Marrakech

I am not a natural traveller, so you should not be surprised to read that this is Marrakech by package holiday, not an off-the-beaten-track tale of staying with a local family in their riad. Nor am I an experienced traveller, having been abroad fewer times than I have fingers, so to the more worldly this may all seem very banal.

I expected Morocco to be much like our honeymoon in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt – very hot, and with a choice of either a sanitized hotel culture or being terrified by desperately pushy salesmen if we stepped outside the hotel. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great honeymoon, but it didn’t leave me enamoured of northern Africa. And you must bear in mind that we went to Egypt only 8 weeks after their revolution and although the UK government was of the opinion Sharm was safe enough when we went, many other European governments had not yet lifted their travel bans on Egypt, so the desperately pushy salesmen were indeed desperate. People who managed a hand to mouth existence selling tat to tourists ordinarily now had so few tourists that they could not take no for an answer. If there was any chance of converting their stock to coins they were going to do everything they could to get it.

Also, Sharm el-Sheik is not a “real” place – it’s kind of a manufactured resort destination, so it doesn’t have any true native culture. Pretty much every “local” is there to serve the tourism industry. The sea and the sea-life are fantastic, but otherwise there’s not much there apart from shops, bars and manufactured excursions.

So I didn’t really expect much from Marrakech except for a pleasant climate and a hotel to relax in. I could not have been more wrong. Upon arrival it was … not warm. It was a little warmer than the UK but a little on the uncomfortably cool side. But that coach ride from the airport to the hotel already had me realising this was a lot more interesting than our Egypt coach rides. The roads were lined with orange trees, at least one every three meters, and almost all showed flowers or fruit. The roads were … interesting. Our holiday rep. warned us that here red traffic lights are seen more as being for decoration. And zebra crossings … purely for decoration. And donkey carts were a common mode of transportation. LOOK MR S IT’S A DONKEY!! DSCN1386

Yes I got quite over excited about the donkeys. In fact, donkeys are not just common in Marrakech, they are essential. In the medina, the old walled part of the town containing the souks, cars cannot fit down the narrow streets. Donkeys (or less commonly mules or ponies) are the best way of transporting anything from A to B. Outside of the towns, donkeys are the small farmer’s all terrain vehicle and then they can take you and your produce to market. Remove the donkeys from Marrakech and it would not function. There are also horse-drawn carriages – small carriages with pairs of little horses. These are for tourists, but the donkeys are a part of the local culture.DSCN1352

I was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the horses. Once back in the UK with the power of the internet at my fingertips, I discovered that this is due to the good work of the charity SPANA, who ensure these horses have regular free health checks. We did see one pair of horses that were not in good condition, but all the others looked well. The donkeys showed more variety – some clean and beautiful, others bedraggled and thin. But the same can be said of the humans – in areas where human life is hard, equine life is hard. All things being equal, the donkey owned by someone doing comfortably in his business has got a better chance of good health than the donkey whose owner is struggling to meet his own needs.

I was delighted to see a few mules – I don’t think I’d ever seen a mule before. I’d always wondered what was the point of mules. Not a horse, yet not a donkey; sterile, so nature’s dead-end. But now, having seen a few mules, I now can imagine that something bigger and stronger than a donkey, yet hardier than a horse is a really useful working animal, and in a culture like this a good mule would be something to be prized.

Perhaps to many people the prevalence of equines would not naturally equal the exotic, but to me it was a real flavour of the culture. Perhaps those people would be more impressed with the fact that in one view you can see palm trees and snow-capped mountains.

DSCN5780 Although this is not the most picturesque view it does appear to be the only picture we took with both mountains and palm trees. If it helps to paint the picture, this was taken just near the local supermarket. For a more rural view …

DSCN1348 But if you think this looks rather European in a Von Trapp Family Singers kind of way, when you look in the next field you will be reminded you are in Africa because the sheep are “wrong” – long legs, long necks, long floppy ears and not much wool. I’m pretty sure these sheep have a lot more street smarts than the British wool-bales on legs. In fact all the animals in Morocco seemed to have more street smarts. I actually saw a street dog in the city walk to a zebra crossing, stop, look each way, check each way again, and then trot smartly across when it was safe to do so. I kid you not.

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Even when I try to tell you about the landscape my description seems to come back to animals against my will! Flora and fauna fascinate me. I was amused to see the local approach to barbed wire fencing – simply plant a “hedge” of prickly pear cactus. A cheap and extremely effective solution.

So I suppose I must make an effort to talk about people and people-things. The souks were large, full of lovely shiny things and people keen to sell them. DSCN1188They were fascinating, and should not be missed. Yes, you need to be very clear if you’re not interested in buying, and a stubborn haggler if you want to get a good deal, but after the intimidating shopping on our honeymoon, it was a piece of cake. Especially as Mr S is no slouch when it comes to haggling and I am always ready to walk away if the price is not right. It’s amazing how quickly the price drops if the seller really believes you are leaving. The leather goods are very nice, although it’s worth checking that the quality of stitching matches the quality of the leather, which is made within the medina, i.e. within a mile of so of where you are buying the finished article. One bag and scarf seller, wearing a Nike jacket, was very keen to get me to part with the Nike cap I was wearing. First he tried to give me a handbag for it, then a silk scarf, then a pashmina, but I held firm and retained my cap!DSCN1195

Marrakech is the tourist capital of Morocco and it far surpassed my expectations. Exotic without being too intimidating, a mix of African, Middle Eastern and European influences make it a place like no other. Travel had never really captured my imagination before this trip, but suddenly I can see the appeal. And although our first few days were inclement, with lots of unseasonal rain, by the end of the holiday the weather was absolutely beautiful.

 

Noisy neighbours

On our first morning in Marrakech we were woken, not by the call to prayer, but by the dawn chorus. We had noticed the night before that we could hear everything from the courtyard outside our door, and the birds were having a party out there. ”Cheep cheep! Whee ee! Rekki rekki! Warble warble!” So, being awakened, my camera and l went to shoot some birds.

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On our third day, we were in our room in the afternoon. Mr S was sat at the desk and l lounged on the bed listening to an audiobook. There was a funny sound which made me take out my headphones and ask Mr S, “Was that a bird?” He said the fridge had made the noise. He received an unconvinced look, but as my ears had been full of Stephen Fry and he was sat by the fridge with unplugged ears, I was in no position to argue.

It was a few hours later when the culprit was discovered, hopping out from behind the fridge. At first we thought he was a frog, but closer acquaintance revealed a toad. A large empty plastic water bottle was hurriedly squashed to form a toad herding paddle and we ushered him out of the French window. Being on the ground floor meant he could toddle off and we need worry about him no more. At that point he became a photo opportunity, during which he thoughtfully declaimed, “Rekki. Rekki.”

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We laughed about the “fridge” noise and realised the ants we had seen in the room on the first day had vanished, no doubt into our unexpected visitor. I reflected that this might be the closest I would ever come to having use for a certain Esperanto phrase used in Red Dwarf.*

Proud of our toad herding skills, we slept well. In the morning however, the dawn chorus had been going for some time before, clear as a bell, “Rekki, rekki, rekki! Crekki rekki! Rekki!” We agreed it was coming from inside our room, but where? Once we sat up in bed and spoke it was silent, but we are binaural for a reason and it is very hard to accurately pinpoint a small, camouflaged creature based on a sound heard when half asleep and buried in a pillow. Eventually we found the culprit; a stone colored toad still as a stone in the very corner of the stone colored tiles. Clearly a different creature from the one we evicted the night before, we can only assume they were a mating pair. What could be more fitting than that the young lovers should seek a hotel room in which to share some amorous time? Most romantic, so long as they were not in our room, which now they are not. Hopefully, following the eviction of toad number two, they are now reunited and sneaking, hand in damp, webbed hand, into someone else’s room. We shall henceforth be aware that leaving the French window open even while we are in residence during the day may invite unexpected visitors who, while otherwise undemanding roommates, are unnecessarily loud first thing in the mornings.

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*Red Dwarf. Season 2, Episode “Kryten”:

Rimmer: Holly, as the Esperantinos would say, “Bonvolu alsendi la pordiston, laushajne estas rano en mia bideo.” I think we all know what that means.

Holly: Yeah, it means, “Could you send for the hall porter? There appears to be a frog in my bidet.”

 

The holiday post

Before I launch into the holiday stuff… WordPress has just told me it’s been 4 years since I started blogging 🙂 I can’t really believe it’s been that long, and yet I suppose it must have been.

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We holidayed in Cavtat, a small town near Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. We flew to Dubrovnik airport and it was a very short taxi transfer to our hotel – of course Dubrovnik airport is not in Dubrovnik, it’s in the village of Čilipi… and the nearest town is Cavtat.

We stayed at the Hotel Croatia. In the large picture below it’s the big white building in the trees of the peninsula furthest from the camera. The smaller picture is taken from somewhat closer in 😉DSCN4968
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As you can see, the town has a plentiful supply of coast and sea, and the sea was very beautiful and very clean.

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Also, very stony. If you are planning to go into the sea in this area you need shoes you can wear in the sea. Not only are the stones plentiful, there are massive numbers of sea urchins, which you really don’t want to tread on.

DSCN5051I’m slightly ashamed to say that we only paddled, and did not swim in the sea. We did swim regularly in the hotel pools, however, which are filled with sea water and more welcoming for the nervous swimmer, i.e. me. That said, we swam a lot and for the first time ever I got the hang of floating on my back. Also, for the first time ever, as I had an empty pool, I tried swimming through a walk-trot dressage test, or “doggy-paddle-breast stroke” test as I executed it. (A prelim test would introduce front crawl for canter but I didn’t feel ready for that). It was quite an interesting thing to try, as using all four limbs and needing to bend on the circles is much more like the experience of dressage from the horse’s view. I have to say that “Halt-Immobility-Salute” is rather easier in the shallow end of the pool than in the middle and it afforded Mr S much amusement as I disappeared below the surface while saluting.

Of course we went on a day trip to Dubrovnik, catching the taxi boat which takes 45 min. from Cavtat. Unfortunately the passengers are packed together closely so it’s more like a bus-ride on water rather than a relaxing and enjoyable boat trip. Still, it was much cooler than taking the actual bus, and you get to enter Dubrovnik through the walled harbour, which is nice.

Old Dubrovnik, from a watchtower on the walls

Old Dubrovnik, from a watchtower on the walls. You can’t tell in this picture that although it’s overcast we are absolutely dying of the heat!

Dubrovnik (and much of the area) was heavily bombed in the recent war in the area, and the ancient walls were severely damaged. However if you did not know that you would not guess it by looking at it. Everything was rebuilt to look the same as before. Tourism is what this area does, and it does it well. There are some bombed hotels between Dubrovnik and Cavtat which were not rebuilt, but all of the old towns were repaired, rebuilt and back to business as usual as quickly as possible.

Although the walls and architecture were impressive, for us old Dubrovnik didn’t have much to offer. The shops are all souvenir shops or restaurants, and we don’t particularly like crowded areas, so we didn’t stay very long.

The restaurant at which we had lunch was nice enough, but not one of our favourites of the holiday. The standard of food in restaurants throughout our stay was amazingly high, for very reasonable prices.

A far more enjoyable old-walled-town visit was had on our day trip to Montenegro, where we visited the town of Kotor. We had an excellent guided tour and the guide was interesting and passionate about the history of Kotor and of Montenegro.

Croatia June 2014 big camera 102While Kotor has not been bombed, it has been subject to regular serious earthquakes, so all of the churches, buildings and walls have been rebuilt numerous times. There are some remnants of the gothic structures, but mostly everything has been rebuilt in the baroque style. The walls of the town reach far up the mountain side.

The church in this picture was originally built in 809 so it has had many rebuildings in its lifetime. At the bottom right of the picture you can just see the awnings of the restaurant where I had what might have been the best pizza of my life so far.

Another amazing day trip, back in Croatia, was to the island of Mljet, to the National Park there. The park surrounds two enormous bays, which are known as lakes, because they are so far inland and so nearly enclosed by land.

We rented bikes and rode around the large “lake.” Of course as they are not entirely enclosed by land we had to get across the water, but there is a man with a small boat who rows you and the bikes across for a small sum, so that you can ride all the way round in a circle rather than going back on yourselves. We took our time and it took about 2 hours to ride around. I have to say it took me a good few minutes to remember how to ride a bike. Although it didn’t have a mind of its own I rather felt like it did at first, because it just didn’t handle like a horse! But within a few minutes I was all sorted 🙂

I have to say that ride around the lake was probably the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my whole life. If I ever need a setting for a meditation that will be it. Unfortunately because of the bikes we didn’t take as many photographs as we would have on foot, and those we have don’t do justice to it.

Mljet. It was so much brighter and bluer than this.

Mljet. It was so much brighter and bluer than this.

This has the colours better, although it's not such a picturesque angle

This has the colours a little better, although it’s not such a picturesque angle

Officially the island has a population of about 1000 but with no proper shops and no senior school it’s hard to live there, so most people don’t actually live there full-time. There is a doctor, but no hospital. Even by speed boat it would take 2 hours to get to a hospital in an emergency.

Up to and including the time that the island was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mljet was full of snakes. Croatia has 8 types of snakes, 3 of which are venomous. At the beginning of the 20th century the mongoose was introduced to the island to control the snakes, with the result that Mljet is now a snake-free area with a bit of a  mongoose problem. We hoped to see a mongoose, but unfortunately it was not to be. Because we had the bikes we had to keep to the main path rather than going off into the forest where we might have had a better chance of seeing one.

While Mljet’s snakes have been exterminated, mainland Croatia still has plenty. One day we decided to explore the footpath from Cavtat towards Čilipi. A way into our walk I wandered off the main path onto a stony area (OK so all of Croatia is a stony area…) and something made me jump. I initially assigned the little noise to being made by a cricket or something but Mr S called, “Stand still! Snake!” I realised the reason the sound startled me in a primal way was that I’d just had a warning hiss from a snake. I didn’t see the snake myself as it left us quickly. Mr S said it was brownish, which does describe quite a few of Croatia’s various snakes. Later on in the walk I saw what I think was a grass snake disappearing off a warm rock to hide under a bush.

The third snake we saw was dead by the roadside, so we were able to take a picture. I’m not sure what kind it is.

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I suspect though that whatever kind of snake it used to be it will end up as lunch for a street cat. There were many scrawny street cats and kittens but here’s one who was particularly good at posing.
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I’ll finish off with some random photos that don’t fit into my narrative but I couldn’t resist sharing.

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