Monday, 20 July 2009

Windy, windy Essaouira

Well for a change from the heat of Marrakesh, I decided to head to the coast for a few days. First idea was Mirleft, then Agadir but I didn't expect to like it but ended up going back to Essaouira! And what a change it was - can you believe it I was cold, for the first time in months and months! It was so WINDY, at times I felt like I was being sand-blasted, even in the alleys of the medina. I even took long sleeves to wear but that wasn't enough. It certainly was a change. Plus the normally blue sea was a murky brown dotted by white-caps courtesy of the wind!!! The to top it off it is 44 degrees here in Marrakesh today with no sun.

Anyway I did have nice food including grilled fish, avacado and prawn salad (I can't get avocados in Bangladesh) and my favourite meat tagine with raisins and caramelised onions. Mind you, the food prices seemed cheaper than in Marrakesh. Stayed at the same place I stayed at in December - Hotel Les Maison Bleus, a comfortable and central place with lovely hosts, one of whom remembered me, even if he could not spell my name!

Of course I took lots of phots, here are a few people ones.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


Initially I passed through Tangier on my way to Spain after catching the train from Rabat. On arrival at Tangier Ville train station, I immediately got accosted by taxi drivers who wanted to charge me 50 dirhams for the ride to the port. I offered 20 and they refused so I went and joined the mostly locals on the street corner out the front!! Eventually after about 20 minutes I finally got a taxi to the port and when I put 20 dirhams in the driver’s hand once I got out, he didn’t argue. You can also walk, which take about 45 minutes. Head straight for the sea and once on the beach street, turn left and it will take you straight to the port.

On my return to Tangier, my initial plan was to take a train to Rabat. I thought to avoid the exorbitant prices charged by taxi drivers at the port, I would walk out to the entrance and catch a taxi there but had no success and ended up walking all the way to the station. Again just follow the street from the port (Ave Mohammed VI) until you get to McDonalds, which is about 3 kilometres, and turn right. The Tangier Ville train station is directly ahead. As I arrived at the station the train I was supposed to be on was just pulling out. Later trains did just not work out, so I reverted to my original plan of spending a couple of nights in Tangier to se what it was like.

Got a taxi as m feet were sore and blistered from all the walking in new sandals to the Hotel Continental, a piece of Tangier history. There I got a single room with port views and a/c for 526 dirham per night, including breakfast. It is a really fascinating hotel that dates from the early 1900s and was the first hotel in Tangier. As a result it is decorated with lots of antiques and memorabilia on the walls, in the hallways, in the common areas and even in the rooms. It has a large balcony with views across the port that is a pleasant place to sit in the evenings and enjoy a drink, the breeze and the views. But it doesn’t serve alcohol, so my drink of preference is fresh orange juice.

Next day I headed off to the Kasbah and of course got accosted by an unofficial guide who took me all around the Kasbah and said “a Frenchman owns this, English own this . . . . .”. Unfortunately the Kasbah museum is closed on a Tuesday and I didn’t make it back! Then went to the Phoenician Tombs, rectangular holes in a huge rock but with stunning views across the Mediterranean to Spain.

These are close to Café Hafa, which has certainly had its dy but is still a pleasant spot to have a cold drink or mint tea and enjoy the views in peaceful surroundings. As for the “guide”, he was not happy with his tip of 100 dirhams but after I stressed the unofficial part he left! Unofficial guides can actually be arrested, fined or even imprisoned in Morocco.

A restaurant I found and went to a couple of times especially as I didn’t feel out of place as a single female was les Passagers de Tanger on the 2nd floor overlooking Grand Socco. Great value was its meal of the day for 110 dirham where I had fish soup, filleted sardines sandwiched together with pesto and served with rice and stir-fried vegetables with dessert being orange and grapefruit slices served with icecream. Alcohol is also available with Heineken beer 40 dirhams and a glass of red wine 25. The restaurant has both indoor and outdoor tables and was excellent value remembering that restaurants that serve alcohol tend to be much more expensive than those that don’t.

Also I visited the American Legation Museum, which I found fascinating. Lots of prints of Moroccan towns including Tangier from the 1500s onwards, old maps of North Africa and the Mediterranean region, some interesting paintings, examples of damascine and even a picture of Moulay Ismail. There is also a Paul Bowles room with lots of photos of him and other well-known people plus copies of his books. Located in two traditional riad-type buildings, they also have some Morocco-related books for sale.

I found the nearby Lorin Museum to be not worth a visit as it contained a series of old black and white photos, many of which were unlabelled. However, I did find St Andrew’s Church fascinating as it merges Moorish architecture, Moroccan features, Arabic writing with traditional Christian features. The Lord’s Prayer in Arabic plus lots of arches, niches and stucco plus being situated directly next to a mosque show this The caretaker who lives in a nearby cottage has to unlock the church for visitors to see inside.

Overall I found Tangier is worth at least a full day and I was hassled very little. Mind you, I saw people in the large tour groups that were being herded through the medina by a guide, being heavily hassled by the touts and hustlers but as long as you dress conservatively, avoid eye contact with the men and look like you know where you are going, then the problems should be less.

Seville - Part 2

Continuing on the comparison between Granada and Seville, although the Alhambra was the most spectacular of the sights I saw, Seville had a more relaxed feel to it. Narrow alleys in the old part of town lined with colourfully painted two-storey houses that shade the alleys that are frequently lined by tables from the cafes scattered throughout. It was fun just wandering around, finding hidden squares and watching the world go by. Obviously Saturday is wedding day in Seville as sitting at a café in a square with a fountain in the middle, not did just one bride and groom appear with trailing photographers but more likely six, as soon as one group left another would appear! Photogenic – no doubt about that.

Unlike the cathedral, I did find the Alcazar worth the 8 euro entry fee. It was a conglomeration of Moorish and Christian architecture. Dating back to 700, it has been the home of the Moorish chiefs and the residence of the Spanish monarchs, it has stunning architecture covering styles over hundreds of years.
For example “ Each wall in the Hall of Justice has a decorative structure comprising three recessed arches adorned with traditional Moorish plasterwork showing schematic plants, epigraphs and heraldic coats of arms. The ceiling is adorned with wooden lattice work.”

“Four marble arches on one end of Levi’s Courtyard, look across a rectangular pool with three water lilies aligned down the centre and home to goldfish. There is a hedge on either side with a wall fountain at the end, surrounded by variegated and green ivy with the smell of jasmine pervading the air.”
The Tapestry Room

There are many other monuments in Seville, that I unfortunately didn’t have time to visit but it is also expensive as they charge high entry fees. I would happily return especially to the hotel I stayed at – Hotel Europa. Decorated with antiques, it is full of character, comfortable while also being centrally located and easy to find. I also acquired a taste for Sangria, no doubt helped by the fact that the iceblocks made it a very refreshing drink in the heat.

Seville - Part 1

For me, the one attraction that drew me to Seville was the Giralda minaret turned bell tower in the cathedral. Having already spent so much time in Morocco and having seen both Tour Hassan in Rabat and Kotoubia Mosque in Marrakesh, I wanted to see the third in the trio of minarets built by the Almohad Sultan Yacoub el-Mansour in the 12th century. Kotoubia was the prototype, Tour Hassan was unfinished due to el-Mansour’s death and the Giralda got recycled!
Here are photos of the 3 minarets. Can you tell which is which??

The mosque and minaret may be no more in Seville, but the past use is still very evident today. The minaret shape cannot be camouflaged, while many of the adornments remain although the arch-shaped decoration, have now become windows with a bell tower being added to the top. One interesting option after paying the hefty entry fee of 8 euros, was to walk up the ramp to the top of the bell tower/minaret from where there was excellent views across Seville. As with Tour Hassan, a ramp rather than steps was used to give access to the top so that the caller of the muezzin could ride his horse to the top for the required 5 times a day! The back exterior of the cathedral also clearly showed that it was once a mosque with the austere plain walls in a basic block shape. Many additions had been made to the building – the front and above to turn it into a cathedral although I must say that I didn’t find the interior particularly inspiring, more a waste of money when compared to the cathedral in Granada.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Granada and its graffiti
The main reason to go to Granada is to visit the Alhambra and it was certainly worthwhile as I needed up spending a whole day there. I bought my ticket online prior to visiting for 14 euros then collected it on arrival from a ticket machine. It was an afternoon ticket, which meant I could only enter the Alcazaba and Palace of the Goodlife after 2 pm and my entry to the Palaces of Nasrid was at 2 pm precisely. After the steep climb up the Alhambra, as it is on a promontory overlooking Granada and its surrounds, I then spent the next few hours looking around the “free” part. This included the Palace of Carlos V, which was built in 1492 after the Catholics took over, and the nearby church both of which were newer and constructed during the Christian era of the complex. Stone lion faces with rings through their noses decorated the Palace Carlos V, which was basically just a square block but had a nice circular courtyard inside. Nearby and much older from the Muslim era was the remains of a Hammam or traditional bath house. The remains of one bath could be seen with some blue and white tiles still attached. There were nice gardens in between with blooming roses in many colours under the shade of some larger trees. A climbing plant with purple flowers also hung down covering some of the shaded walls.
However it was the Palaces of Nasrid that is the real attraction. They date from the 13th and 14th centuries when the Moors and Islam ruled southern Spain, hence it has many of the same features of buildings seen in Morocco. It is a rambling mass of palaces, courtyards, balconies . . . . . . With pools, fountains, climbing plants and hedges in the courtyards, often with a portico at one end with a series of arches looking towards the courtyard.

Very attractive, very serene and very relaxing. It is so easy just to sit by and relax, as long as you could get out of the hot sun (it was high 30s). Inside the buildings was where the major decoration occurred. In fact it reminded me of the slowly disintegrating Glaoui palace at Telouet in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. Mosaic tiling in greens, blue, black, white and mustard is geometric designs covered the lower metre and a half of the walls.
Higher was carved stucco or plasterwork with a mixture of symbolic representations of plants, calligraphy symbols and geometric designs including lines and shapes. Sometimes this is used as borders, at other times it will be the top metre and a half on walls, often with arch shapes incorporating different patterns.
Then there was the wood ceilings, either with intricately painted designs painted on the wood or with wood pieces fitted together to form geometric design on the roof. When looking at this it has to be remembered that Islam forbids the depiction of human or animal figures, hence the extensive use of geometric designs. Outside were more reflection pools surrounded by designed and manicured gardens with meandering paths, often with hedged borders forming triangle or square or semi-circular shaped mini gardens. More flowers, in addition to roses there was blue plumbago cascading down a wall, palm trees towering above a pool, citrus trees, the smelly flowering privet, pencil pines lining walkways, lavender, jasmine - so all very pretty, especially when the twinkling of water from fountains are interspersed regularly.

The huge park areas around the Alhambra including the large trees are actually irrigated with huge sprinklers to keep them green, unlike the surrounding countryside which is very brown, just like southern Australia in Summer. The Nasrid Palace and surrounding medina was home to the noblemen and their families, the Alcazaba was the military garrison and the Generalife was the palace and garden area in which the Granadian kings relaxed. The entire complex is surrounded by high earthen ramparts with many watch towers interspersed. This sets it up as an ideal fortress.

The Generalife Palace
Granada also had a HUGE cathedral that was quite spectacular inside, an interesting archeological museum, lots more churches and lots of outdoor cafes to sit at in the evening as the temperature slowly cooled. I couldn’t believe how many icecream shops there were - not sure what happens to them in Winter!

From Rabat to Granada

From Rabat to Tangier it was about a 5 hour trip with no changes of train, arriving about 1 pm. Then came the saga of getting a taxi from the train station to the port. Of course a tout approached me and said 50 dirhams to the port in a Grand Taxi but I told him I wanted a petit taxi so I joined all the locals out on the street corner in front of the station. No lines or order of any form here, but instead it is all for oneself. Some taxis that already have one passenger in stop to see if anyone else is going in the same direction. Eventually I got one on my own to the port and the driver gave me a guided tour of Tangier (in French) as we drove along - the Grand Socco is up there, the Kasbah there and that is the Hotel Continental . . . . . . And most surprising of all is that I understood most of what he was saying! On arrival at the port I gave him 20 dirhams, which was how much I wanted to pay and since he was busy negotiating with a couple of potential passengers he only looked when I put in in his hand and didn’t argue!

A simple task to get the ticket - I got a return one for 760 dirham as that got a 10% discount. Then through immigration to line up next to the ferry to get on. While waiting I meth this American guy, who had also got on the train in Rabat, and talked to him while on the ferry trip. He is a post graduate student who had been awarded a fellowship to come to Morocco for one month and study Arabic, while the weekends were spend sightseeing around Morocco - the desert, Fes, Marrakesh etc. leaving about 2.15, the ferry crossing was smooth with blue seas and blue skies but because of the one hour time change it arrived in Tarifa at almost 4. It is theoretically a 35 min crossing.

I spent the night in Tarifa staying at Hotel/Pension Focunda where I got a room for 30 euros walking in off the street, which was cheaper than normal price. My room had an attached bathroom but most in the hotel had shared facilities. It had a very central location. I couldn’t believe how touristy Tarifa now is, but it is probably 3 years since I last passed through there. Every third shop seems to be a kite surfing shop offering lessons and gear. Plus lots of cafes and other shops but the town has a nice relaxing feel about it and the old part is fun to explore.

Leaving Tarifa early next morning, I caught the 8 am public bus to Algeciras, then a 12 noon train from there to Granada. The bus trip from Tarifa only took about 30 min, past the wind turbines and even through the clouds for a short while. I had a wander around Algeciras as had plenty of time - the port there is huge!!

The train trip to Granada took 4.5 hours and can be divided into two halves: the first half to Ronda and the second half to Granada. Most of the first half involved winding through the mountains, through at least 10 tunnels, past flowing mountain streams bordered by baby pink and crimson flowering oleander, through villages with two storey white-washed houses with tiled roofs and stopping at small stations where there buildings were always white with mustard trim.

Every station was clearly signposted and sometimes we had to wait for another train, with names such as Gaucin, Cortes de la Frontera, Jimera de Libar and Benaojan. There was a couple of structures we travelled over that I would call a cross between a tunnel and a bridge - closed in on one side and the roof, the other side was semi-open with archhways looking out across the scenery. We past a few cork trees, where all the lower bark had been removed (to make cork) revealing a dark tan layer underneath unlike the rough grey bark above. There were also many gum trees, some with pale yellow flowers. A very scenic section of the trip.

Ronda I had visited previously, a lovely white village but the train takes about 30 minutes to wind up to the plateau on which Ronda is found. Leaving Ronda and almost all the way to Granada, the rolling hills were home to thousands of olive trees: olives in rows, olives in grids, single olive trees, clumps of three olive trees, recently planted olive trees - they just went on and on. Now I can see why the production of olive oill is such a big industry for Spain. Mind you in the stony, dry, sandy soil I am not sure they could grow anything else anyway!

After a very pleasant train trip, I finally arrived in Granada where the next saga was to find the hotel I had booked. That is an another story The train was very comfortable, air-conditioned, fast but no food or drink was available on the train. A highly recommended train trip and it cost just under 20 euros.