28 February 2018

Gilbraltar - Gib, for short

The high street
Gibraltar was a surprise.  Indeed, it is just a rock but a huge one with a ton of history and a good deal of eccentricity.  It is a tiny island of British colonialism of years gone by with pubs and fish and chips or Indian food on every corner.  Surrounded by Spain and North Africa, one would think that you would feel their influence but it seems that protectionism has made Gibraltar more British than London.  We happened to arrive just before the annual festival celebrating the referendum in 1967 when the population voted resoundingly (12,138 to 44) to stay in Britain.  Granted this was during Franco's dictatorship.  Now, Spanish navy ships take little excursions to the Rock to flex muscles and Britain flexes them right back.  Brexit has made the situation more complicated.  Anyway, when we were walking it's streets, British flags and banners were proudly flying and hanging out windows.

We hiked, of course, filled our cupboards with British delicacies like pickled beets and onions, Branston Pickle and pork pies, and enjoyed our nonSchengen time in a comfy marina surrounded by English accents.

We often check out cemeteries.  Trafalgar Cemetery was particularly cared for and peaceful.

Never changes.  You'd think we'd learn!

Not to be disrespectful, but it does sound rather Austenish.

The Mediterranean Steps - a great vertigo hike along the east side of the rock, with a straight down, vertigo-inducing , plummet to the blue sea.

A small beach on the east side.  The flat part above the recliners is a paved? water-catching slope.  

The WWII guns pointed across the all-important strait which was never attacked.

A busy global harbour.  The strait sees a quarter of the world's movement of all shipping.  Including Milly.  She's down there.

St. Michael's Cave, a natural cave that lead ancient people to believe that the rock was hollow.  The caves were used as a military hospital! in WWII - damp and cold.  Now strategically lit with spotlights for the occasional concert.

Gibraltar has seen it's fair share of battles and sieges.  The Great Siege Tunnels dug, initially by hand, through limestone are impressive.  They were excavated by the British during the French and Spanish siege of 1179-1783.  The tunnel was built to cover a blindspot on the north face where there was a small notch for a cannon but too steep a slope to get it there.

Looking north over the current airport, then swampy open land, from the tunnel.  The British devised a method of lifting the stern end of a canon so the ball followed the steep slope to the Spanish and French below.  War is nasty!

The original tunnel to the location of the notch was 277m ending in a large chamber where not just one but seven guns were placed. Excavation continued after the siege to an amazing length of 1,200 m by 1790.

The tunnel above led to this WWII station where men kept watch over the east and south side of the rock.  A lot more digging went on throughout Gibraltar during WWII when the garrison held more than 16,000 men and held enough supplies for a year under siege.  The system of military tunnels now holds the "top-secret" British military bunker that monitors movement through the strait.

Amazing feat!

On our way.  We were impressed by Gibraltar.  We're sure to see it again as we leave the Med.  Can't miss it even if we don't stop.  

24 February 2018

Wed., Feb. 7, 2018 - Casablanca


Casablanca is a gritty, working city where people from all over the country come to find jobs.  It is the largest in Morocco and seems more utilitarian than tourist oriented.  We stayed in a less than charming hotel in a great location, the old medina.  Again, compared to Marrakech where the thriving medina is mostly for the tourists, Casablanca's old medina was for the poorer locals, the more affluent    of the city reportedly never setting foot in it.  We spent a lot of time wandering - sometimes in circles - listening, smelling and looking.  Vendors of shoes, clothing, food and hardware were completely uninterested in us - no one trying to lure us into their stores - knowing that their wares were geared for daily life, not keepsakes.
We were travelling with a Rick so had to have a drink at Rick's cafe.  The owners definitely took advantage of the movie fame but it was very tasteful and from the look of the plates, a fine dining experience.  We sat at the bar and had a glass of vin as Casablanca played on the bar TV - ok, so that wasn't so tasteful, but everything else was.

On one side of the medina within meters was the modern city centre, bustling with business people, very modern trams that looked like Bombardier brand, tall buildings and posh hotels.  On the other side was an extremely sad shanty town surrounded by tin walls made from metal scraps.  A city where all types live and work together.

The Hassan II Mosque.  Surrounded by the ocean on three sides, it is a sight to behold.

On the third side, on the Atlantic is the Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world, finished in 1993.  A huge, St Peter's-like square with polished marble floor on the approach dominated by a minaret 650 ft high with beautiful tile work and carving.  Everything about the place is majestic.

The mosque, the only one in Morocco where nonMuslims can enter, holds 25,000 people - 20,000 men on the main floor and 5,000 women on the second behind wooden screens.  It has a retractable roof to turn it into a courtyard for "vertical communication" with Allah.  The floors, walls, doors, ceilings are all spectacular.
The mosque was designed by a French architect, funded by public subscription and built by a team of 35,000 artisans, it took six years to build working 24 hours a day.

200 ft high ceiling.  The glass covered part of the floor looks down on the ablution area below.

Amazing artistic work on every surface.

In the basement is the water for ablutions.  Muslims symbolically wash their feet, hair, face and hands each three times before prayers.  This area is for the men.  The women have a replica separated from this.  We didn't see it.

We wandered the modern city a bit, explored the waterfront looking for a marina for Milly in the future - there is none.  The weather kept us from roaming too far afield and we were a bit tuckered from our tour.  I don't think we'll return to Casablanca.  Fun to see but once is probably adequate.

The Moroccan tour was fantastic and we will definitely look forward to returning to the country as we leave the Med on Milly - who knows when.

23 February 2018

Sun., Feb 3, 2018 - Tizi-N-Tichka Pass

Tizi-N-Tichka Pass

A phenomenal last drive to Marrakech took us through the Tizi-N-Tichka, the pass through the High Atlas that had been closed due to snow when we had attempted it from the other direction only a week before.  The mountains were still blanketed but the gorges were rugged and barren.  The road itself, winding along the steep rock faces, held stupendous views of bottomless gorges, multi-layered rocky slopes on a fantastic background of wild snow-capped peaks.  A great drive to return to Marrakech and the end of our trip.

Prickly pear planted to stop erosion.

Highest altitude of the pass was 2,200 m.

Long and winding road.

Pretty amazing civil engineering feat.

Steep and high.  Can't imagine living in that village!

On arriving in Marrakech early in the afternoon, we headed to the medina with a few others from our group.  Not being a great shopper and a timid, polite Canadian to boot, I took a lesson in bargaining from an Aussie friend who, with a twinkle in her eye, bartered aggressive vendors down with great good humour.  She spent every dollar she had, and more, but left with some great keepsakes at bargain prices.   We had a fun afternoon and evening, saying good-bye to our companions early the next morning as each jetted off to Scotland, England, Australia, Egypt, United States and Ireland.  Great group, great tour - but I'm glad to be off the bus.

We went off to Casablanca by train with our cruising friends for our last two nights.

22 February 2018

Sat., Feb. 2, 2018 - Ait Ben Haddou

Ait Ben Haddou,

Little boys seemed to be attracted to the company of Samir in every small town we took a walk in.  He was so sweet to each of them, you'd think they were his grandchildren.  They obviously loved the attention.  
Samir, our guide, was an excellent model and teacher of Muslim values.  He was very willing to answer questions and explain features of a faith that he obviously valued and abided by but could also see it's limitations.

Charity is one of the five pillars of Islam and Samir was generous not just in tips but in time, attention, kindness and friendly affection to males who greeted him like a long lost friend, even if strangers.  Here, there was a gender difference as well.  Little girls were not as often among the children who followed us and women definitely were not seen as often, if at all, in the small country villages.  They were inside.  When visible they most often averted their eyes and avoided looking at us.  When appropriate Samir greeted them but respectfully kept a distance.  Such interesting but, for me, very difficult gender difference in this society.  The few Muslim men who we have felt comfortable asking as well as some of the books I have read while here, ascertain that women are equals in the household, are respected as mothers and grandmothers, own property, run businesses, etc.  However, it is hard to reckon this private life to what we see around us in public places.  Granted, we are looking through Western eyes but still...

Zagora is the beginning of the Sahara.  From here signs traditionally marked distance in camel days.  Fifty-two days by camel to Timbucktu.  And my legs and bottom told me that an hour and a half was enough!

Another village stop and walk.  The mud bricks are drying in the sun.  All the buildings in the south are made this way, completely camouflaged by their earthen colour.

Art is not allowed to have images of animate objects - human or animal - in Islam.  Hence, graphic design in ceramics, architecture and tiles are everywhere.  Simple on these mud plaster buildings but often incredibly intricate on cedar ceilings, for example, or mosaics.

Copper in the earth made the slopes a pale green.  They looked like they were covered by a fine moss but nothing grew on them there hills.

A dramatic setting for this kasbah.

Interesting land formations, topped by natural plateaus tipped by copper green.

Ait Ben Haddou, a village so spectacular that scenes of Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Alexander were filmed there as well as earning a UNESCO World Heritage Site title.  Families still live and work in the old town while the new town is equally ancient looking across the river.  Not a castle on the top of the hill but grain mill at the top of the hill the town is built on.  When invaded by nomadic Berbers when drought dried up any sustenance, the village inhabitants would protect themselves and their bread making by living within the walls built around the mill.  As an aside and as I remember the story told by one of the guides, bread was so valued by the Berbers that any crust that spilt on the earth was picked up by the next person to spy it on a road, for example.  This person would place it high on some windowsill or ledge to prevent it being stepped on.  This is still done by some - we saw several crusts sitting high above the lanes or roads.  

White horse and rider on top of a huge rock hill.

Pretty amazing place...

Looking one way over the town from the mill

Another view over the oasis and green fields. 360 degrees of stunning beauty.

Of course, the town was full of stuff to buy.  Made for splash of colour.

The walled mill above the river with a glorious blue sky.  

21 February 2018

Fri., Feb. 1, 2018 - Zagora

Zagora, Morocco

True Berber nomad family.  It felt strange to stop for a photo op but Samir was so friendly and kind that the family welcomed him.  Instead of tipping with money - the Moroccan way and expectation - Samir offered mandarins.  The nomads have less use for cash.

The family had two tents and this walled area for cooking.  The younger sons were out herding the camels.  The family stays in one spot until food for the camels is scarce and then they move on - usually about a month.  Their camp was pitched on flat unprotected rocky land with only very scraggly plants in sight.

Camels hanging out at the well in the middle of nowhere.  They drink from the trough

Another rapid 4x4 ride took us to a small village in an oasis where camels were waiting.  A bit contrived but fun, nonetheless.

Camels awaiting.  The coat on his/her "knees and elbows" is worn off to deep, dark calluses. To our relief the camels seemed well-cared for and uncomplaining.  Camels never wag with enthusiasm.
Getting onto and sitting on the lying camel is fine and quite comfy.   Then comes the steep lurch forward as the camels hind legs straighten.  Then the tip backwards as the front legs straighten.  Each requires a firm grasp and bracing arms on the cheaters handle bar.

And he's up on RH.  

Our train sauntered out to the dunes and back.  Ninety minutes was a novelty but the beginning of chafe was apparent and I was glad not to be travelling on the hump of these beasts for long.
One camel, ahead of me in the train, emitted a deep, low, wet gurgle sound that seemed come from deep in his belly.  He frequently shook his head and copious slobber around.  Apparently, he was sensing a female in heat from miles away.  He wanted to be elsewhere.

And back again.  The camel behind me nosed right up to my hip when we stopped and enduring my friendly pat and, I hoped, soothing words.  Those teeth a big and yellow and were a little too close to be ignored.  All the villages in the Sahara are constructed of the same mud and sand.  Bricks baked in the sun and then covered with mud plaster.  Walls and the tops of the houses erode when it rains.  The walls look like they are melting. Mud is added to the house walls post rainfall.

A wishing door to a mosque in.  A woman knocked three times on the door and then went to a window on  one side while a guy knocked three times on the other door and went to the other side.  Everything seems to be segregated by gender here.

This green pottery is made in one village in the south.  It is coloured with a copper based glaze.  We were taken through the old village to the ceramic factory.  The village is hard to describe:  Because it is scorching hot for most of the year - although not the day we were there - the houses of the old village were connected above by mud ceilings which meant that all the body-width paths were also covered - dark, dank, and cold.  Peaking inside open doorways, the rooms of the houses seemed pitch dark with rugs being the only visible comfort.  Children followed us through the pathways, quietly holding out their hands for coins which we were asked not to give because they would buy cigarettes and more would come around, reportedly.  Not sure if this indeed was the case.  All the tip from Samir went to the tour guide and head honcho.  Unsure if these poor children or their families ever saw any of the profit of the pottery cooperatives.  On the whole, it left a sad feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Life seemed pretty desperate.

The pottery cooperative itself was pretty amazing in it's primitiveness.  There was nothing modern about it.  The above was the pit where the clay was mixed - Clay within a "pail" hard packed earth.

The potter was in a small "studio", sitting in a pit so that his hands were at the level of the small wheel.  As soon as the head honcho tour guide left the studio, he begged for money.  

One of the ovens above.  About half a dozen of these caves were dug into the walls around the cooperative.  The pottery was jammed into and dragged out of the ovens by small men.  A very hot job in a very hot place.

Part of the pottery coop.  Wow, it was a time warp.

Fruits of hard labour were actually very beautiful.  We saw the green ceramics in several restaurants and hotels - hopefully, the people who do the work get some of the proceeds.

 We went on a walk with Samir through Zagora, old town.  Wide paved roads turned to narrow dirt lanes very quickly.  Spouts would make the walk wet and muddy during rains.  We were accompanied by a bunch of kids who Samir, in his kind and generous fashion, walked, laughed and chatted with.  We wouldn't have braved the meandering alleys on our own.  Yet another reason why having a guide allows one to experience things otherwise unseen.  On this tour, we went to fewer of the tourist centres.  Rather, we appreciated the opportunity to see more of the local, authentic way of life.