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  • Mon to Fri9.00am - 6.00pm
  • Saturday9:15am - 12:00pm
  • SundayClosed

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Moorish Marvels

Fri, 22 Jan 2016

Thursday Oct 17 2013


We are again indebted to Ros’ sister Caroline for putting us up overnight and getting us to the station to catch the shuttle train to Gatwick. The airport experience is the usual set of slow-moving queues though this time I am not frisked or accused of being a ‘plant’ trying to break security!

We sit next to a charming young woman who is escaping the children for a long romantic weekend with her husband to celebrate the first ten years together – she came here first on honeymoon.

First impressions of Marrakesh: dusty, sandy, Sandstone coloured – the colour of baked earth, sort of deep ochre, squat flat-roofed houses in rows. We have to queue for a long time to wait for landing card and passport reconciliation and a similar burden of form filling when we reach the hotel. Just five minutes to get into the room before there is an expedition to buy water at the local supermarket – everyone is so hassled that they all come back with gaseous stuff. Then another short time before a group meeting. Then straight into supper – vegetable soup, chicken and lemon tagine, fresh fruit – all very delicious and eaten perched on side cushions from very low tables – very Moroccan.

Friday Oct 18 2013

The difference between a Riviera holiday and a Ramblers holiday is in the amount of walking – in this case foot-slogging round the main sights. I am left with the impression of decorative tile patterns, intricate repeated motifs carved in plaster based on Arabic calligraphy, great inner courtyards with a central pool or fountain bowl. The courtyard top edges have eaves of dark cedar wood, all intricately carved. Our Moroccan guide from Fez is excellent. Because it is Friday he is dressed specially in long white over-shirt shot through with gold and matching fez hat. He is bright, good-humoured and funny, and he knows his stuff. He gave us the history of each place but now I have difficulty distinguishing palace, tomb and madrassa.

We are led down miles of labyrinthine alleys dodging the mopeds (who ‘take no prisoners’) past stalls selling fruit, veg, spices, herbs, materials of all sorts and wonderful Aladdin’s caves. But no time to investigate – lucky to get a quick snapshot.

We have lunch on the veranda roof of the restaurant with water vapour clouds venting upon us to keep us cool (air temperature about 30 degrees C). The all-in lunch option is good value with lots of extras – olives, dates, cakes with the tea – but they are very busy so service is slow. I should have been more adventurous with my choice of main course.

Later we round upon a pair of very rude German women who try to queue-jump for one of the tombs and force them to retreat. It is reported afterwards that the same pair had photographed a couple of fancy-dressed water-sellers in the square but had refused to pay them – and a great argument had ensued. When we walk back through the same square the snake charmers are just getting started and we are able to glimpse large black cobras and vipers swaying to the music. (We are told later that the usual practice is to stitch up the mouths)

Saturday Oct 19 2013
Foothills of Atlas Mountains

Today we pile into the minibus and take the hour-long journey through the boulevards of Marrakesh’s new town and out into the foothills. Our young driver takes the usual aggressive approach – whenever possible occupy the lane for on-coming traffic, force past as much as possible and beep your horn loudly at any other road users, especially mopeds, when they make you slow down. Margins are tight – I should know, I am sitting right behind him!

For some reason we are taken to the market of a village where the locals trek occasionally to buy sugar, tea and coffee. The site is exceptionally squalid. Moroccan culture does not handle rubbish well – no collection system and nothing organised for disposal resulting in random piles of plastic (mostly) as it does not degrade. They need a recycling system like Indians have. Anyway, there seems little point in walking us through this, except to underline the differences between us and the locals.

Initially the walk itself is along a track and we often have to stand aside for a passing car or moped. We follow a valley that is quite wooded and cultivated, initially with olives and quinces, later with oleander and eucalyptus. The geology is a sort of marl of the characteristic burnt ochre colour mixed with small rocks. It is often carved by water (from ice melt) into deeply channelled rounded shapes. As we approach a hidden Berber village there is evidence of sophisticated water management and strips of heavy cultivation below. We are taken to a secluded clearing for lunch.

We are then led via a series of steep-sided narrow donkey paths up into the village itself and invited into one of the houses for mint tea and a rest. We then trek down following a concrete-sided rill, down and across the valley floor to return on the other side. There are several places where the track becomes narrow or steep and quite treacherous – fine for the sure-footed mule or walker, rather challenging for some in our party.

Sunday October 20 2013
Train journey to Rabat

This is the point in the organised tour when things begin to unravel. First, despite being arranged by our guide and advertised by the hotel, breakfast does not start at 6:30. The hotel staff only begin to turn up five minutes later and it is not until nearly 7:00 that breakfast gets under way.

Then we have three ‘reserved’ compartments in the second class non-smoking area. Maria, our local heavy, throws out existing passengers, sets up notices and installs us. However, in Morocco, second class is unreserved and, because it is a major holiday, the train is heaving with people and they keep arriving.

Ros has a sudden major diarrhoea accident. The train toilet has no water, but a very kind Moroccan gentleman gives me a large bottle. We have to cope with that and some provided toilet paper. Very fortunately I have my newly purchased sleeping bag/poncho in my rucksack (the rest of our luggage has gone separately by minibus) so we have a means of preserving Ros’ modesty after having to discard trousers and underwear. We have enough room in the compartment for Ros to lie down and she remains in the prone position for over an hour.

The train is moving now – it is over an hour late to leave. Ros is given some instant Immodium and spare pants by very kind group members, and looks comfortable. At the stops, lots more people get on, and children’s faces peer pleadingly into our compartment. Eventually Ros re-adjusts to free a couple of seats and we invite a couple of young children into our compartment and their luggage into the racks above. Eventually we have the whole family. The mother has only Arabic but the father is self-taught in French. We start up a conversation in broken French and after a while are offered some nuts-dates mixture, and when it comes out that it is my birthday I am treated to Happy Birthday sung in English, then French, then Arabic to virtually the identical tune! Then in an act of spontaneous generosity I am given a large heavy plate that the father has himself painted in traditional Moroccan colours and scenes. We ask him to sign it on the back. We find our rather broken slab of Kendal mint cake to give as a kind of exchange gift. We then try to share our packed lunch and fruit and spend the rest of the time looking at each other’s digital images from our cameras and talking. They eventually get off at Casablanca on their way to a family reunion in Tangier.

Thereafter we are joined in the compartment by a mother with a little daughter on her lap, her 7 year old son and his older brother and some teenage members of a drumming/chanting band/group who are all charming and friendly. The mother, like the mother of the previous family, has her hands covered with henna patterns.

The hotel in Rabat is perfectly acceptable for a one-night stay – the bed is comfortable and there is hot water and plugs in the en-suite, unlike in the hotel room in Marrakesh. As the group has already left by the time I make it down to the foyer, I join up with Tom and Daphne for a crazy unguided walk. We get to the Medina and then the sea and the Kasbah and finally push through the throngs of people in the Souk – as Tom says “a vision of hell”, because it appears to go on forever. We get a taxi back to the hotel, quite exhausted by this time.

Monday October 21 2013

Rabat to Tangier

The experience of the train trip today is diametrically opposite to yesterday’s. Fortunately for the group, four people have opted to travel by minibus so that our two compartments of six seats is exactly right. The quality of the seating and air-conditioning makes this closer to first class and it has been locked ready for us by the train manager (Maria’s influence extends to here, even!). The downside is that we have very little interaction with the locals. The train is very late to arrive due to engine troubles and very slow at the many stops. For a journey that has been hyped as being scenic, it is rather a disappointment. The land on this route is relatively rich agriculturally and we are intrigued by fields of yellow squash lying ripening on the soil or piled on the flat roofs.

At the hotel we somehow miss the final briefing of times and come down as quickly as possible after checking into our room only to find the lobby empty. We ask reception and doorman about the group and they seem to convey that they have already gone. So we set out to walk to the Medina and the Grand Square. We know that the group is going to do a ‘Thomas Cook’ tour starting at St Andrew’s church, but when we get there it looks very locked up. We decide to go back to the Medina and walk to the Petit Socco square to find Cafe Centrale, the premier people-watching corner. We order drinks and get talking to an Australian couple (world adventurers) who had shipped their car to Vladivostok and had driven across Siberia, through Russia, Poland, Germany, France, Portugal and ended up here. They are going to Germany for Christmas and then to London and flying back to Australia to avoid our winter. We have a lovely long chat and swap details. They have a good coloured map and recommend that I photograph it before heading off to the Kasbah. As we climb the steps up to its entrance, who should we come cross but the rest of the group – they had actually left some time after us and had slipped past us when we were talking to the Australians!

The evening meal in the hotel is very poor, one of the worst I have experienced in any hotel – another missed opportunity, as Tangier is renowned for the quality of its fare.

Tuesday October 22 2013
Tangier to Rhonda – goodbye Morocco and welcome to Spain

The way out of Morocco is fraught with excessive administrative paperwork (brilliantly negotiated on our behalf by Phil, our leader) including the need to grease the palm for a yellow card, and the whole experience is not enhanced by getting up at 5:30 am. (it is even worse for a couple of group members, who had a vagrant camped just below their window and shouting at the top of his voice throughout the night).

The ferry trip is very rapid and with a splendid view of the retreating African coastline and the startling mass of rock known as the Southern Gate of Hercules (the northern gate round the corner being called the Rock of Gibraltar).

We are whisked off to the Algeciras train station by taxi in very efficient manner. The Spanish train is wonderfully modern and very comfortable, and climbs uphill, stopping at many neat little stations and registering lower and lower outside temperatures all the way up to Rhonda. We had started at 24 degrees but it is now only 20 degrees with a lowering cloud base and rain in the air.

Wow! The hotel is gorgeous and once you have found the room, it is a ten star view. There is a small veranda, with top-to-bottom iron grille because it plunges vertically straight down to the river at the bottom of the gorge, next to the famous New Bridge.

After an extended rest we decide to explore around, but it starts to rain and we take shelter in a Bomboneria – a tea shop specialising in home-made cakes. The weather is getting even worse by the time we leave to find the information centre. Then, we cross the river and discover a little exhibition of fans – Ros buys one for our communal dances. We reach the final church just as it closes and scramble along a path outside the walls before returning back for the agreed meeting time.

There is wine with the very satisfying meal in the hotel restaurant – quite a change from alcohol-free Morocco – and everyone is in good spirits.

Wednesday Oct 23 2013

Rhonda tour and walk in the gorge

Our guide, Phil, has designed a walk round the town starting at a very civilised 10am. We first visit the information centre (again) and buy a couple of tickets for the Flamenco event scheduled for 22:00. Then we go down via some viewing points, cross the ‘Roman’ bridge and walk up through the narrow streets following a trail. We go inside the beautiful church of Santa Maria Mayor, with its carved screen and large hand-painted music scores to be seen in one view by all the singers, and then walk down to the end church that we saw the previous evening, and go inside.

In the afternoon, Phil has planned a more demanding scramble down the gorge. The track is very steep, with a loose surface in some places, and it is useful to hold onto tough fennel plants at the sides for support. The path then descends to the waterside itself and goes past cottages and a hacienda with extensive stables. It is sheltered down there, with rich soil and many vegetables and fruits are grown – Ros discovers a persimmon tree and picks a ripe fruit, sharing it round so that everyone can try a sample. Then there is the steep climb up the opposite ridge and back again.

We go out of the hotel to a separate restaurant for supper, where we are overwhelmed by the quantity of food and are forced to leave most of a huge pork chop. We arrive at the Flamenco event only to be turned away – come back tomorrow or claim your money back. We assume that there is insufficient audience to make it worthwhile.

Thursday Oct 24 2013
Rhonda to Granada

After breakfast, there is sufficient time to claim back our Flamenco money and then visit the bullring opposite. Ros refuses to be my angry bull for the photograph – she is under pressure to buy lunch and some presents.

Spanish trains are a revelation! This is the continuation of the line from Algeciras. Not only are the trains comfortable, modern and all the seats numbered but also the views in this part of Andalusia are quite spectacular. We have the gentle curves of olive groves, the trees planted in straight lines to pick out the slope contours. It is olive harvest time – a net is put on the ground and the tree is shaken vigorously. There are occasional homesteads with bright white walls and multiple arches and Roman-style interlocking tiled roofs in a muted orange. And always the background of rugged mountains and dramatic outcrops, sometimes topped with a Moorish fortress. The soil can be dry, but never barren desert like tracts of Morocco outside Marrakesh, and sometimes it is almost black and freshly tilled.

For most of the journey Ros listens to Messiah through earphones – I catch the occasional high-pitched whimper when she is trying to do quiet rehearsal!

Friday Oct 25 2013
Granada, Alhambra Palace

Change of plan – we are visiting the Alhambra complex in the morning on a morning ticket and then getting into the Nasrid palaces from 13:30. We choose the Generalife gardens first, as they are probably least demanding and Ros is taking a long time to wake up!

Summer is hanging on in the gardens, with many beds in resplendent colour – the zinnias are particularly bright but there are roses in abundance, and also marigolds, salvias, scabious… Ros is particularly attracted to a deep pink flower, all ruffles like an exotic petticoat – a sort of horticultural Flamenco. The gardens are famous for their use of water, having many channels and rills, beautiful geometrically shaped pools and lines of arched fountains. We discover the water staircase that has water flowing down its banisters, made of upturned pottery tiles.

We then head for the Portal Palace area – one of the oldest – and then investigate the Mosque baths before moving on to the Alcabaza with its keep tower and watch-tower. Then a swift look inside Charles V palace before joining the queue for the Nasrid palaces with the rest of the group.

There are three main areas of C14 decorative art – repeated raised plaster geometric motifs based on Arabic inscriptions from the Koran. Every surface is covered and the effect is breath-taking, a masterpiece of intricate beauty. Perhaps the best-known area is the courtyard containing as centrepiece an enormous white marble fountain bowl propped up by many rather flat-faced lions. A ‘cloister’ surround of Moorish arches and fine white columns completes the effect.

Afterwards Phil heads a walk down into the city and a visit to the Catholic cathedral. but however hard it tries the Christian edifice remains very much an anticlimax.

Saturday Oct 26 2013
Granada to Cordoba by coach

It is dull weather with some showers – perfect for a motorway coach journey to Cordoba. We stop off at a smallish Spanish-style service station – quite different – noisy, people perched on bar stools in the round sampling tapas, large hams hanging down from the centre…

Arriving at Cordoba we walk across the Roman bridge into the city, whilst the cases are ferried by minibus. After a walk through the streets we spend the last 45 minutes before it closes in the Mesquita/Cathedral. It is just as stunning as I remembered from 12 years ago, when I came here with my old mother. There is a free concert – a set of religious songs including three Ave Maria (Schubert, Gounoud and another) performed by soprano and tenor soloists and piano accompanist. The soprano, a sultry young brunette, quite a looker, is not totally in control of her dark-toned mezzo voice – too much vibrato and surging dynamics. Some of her programme eg. Faure Pie Jesu is inappropriate for her voice. The tenor is the opposite – high-voiced, smooth, with excellent technique and control. He could be world-class if he stepped outside his Spanish repertoire. He is not young or handsome, though – a slightly thinner version of Ollie (Stan and Ollie).

After supper we are offered tickets for a son-et-lumiere event to take place in the Alkazar fortress and gardens. We do not know what to expect. The show starts with a series of animated scenes projected onto a white wall telling the history of Cordoba. We follow the crowd and are treated to dancing water jets in changing colours, synchronised to music. It goes on for a long time and we feel quite relieved when we find the exit and someone unlocks the gates – could have been trapped there all night!

The clocks go back in Spain (and England) tonight so an extra hour in bed for all.

Sunday Oct 27 2013
Morning in Cordoba, High Speed Train to Madrid

We visit the Synagogue – the oldest and one of only three surviving in Spain (the other two are in Toledo). Then I am parked in a corner coffee/cake shop people-watching whilst Ros goes off with the map for some shopping (and to watch the shag fishing in the river)

The high speed train is another impressive advertisement for Spanish Railways. You are not aware of travelling at enormous speed (maximum 300 km/h equals about 190 mph) The effect is one of disembodiment, like slicing through an ocean – huge olive green coloured waves with distant hills like the shoreline edge. Yes, it seems that all the way from the south to Madrid in the centre – half the country – there is only one crop being grown.

Monday Oct 28 2013

Madrid has that capital city feel, like London, Paris, Vienna – lots of people, traffic, noise – mind that pedestrian crossing – large squares, rows of imposing buildings unified by balconies with black wrought-iron balustrades. Ah, look there! A butcher’s shop with large pink pigs just about to jump from the balcony. They have painted a continuation façade on that blank wall so that you get a visual illusion of a sharp angle. There are figures in period costume on another balcony.

The queue outside the Royal palace is long and slow moving. The state rooms are over-the-top opulent, the king even needing a huge separate room to undertake the dressing ceremony. One feels sort of sorry for him. Afterwards we visit the royal pharmacy, a sequence of rooms with wall-to-ceiling jars and glass bottles.

We go to an atmospheric Mercado (market) for a rather expensive lunch taken standing up – it is a wonderfully fresh bowl of large prawns, squid and crunchy veg swimming in best quality olive oil dressing.

The Monasteria Descalzas is closed on a Monday so I cannot make my homage to de Victoria. However, the Museo de Art Reina Sofia is open. We just visit floor 2, and especially the painting Guernica by Picasso. It is fascinating to see the series of images he produced in preparation and how they are transformed and incorporated into the final work.

We spend the rest of our free time in the Prado, deciding to focus on Spanish painters Goya, Valasquez, and El Greco. I am moved by the dark images taken from frescoes in Goya’s house – the black goat ministering to the women, the drowning dog and the god Saturn consuming his sons.

The evening meal is special – the restaurant researched by Phil. A plate of Spanish meats and goat’s cheese, another of tripe, ratatouille, ham and bread, then a foie-gras paté with beautiful salad, followed by rare slices of entrecôte from Galicia and finished off with tangerine sorbet or chocolate mousse. Ros is unusually appreciative of the beef. Our waiter introduces each course and later discusses Spanish economic problems – 25% unemployment, 80% of which is amongst young people, many of whom are living with their parents, not getting married or having children.

Tuesday Oct 29 2013
Madrid to London Heathrow

Madrid airport is a rather daunting maze. Once through security you have to go to a further area by underground train – S, for Satellite – that handles all international flights. There appears to be nowhere to sit down, so Ros sits on the floor in protest, and thereby attracts the attention of an airport ‘guide’.