to be the foundation of a mosque to be built, but when the king died construction stopped and only the pillars have been left standing. Near the water is a tower (a work in progress) called the Mohammed VI tower – an office building designed to compete with the tower in the United Arab Emirates. It will be the third tallest building in Africa. On our return to Casablanca we stopped at Sahara Pottery to view the lovely works of local potters and artisans – including always beautiful tile work, mosaics and dishes.

That evening we met our guide and the other travelers for an information session and then supper. But then that night: an earthquake! As my room-mate Sue and I were getting ready for bed the floor of our hotel room began to tremble and then the building swayed slightly from side to side. Sue, who is from California, immediately said: “This is an earthquake!” We stayed in our room, but many others went outside thinking there might be some aftershocks, but it seemed that things had settled down, at least in Casablanca. We later heard that the epicentre (6.5 on the Richter scale) was in the High Atlas Mountains; that was the area of greatest devastation. But the tremors were felt as far away as Portugal, and some older buildings in Marrakech sustained some damage too. As a result, some of our itinerary had to be modified, but we continued on our way the next morning. Our guide’s wife, who lives in Marrakech, had broken her arm in a fall while trying to seek a safe place to be, and his mother and sister were in the Mountains – he heard from them only a few days later, and they were not harmed. But there were definitely some tense moments. We heard later that the Mosque of Koutoubia and its minaret, the largest in Marrakech, built in 1147, were damaged in the earthquake. Many of the buildings that crumbled were made of mud brick and then baked in the sun, thus they were not able to withstand the tremors. To date at least 2,900 people have lost their lives. The newer buildings have been much more sturdily built with reinforced concrete, and withstood any serious damage.

After a long ride in the van we arrived in Tangier where previously many expats had spent time. Some famous names: Matisse, Delacroix, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Barbara Hutton (of Woolworth fame), and the Rolling Stones, to name just a few. It is believed to have been built by Berbers and is divided into two main parts; the Medina (over 3,000 years old) and the Ville Nouvelle. The term “medina” generally means the “old town” – and it is the place where shops are squeezed together, with sometimes VERY narrow passageways; literally everything can be purchased there, but it is difficult to browse, as westerners are used to doing: hawkers and shopkeepers descend upon you as soon as you show interest in something. For the most part it is very busy, with people buying and selling, transporting goods, doing metalwork, dyeing cloth, tanning leather, etc. Goods are often trundled through the pathways, and sometimes you have to be quite nimble to get out of the way.

In the Medina (as in many other Moroccan cities) riads are dwellings that have a courtyard in the centre with often a fountain, and there can be several floors rising up and surrounding the courtyard. Nowadays they are often small local hotels. (Some riads were damaged in the earthquake in Marrakech because they are very old and not built to today’s standards.) A dar is also a small hotel, but with no courtyard. In the past there were no sources of water in private homes, so people would go to the hammams (public baths or saunas) or to public fountains. And cats were everywhere! They are revered in Morocco, and are well treated and fed, although they did not seem to have owners as we do. Dogs were thought of as working animals, not pets, and at one time were not allowed in the house, but these attitudes are changing.

Tangier has the longest coastline of any city in Morocco, and is very beautiful. It has been considered the gateway to Africa, and 60% of the people here speak Spanish – signs were also in Spanish, as well as in English and Arabic. Malcolm Forbes (of Forbes magazine) once had a home here (he bought the Mendoub Palace), and for his 70th birthday (in 1989) he threw a lavish party with 800 guests, costing $2.5 million – each guest received a Rolex watch as a party favour. Today, the king uses it as a guest house for visitors. After our guided tour through the medina, we had a lovely lunch at the Ali Baba Restaurant near the ocean, with a seaside walk afterwards.

Chefchaouen in the Rif mountains was our next stop – it is known as the blue city because many houses are “whitewashed” in blue, also staircases, and areas in the medina. The thought is that the blue colour wards off the evil eye – and it keeps away mosquitoes. It is an arts and crafts area with many vendors selling local pottery, paintings, leatherware, and other hand-made goods. The medina – up on a hill – has the usual narrow passageways with dwellings and

Entrance of the Madrid Hotel with its profusion of tiled surfaces.

shops. Our hotel (The Madrid) was very quaint with interesting headboards in the rooms and showers made of small colourful decorative tiles. The entryway was a profusion of many tiled surfaces in various designs, and there was a huge sitting area near the lobby, which was also used as a meeting place and breakfast area. (This city was once home to many Andalusians, thus the Spanish influence in architecture.) After supper some of us went for a walk and found that lively throngs of people were out enjoying the evening – it was a Saturday night.

After a rather fitful night (our hotel was on a main street with motorcycles noisily driving by and we needed to leave our windows open) nine of us had chosen to climb the mountain near the city. Our literature said that it would be a three- to four- hour hike, but it turned out to be much longer. As we set out the morning was cool, and we passed areas that looked like Gaudi had done some work there, also some waterfalls. But this had been a very dry year, thus some areas no longer had any moisture. Our guide was a spry 60-year-old who explained what we were looking at, but also moved us along as best he could, with the day getting hotter and hotter. Here again, our group was made up of the young’uns and us older women – the youngsters moved much more quickly than we did, and they often had to wait for us to catch up. At the beginning the pathway was paved, but it became steeper and steeper with

Panoramic views in the area of Chefchaouen.

rocks and scree. The panoramic views of Chefchaouen were spectacular and in the surrounding landscape we saw here and there a homestead, men on horseback, goats, cats, dogs, mules. Although we made many stops with water breaks, we older ones had to quit after about three miles – about halfway up; the guide called a land rover to take us to our lunch destination, and the others continued on. Well, the jeep was a very ramshackle vehicle and we were somewhat concerned about its ability to get us to our stop – also the road was rather frightening; of course, we had no seat belts and those of us in the back were hanging on to the seats in front of us in case the doors swung open without warning – a rather wild ride! But the driver was very good and dropped us off at our designated spot. Eventually the others arrived and lunch was served – tagines that included delicious meats and vegetables. The land rovers arrived to take us back to our hotel – again a crazy ride; at one point our car stalled, and at another we thought it might have got a flat tire because it hit a large boulder quite hard. We saw fields of marijuana at the roadside; this is known as a hashish-producing area and in spite of efforts to eradicate this trade it still continues and produces about 80% of Europe’s supply. All in all, this day was quite the adventure!

A note about our meals: breakfast usually consisted of olives, cheeses, breads and sweet buns of various kinds, boiled eggs, yogurt, tomatoes, cucumbers, and café-au-lait or tea. Our lunches and suppers were very filling with large portions. Starters were invariably olives, but sometimes also lentils, salads or chickpeas, and always delicious bread. As the main course, sometimes one could get lamb or chicken skewers, but the most common dish was a tagine (a Berber meal) – a deep earthenware dish with a conical earthenware top, slowly cooked on the stove, with meat and various vegetables and sauce all together. Vegetarian tagines were also available. Sometimes they were individual sizes, but often they were served family style. Moroccan soup, delicious, not too spicy, and different each time, was always a good choice. Salads were usually chopped up veggies: cucumbers, tomato, onion, oil. On Fridays the typical meal was couscous because it was prepared the day before, as Friday is the day of prayer/rest for Muslims. Dessert was often fresh fruit: melons, grapes, dates. And always mint tea. Surprisingly, many restaurants also had pizza and pasta, probably because of the proximity of Italy to this country. And in the markets many sweets could be purchased: fudge-like candy, cookies, nuts and baked goods. Some of the larger hotels had bars where alcoholic drinks were sold, in spite of this being a Muslim country – this was probably to accommodate the tourists.

Then on to Volubilis (near Meknes) the next day. Volubilis is now a UNESCO heritage site, as it is the remotest spot from Rome where the Romans settled. It was built during the first century BC, and at that time the area was quite fertile with wheat, vineyards, olive groves, etc. The Romans occupied this space until about 400 AD. In 1755 an earthquake destroyed many of the structures, but two foreign diplomats stumbled upon the ruins at the end of the 19th century. In 1920 excavations began and about one third of the original city has been uncovered. It is estimated that about 25,000 to 30,000 people lived there, eventually converting to Christianity, but in the 7th century Islam became the dominant religion. The Roman mythical god and protector was Jupiter and monuments were erected to honour him, and there was a triumphal arch dedicated to Carcalla, the Roman Emperor at the time. As a result we saw things like a baptismal “font” – actually a bathtub-sized structure in the ground; thus it was assumed that full immersion of participants took place. Excavations and research led archeologists /anthropologists to uncover, among other things, very well preserved floor mosaics of the patrician homes, olive presses and many pillars and walls, public baths, and columns indicating administrative buildings. A fascinating glimpse into the past.

For lunch we stopped at Mhaya village. Here we learned about Planeterra Foundation (AFER) which is a G Adventures supported organization that benefits rural women and children. They gain access to education and health care, as well as vocational training, so that they can improve the lives of their families. Women who are very poor, mistreated, or widowed benefit greatly; this organization is run by women and there are branches throughout Morocco.

Next stop: Fez / Fès , the oldest city in Morocco, one of the last pockets of Medieval civilization. It was formerly the capital of Morocco and a famous centre of Islamic learning. We had a guided tour of the city which allowed us to see how it was divided into three sections: on one side was the old medina-city from the 13th century, on the other the Ville Nouvelle built by the French in the 19th century, and in the middle was the Mellah – formerly the Jewish part of town. Morocco was once home to a large population of Jews, but around 1948 many went to Israel, their homeland. They had originally fled from Spain and Portugal during the years of the Inquisition (15th century AD) and settled in many areas of Morocco; at one point their population was around 250,000 to 300,000, but at the present time there are only about 2,500 to 3,000 inhabitants. Many left but did not sell their properties; with the passage of time, Muslims moved in, but never obtained deeds. And sometimes the descendants of the original Jews would come to reconnect with their past, explore the lands where their ancestors lived, find their homes, and visit with the Muslim occupants – and these could be very pleasant visits. Thus, for the most part, Muslims and Jews cohabited quite agreeably. After a busy day we went to

Berber shepherds entertain at the Palais Medina.

dinner (an excellent meal) and a tourist-type show at the Palais Medina. Berber shepherds entertained us with music they would play during their stints guarding their animals; one of the instruments was a carding tool. Then we saw a belly dancer, a fire eater and a magic act.

We passed by the king’s palace – the biggest and oldest in Morocco, consisting of 80 acres, and with a golden horse inside. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures –not even of the guards standing outside. We saw an American Fondouk – an animal hospital where animals (mainly horses, mules and donkeys) are looked after free of charge. Donations come mainly from wealthy Americans. Next we went to a ceramics factory where we saw many workers at various tasks: creating original greenware from volcanic clay, then designing, painting and polishing. My room-mate, Sue, who is a potter, was invited to try her hand at the potter’s wheel, and she sat down like an expert and fashioned a nice vase – the guide wanted to hire her! In the showroom there were endless items for purchase: dishes, table tops, fountains for home use for ablutions, wall decorations.

Fresh baking at the medina in Fez.

The medina here was out of this world and one of the largest! (about 365 hectares). It is a UNESCO site because it has preserved its medieval character: huge, labyrinthine, with more than 9,000 winding “streets”; chaotic, fascinating! It contained every vendor imaginable, such as a huge leather goods store, brassware, spice shops, clothing and fabric stores, many bakers and butchers, jewelers, confectioners, potters, carpenters, a hive of feverish activity! Mules would sometimes carry loads or pull wagons piled with merchandise through the narrow passageways and workers were constantly bustling to and fro. Cloth here is dyed from natural products: yellow comes from saffron, blue from cobalt, red from poppies, green from agave, and so on. We were taken to a special leather tannery and saw where the process of tanning hides takes place with different stages of curing with limestone and pigeon droppings! The vats are in the open air, and the birds just fly by and help with the job. Next was the

Julia models for Berber scarf tying technique.

scarf shop where we were shown many lovely woven products and also one of our ladies (Julia) allowed herself to be used as a model to demonstrate how Berbers tie a scarf around their heads when in the desert to protect their faces from sandstorms.

After a very nice Moroccan lunch inside the medina we were taken to the oldest university in the world according to UNESCO: Al Karouine / Quarawiyin, originally founded in 857-859 as a mosque, but then used as a madrasa, and finally in 1963 it obtained the designation of University. Students would live in very small basic dormitories which now stand empty. We had a glimpse of the sections of the university open to the public: always ornate, with fountains, colourful tiles, marble floors.

We made a brief stop at Ifrane, once considered a garden city in Morocco, located in the Mid-Atlas mountains. Because of its altitude, it is one of the few spots in Morocco where skiing takes place and has been called the Switzerland of Morocco. The king has a palace in town, and in the past he would escape the summer heat by spending some time there. It was originally settled by Berbers and nomads who lived in caves – now these caves are used for animals. Nearby is Al Akhawayne University, founded in 1993, an independent university where instruction is done in English, and which has about 3,000 students. (Only the very rich or students on scholarship are in attendance.) In the centre of town there is a sculpture of a lion’s head: at one time lions roamed in this area, but they were hunted down, and when the last one was killed, it was thought to have this sculpture commissioned; it is now often photographed by tourists. We then stopped at a spot nearby which had some Barbary Macaque apes who entertained the tourists and hoped to be fed.

On the way to the desert we drove through the Vallé du Ziz – a huge gorge with acres of Medjool date palm groves. We learned that the trunks of palm trees undergo a controlled burn once a year in order to kill parasites that nest inside the bark – a very labour-intensive operation. A note on harvesting dates: a well-paid expert climbs to the tops of the palm trees and shakes them; the people below catch the fruit in blankets as it falls. In addition we saw some Khettara canals built to irrigate local farmers’ fields. They can be 40 kilometres long and at a depth of 20 metres or more, depending on the land. The local sheik supervises the planning and digging and use of water; families along the length of the aqueduct look after their section of it. This is an ancient way of setting up use of water. We visited an area where the land was irrigated with lush fields of alfalfa (feed for cattle) and many date palms, wheat and other vegetables. (Cows are usually kept inside barns, so we rarely saw them. But sheep and goats were everywhere!)

Our spacious room in Merzouga.

And then we arrived in Merzouga – the desert! Our resort hotel (Les Dunes d’Or) was quite amazing: a huge open square surrounded by our hotel rooms, which were very spacious – a queen bed for each of us! But no chairs… The structure was of a sort of adobe material with mud and straw, with a bamboo and oak beam ceiling in the rooms, reinforced by a steel framework. There were two swimming pools in the main square and another smaller one leading

View to the courtyard of the Les Dunes
d’Or hotel.

to the main building where we registered and had our meals and entertainment. After a delicious supper that night we were able to enjoy the music of some local drummers dressed in Berber costumes – which they wore all the time – not just for the music session. (A Berber costume is one with a long scarf as a headpiece wrapped around one’s head, with a section available to cover one’s face in case of a sandstorm; then a long caftan or djellaba as a cover to the ankles, along with loose-fitting trousers underneath.) The sand dunes were hypnotizing, mesmerizing! But late that night we experienced some slight rain and quite a stiff wind that blew the sand around everywhere; it continued until early the next morning to the point where it was disorienting and difficult to see where to go – with just sand dunes and very few landmarks.

In the morning we were treated to a ride in the desert in 4×4 vehicles – with very good drivers, but who also wanted us to experience what it is like to go up and down and around through the sand – no roads – it was almost like a midway ride! In spots the terrain was rocky or solid and gritty, but in others it was just soft sand – somewhat like driving in deep snow. Now and then there was some sparse vegetation. We stopped at a camel parking lot with many Dromedaries (with one hump; Bactrian camels with two humps are found in Asia); they are called ships of the desert. Our drivers stopped at a Bedouin encampment and we had a chance to explore their environment. Their homes (tents) are made of camel wool which is waterproof; there were several types of dwellings: a kitchen, a guest house, a cooking tent, a sleeping house, a large open-sided tent where we sat and were offered tea with some nuts and dried

Bedouin hospitality in the desert.

fruits. The mother was cooking a type of round bread the size of a medium pizza with a delicious stuffing made of vegetables and spices. When it was ready her husband served us while their little two-year-old boy (Omar) smiled and stood nearby. We think that since we were all women, at first the mother wore a face covering, but soon removed it, and even allowed us to view her three month-old baby – Ismail; this is usually not done with visitors, but they must have felt comfortable enough with us to do this. After our meal Omar was being helpful by carefully bringing the tray with the teapot and cups back to his mother. The homes were quite primitive by our standards, but Bedouins have survived thousands of years, thus they have become quite self-sufficient and knowledgeable about their surroundings. The father said that he was planning to send Omar to school in the nearby town; we wondered how his exposure to the outside world might change his view on his parents’ lifestyle and what his future might be like because of this. This excursion through the desert and to the encampment was in my opinion a highlight of our trip. Fascinating! Another world!

Later we stopped at a kohl mine, which was no longer active in this location. There was also a military outpost here, as we were close to the Algerian border, and there are still some unresolved territorial issues between these two countries. Next stop: Et-Taous – where we were entertained by musicians playing Gnaoua music. This music originated with the Gnawa people –

Musicians playing Gnaoua music.

descendants of Moroccan and Algerian slaves, and it is mainly comprised of three types of instruments: the guembri (a three-stringed bass lute), karkabas (metal castanets) and the tbel (drum). It is considered to be spiritual, trance-inducing, but with a techno-like quality to it. It has become a key Moroccan art form and many non-Moroccan performers have incorporated it into their music, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix among others. At one point a few of us got up to dance in a circle, along with Khalid, our guide – nice!

Mirdza on her camel. “Look ma. No hands!”.

After a windy, sandy, overcast afternoon, that evening was to be our camel ride to view the sunset. We all got dressed in our desert gear (with scarves covering our heads and faces). My camel was very placid and comfortable – it was like riding a horse, and we were able to grasp metal handles similar to those of a bicycle. But there was a problem: we experienced thunder and lightning, and it began to rain – in the desert! And here we were up on camels, the only high points on the sand dunes – a bit scary! And of course, no sunset! Our ride was therefore cut short, but it was a very different experience again! After supper that night we were again entertained by the local drummers and at around 11 p.m. after almost everyone had gone to bed, the main drummer (Zirar – a Berber) tried to teach a few of us (Denise, Julia, Shuang and me) how to get a rhythm going just using our hands – no sticks. Zirar spoke quite good English; he told us that he had taught himself, and probably spending time with tourists helped him too. He lives in Merzouga with his family but works and sleeps at the hotel during his workdays – always up and setting out breakfast for us, drumming late into the night.

Fossil slabs for sale.

After leaving the desert we stopped in Erfoud to explore a factory / store where fossils are sold. This trade is a recent phenomenon; the fossils themselves originated from a volcano eruption millions of years ago, with indications that a large body of water had once been nearby, as some of the fossils were of jellyfish, octopus or sand roses. The main types found are trilobytes; some of the world’s richest fossil sites have been found here, with hundreds of species. It has been said that Morocco has a “trilobite economy” because this industry brings in about $40 million annually. There are arguments about the legality of exporting these fossils, but no decisions have been made. The process is that slabs are cut very carefully from the volcanic rock with a diamond blade; it is always a surprise as to what one will find embedded in the slab. They are then cut, polished, based on what is uncovered, and made into something decorative or functional. We saw furniture items or accessories such as decorative table tops, plaques, fountains, vases and dishes.

Handmade woolen carpets in Touroug.

As we drove through Touroug we came across some flooded streets because of a heavy overnight rain – not what we expected in this part of the country. It was up to some children’s knees, and our driver had to make a detour. All of a sudden several little boys of about ten or eleven years of age directed our driver to some safe streets, stopping other traffic on the way in order to let us through – they were very serious about their task! Our guide gave them some dates as a thank-you. After a delicious couscous lunch (it was Friday) we stopped at a carpet establishment where carpets are made by hand and on large looms. We learned that the finest wool comes from the chin of the camel, and can be shaved every three years; camels can produce around five pounds of hair per year, and it can be collected during the moulting season. Sheep wool was also used here, with women carding and weaving. We were told that many of the women working there were nomadic, living in town during the winter and then back in the desert in tents in summer; they were divorced or widowed and the government would help them with schooling, mTheedical care, and other basics. We were treated to a showing of many carpets, with a myriad of designs, patterns, colours, sizes.

Todra Gorge.

On the way to Tinghir we saw a huge and amazing palm grove in a wide gorge that stretched for 30 kilometres, along with areas full of thick vegetation. That evening we were taken on a long walk through a lush valley in the community of Toudgha El Oulia which contained a water canal with a spring as its source. The local farmers divert this waterway as needed to irrigate the various crops: corn, cabbage, alfalfa, date palms, pomegranates, figs. Egrets were ever-present, as were donkeys at work, carrying heavy loads; the local families were out looking after their crops – a good view of the reality of living here. The next morning we were given an opportunity to explore the Todra Gorge, the pride of Tinghir; there are 300 metre high limestone cliffs on either side of this gorge, which also has a river flowing through it. Quite spectacular! Cool, refreshing!

We made a stop for a coffee break in Kelaat M’gouna – the Dades Valley of Roses – a spot famous for its roses; there is a festival there every March or April. About 20,000 people take part in the celebrations, the main street is covered with rose petals and a Miss Rose is chosen. The shop we visited had a “still” for making rosewater, also rose soaps and other products such as items made of argan oil.

Continuing on our journey, we passed a photovoltaic station – one of three in Morocco, and there is work on a fourth. The king instituted this project with a view to having 1,000,000 homes using solar energy; this would greatly reduce pollution coming from fossil fuels; the latter would be a standby or used overnight. The plan is that these stations would be cheap, sustainable and non-polluting. In 2013 the king began by providing solar energy for all big mosques, called “green mosques”.

Ouerzazate was our next overnight stop. This city is considered to be the gateway to the Sahara and is home to Atlas Film Studios where many Hollywood films have been made, such as “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Gladiator”, “Star Wars (1977)”. There is also a cinema museum. When filming began many years ago, about 3000 from the local population were hired as extras; however recently, with AI being used more frequently to represent crowd scenes, the local people are somewhat upset that they will not be able to make some extra money in this way. But many local technicians, such as assistant producers and designers, can still find work in these studios. And just in case you did not know: “Casablanca” was not filmed in Casablanca, but in a studio in Los Angeles – although I believe that this movie caused many to become aware of this exotic city and country. Our hotel had a beautiful pool and lounge area – and many large hotels in the big cities had pools – a chance to cool off and refresh.

Aftermath of the earrthquake in Marrakesh.

After leaving Ouerzazate, we stopped for coffee and came upon a French news crew from Tangier that was speaking to people about the after-effects of the earthquake. Our guide was interviewed, and he spoke in Arabic, saying that the rest of Morocco is safe, stable and ready to accommodate visitors. The news at that point seemed to focus on the damage that had been done, as though the whole country was off limits; several tour groups and other travelers had already cancelled their trips. This was bad for the economy as many areas depend on tourism for a steady income. We were to have a cooking demonstration, a fine meal, a stay in a hostel, etc. Surely these people had prepared for our visit, only to have everything cancelled, or worse…. Our Anita was also asked a few questions about how she was finding things – of course she gave only positive answers. In Adhil we were served an excellent lunch in an amazing restaurant: an enormous grassy quadrangle had tents around its periphery with the front section open to the square; it was reminiscent of the Berber living arrangements. Each group of people would have their own private tent for dining – quite unique!

We stopped at an argan oil production facility, run entirely by women. The labour-intensive steps showing how the argan tree’s berry is processed were explained to us. The pit of the berry is cracked open and the almond-like nut is roasted and then ground up. The oil is used for cooking, as a medicine and as a cosmetic; even the husk of the berry is used for fuel. At times at breakfast we found the oil mixed with ground almonds and used as the local “peanut butter”. We were able to purchase some products with the knowledge that it was helping the local women.

A view to the Atlantic Ocean at Essaouira.

Essaouira (population 80,000) was a beautiful city located on the Atlantic Ocean, another UNESCO heritage site. There was a magnificent view of the stormy windy Atlantic, with a fortress and guns pointed out to sea – reminiscent of the days when pirates and other marauders would try to enter the city and do harm. It was first settled by the Romans, and there is an island near the coast where they discovered the murex shell: it is known for the vibrant purple dye that it produces and is quite rare. At one time only royalty could afford to have this colour in fabrics because it was VERY expensive – thus the term “born to the purple”. This medina was different in that many “streets” through it were not as claustrophobic as those in other medinas. And

Spacious “street” in Essaouira’s medina.

our hotel was located right inside it – a riad with an odd entryway that was not visible until you walked through a narrow passageway. In addition, shopping was quite pleasant – you did not feel as though you were swarmed as soon as you showed interest in something. In the morning we visited the local synagogue, now more like a museum. Only Sephardic Jews lived in Morocco and were merchants to the sultan; thus they were protected from harm. However, they were eventually expelled by the Christians, although still today the current advisor to the king is Jewish. At the local Jewish Cemetery the caskets were in cement and sitting above ground, and from the shape of the carved figure on the outside one could tell whether a man or woman had been buried in that spot. That afternoon some in our group went to a hammam to relax and rejuvenate.

Abundance of seafood fresh from the fishing boats.

A few of us went to the port as the fishing boats had come in; many, many varieties of seafood were unloaded from the boats, quickly packed in ice and transported to stores, restaurants, and other vendors. And then we went for our second camel ride along the beach off the Atlantic. This lasted about a half hour – very pleasant with the breezes off the water and a view of many kite surfers enjoying their sport. That evening some of us went to a night club (Toras) nearby where an African band was playing. Many tourists – and the liquor was plentiful!

Although we enjoyed Essaouira very much, we had to move on to our final destination: Marrakech. It is about 1,000 years old and is called the “Red City” because of the colour of the building material used: houses are made of cement blocks, then covered with red clay. There are exotic souks and a royal palace, used for ceremonial events (the king lives elsewhere). And just FYI: Robert DeNiro owns a hotel here. Our first visit was to the Ben Youssef Madrasa; at one point it was the largest madrasa in Morocco and dated back to the 15th century; the Ben Youssef Mosque is attached to it. Subjects taught were theology, philosophy, and the trades. As of 1952 it was no longer an educational institution and is now a historical site. Carved cedar wood and plaster were the building materials, but there were no portraits anywhere – only calligraphic inscriptions. The shallow pools of water represent purification, and they are found in every mosque. Afterwards we walked through the Djemaa El Fna (The Market Square) and toured the medina – a crazy place with many shops and narrow passageways as usual, but also with many men on large motorbikes driving through with very little thought to the ears or lungs or safety of others. We then found ourselves in the Secret Garden – secret because for many years nobody knew what was behind some high walls: it was a palace! It had been in operation until 1934 at which point it was closed down; a rich Italian bought it and planned to build a hotel on that spot. However, as digging commenced a whole hydraulic system of water was uncovered that had been set up many years ago. The new owner changed his mind and decided to create a garden using this antique watering system which is still functioning perfectly today. The garden was designed by an Englishman, but the palace itself reflects Islamic art and architecture. It was a lovely oasis in the middle of a bustling city. That night we had a very nice farewell dinner since the next day was free for us to explore the city on our own.

Some in our group went for a balloon ride over the region and had an excellent morning. Janina and I decided to visit the Jardins Majorelle but we had problems with buying tickets on-line and were not allowed to pay at the gate. However, we managed to squeeze in another adventure. After walking in the hot sun to the gardens and being turned away, we decided to take a cab back to the medina, but the taxi drivers near the garden wanted too much money. The traffic on the main road was very thick and all the taxis we saw afterward were already taken. Finally an older man beckoned to us, turned his cab around in the very heavy traffic, and after some negotiating (with his fingers held high) we agreed to pay him four euros. We mentioned the museum we wished to visit (Dar Si Said) and we set out. Except that he did not know where this place was, and he was mute! After driving around in the wrong direction (Janina was following his trajectory on her tablet) he finally stopped the car and got out, leaving us wondering what to do. At this point we were in a poor part of the city where many vendors had household goods that they were trying to sell right on the sidewalk. He took off, probably to find out where he should go, but we waited a few minutes, then jumped out of the car and hurried down the street, hoping to find another cab. The cabbie had realized that we were gone, as he had retraced his steps, and saw us; he motioned for us to get back in his cab, but we motioned back: “no”. Soon we came upon a sort of taxi “stand” and another driver, who had an idea of where this museum was, agreed to take us for 80 dirhams ($8.00). But when we got there we discovered that the museum and another building next to it were closed because of damage done to them by the earthquake. We don’t know if the driver knew this and just wanted his fare or not. Some dicey moments, but it all worked out in the end, and we got another taxi back to the hotel. We saw a very different side of Marrakech!

Some of us got together for a final supper at a Thai restaurant (not very common in Morocco – a nice change of pace!) We then took the train back to Casablanca the next morning and flew back to Canada. This was an amazing trip! And some of us would like to go back, to explore some more, to revisit the desert, to go up into the High Atlas Mountains; this country got into our blood! It was a blend of the traditional and modern, with exotic, colourful contrasts: varied landscapes, medinas, valleys, markets, fossils, lakes, the desert; flavourful foods, interesting styles of dress, Islamic and other architecture, tiles, decorations, and cats everywhere! A feast for the eyes and the soul!