Three Moroccan Festivals not to be missed!

I thought I just alert everybody who a) loves Morocco and b) loves music to three festivals in Morocco. I’m going to attend the spiritual in Fez, I think.

This is a rather short post with links to a tour operator, but I’m not going to use it because it includes a trip of several days as well as the festivals and is quite expensive. Of course, I now live just across the water from Morocco, so I’ll make my way there under my own steam. The tour operator does however offer discounts for photographers and travel writers, so I thought it worthwhile to mention the tours here, particularly for those who do not live in such proximity to Morocco.

Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira

I have visited Essaouira a few years back and had a chance to listen to the street musicians. The festival show cases the best traditional Moroccan musicians as well as modern ones and some grouos from abroad. The festival itself takes place from 20th to 23rd of June.

Musician in Essaouira

Musician in Essaouira

Here is the link to the full trip offered by bestofmorocco.

Sufi Festival in Fez

Those of you who follow me will know that I am very interested in Sufism and have taken the opportunity of my stay in Turkey to visit the festival in Konya where Sufism originates through  the works and writings of Mevlana Rumi and where he is buried.

Statue of a whirling dervish in Konya

Statue of a whirling dervish in Konya

But Sufism is not restricted to Turkey and this festival from 13th to 20th of April also allows to explore the fascinating ancient city of Fez and some other destinations.

Again, here is the link to the tour offered by bestofmorocco.

World Festival of Spiritual Music in Fez

Again, Fez is the venue of another festival of spiritual music accompanied by formus and other events. It takes place from 7th to 15th June.

For a change, I have added a link which explains more about the festival and where you can buy a ticket without an additional trip.

Maybe, meet you at one or the other??

Disclaimer: This post is not in any way sponsored by bestofmorocco. This post is just for the purpose of sharing information.

 

 

 

Ceuta – a part of Spain in Northern Africa

I’m all thrilled with the vast possibilities of day trips from my current location in the South of Spain. If you read my previous post, you will know that Cordoba and Tarifa are on the agenda, but my romantic soul longs for a day trip to Ceuta. I just need to wait until a big enough group has come together and then I can go at the extremely reasonable price of EUROS 56 practically from my doorstep.

It has been many, many years since I visited Ceuta and I’ll tell you why I want to go again as soon as possible. The autonomous  city of Ceuta is a Spanish exclave in Northern Africa, bordered in the west by Morocco  and in the south by the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean on one side and the Atlantic Ocean in the other. The location of the city alone is so unique that a visit is an absolute must.

Ceuta’s history begins with the Carthaginians. Due to its extremely strategic location, Ceuta has always been on the ‘to have’ list of many civilizations, among them the Romans, the Arabic Berbers, the Portuguese and, finally the Spaniards. Wars were fought, battles raged, fortifications were built and conquered and through it all, Ceuta thrived as a port and a center of trade. The many occupants which made Ceuta their own, account for a variety of colorful cultures which exist side by side to this day. Imagine colonial Portuguese buildings and the great for fortification of the Royal Moat next to an Arab bazaar. The big ethnic group of Muslim Berbers rubbing shoulders with Sephardic  Jews, Hindus and, of course, European. I love the mixture of colors and cultures, an impression of North Africa in a European city.

Royal Moat, photograph by Jim Gordon from Wikipedia Commons

Royal Moat, photograph by Jim Gordon from Wikipedia Commons

I visited Ceuta before I went to Morocco and got a great taste of what to expect. More of the same you can experience in the other exclave, Melilla.

You can reach Ceuta by ferry from Algeciras (which I will do, the tour including the bus ride from Benalmadena to Algeciras) or, if you are so inclined and have money to burn by helicopter.

Essaouira – the Moroccan Woodstock

“Essa…what?” my travel companion Mary asked. “Where do you want to go?” “Essa—ouuu…rja,” I repeated, savoring every sound. I admit, I had secretly practiced. Everybody can say’ Casablanca’ or ‘Marrakesh’, but to get your tongue around the name of this particular pearl in the necklace of Moroccan beauties needs some doing. Never mind, once you tell  your hotel receptionist in Marrakesh  that you would like them to arrange a taxi for a day trip to Essa—ouuu-rja, they will break into a broad smile, nod their head vigorously and say: “you’ll love the decadent charm of the place” or “enjoy the city of sunlight and wind”. Or other words to the effect, but always with a poetic nuance to it.

We set out early one sunny morning in May from our base in Marrakesh. Our young guide and taxi driver was a Berber as he proudly pointed out after introducing himself as –  you guessed it – Muhammed.

The coastal town of Essaouira lies at a distance of approx. 120 miles west of Marrakesh on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a straight run, the first part of it a smooth and modern motorway. But, as the suburbs of Marrakesh fade into the distance you find yourself in the desert. Dunes line the road, more rubble and pebble than sand, the lush green vegetation of Marrakesh gives way to thorny bushes, gnawed at by herds of goats and sheep. The wind starts already blowing much stronger and at about halfway point, ‘smooth’ is a word of the past. “This,” Muhammed explained with a grin, “is what we call a Moroccan massage.” Here and there huge Argan trees overshadowed the bleak ground and we were grateful for a break at a wonderful and very interesting  small factory where we could see how the Argan nuts were treated and  made into fantastic soaps, creams and oils. A pleasure for all senses and we stocked up on some beauty treats.

Thankfully,  a few miles out of Essaouira the ‘Moroccan massage’ came to an end and the first glimpse of our destination hove into view. A white, wide and long beach, pounded by crashing waves and dotted with countless colorful sails of windsurfers and kitesurfers. A windy city, indeed, and a paradise for water sport enthusiasts.

“Let’s eat first,” Muhammed suggested, “and then you can stroll through the medina”. He didn’t even ask if we liked fish, you don’t eat anything else if you visit Essaouira. The place is famous for the freshest fish and it’s consumed right at the fish market. Stall after stall offer the latest catch, you point at what you want, sit down at rickety communal tables, order your drink and salad and whilst you wait that your choice is grilled, you engage in lively conversation with your fellow guests. And you get your first impression of the massive fortress , walls and ramparts which surround the medina as well asf the sea wall and the dramatic  coastline behind with the island of Modagor visible in the distance.

They got into the spirit of the place

Essaouira has a long and colorful  history and traces of first  settlements  date back to pre-historic times. The fortress and medina however go back no further than the 18th century when King Mohammed III decided to make Essaouira Morocco’s primary port and the center of trade. French engineer as well as specialists  from other European nations designed and constructed the fortifications as they are today and Essaouira became the trading point for wares brought by caravans  from the sub-Sahara to Timbuktu and from there across the desert and the Atlas mountains to here.

Wiping our mouths and fingers and with our stomach happily full of fish, we went through one of the massive main gates into the mediana of Essaouria. Tour guides and taxi drivers  are not allowed to accompany you, so we strolled on our own.

Immediately we understood, what the decadent charm was all about. A bit of peeling paint here, a missing shutter there, wooden doors askew and the whole setting populated by people, locals and visitors alike, for whom the words ‘hurry’ and ‘no time’ did not seem to exists. Not for nothing was Essaouira a favorite hangout for the likes of Jimy Hendrix and Orson Welles. There is even a bust in his honor.  Winston Churchill liked it too.Once upon a time a hippie favorite, quite a  few are left over, sporting dreadlocks and a slightly forlorn look on their faces.

The winding alleys are lined with art galleries and crafts shops, wood carving  being preeminent. Some of the paintings are outstanding and so are fabulous bags and slippers as well as hand crafted silver jewelry. The entire atmosphere is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of its counterpart in Marrakesh. You get the impression that the shop keepers are just happy to sit in or in front of their shops, drink tea and engage in conversation and actually couldn’t care less if a potential customer showed up or not.

Essaouira is a still breathing reminder of times gone by and the laid back atmosphere is contagious. So much so, that we nearly forgot we had to go back the same day and needed to make an effort to go and find our waiting taxi driver…fast asleep in the backseat.

If you want to spend the night or a few days, there is a variety of hotels available. Modern ones near the beach and much more romantic, but simple ones in the medina. Also check out the annual Gnaoua Festival of World Music in the last week of June an event which inspired the title of this post and added yet another moniker to Essaouria: The Moroccan Woodstock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oman – my next destination

In 10 days time, I’m finally off to my often postponed trip to Oman. I guess, every traveler has a favorite part of the world which they will visit again and again. For me, it’s the Middle East. I like the heat, I like the desert, I like the many, many ancient sites, I like the culture, I like the food, I even like the sound of the Arabic language, although my mastery of it extends to about 5 words. I can read the alphabet but it doesn’t do me much good if I don’t have a clue what the words mean. No problem, I sail through smoothly with English and/or French.

So far, I have been to the Lebanon, Jordan, Sharjah and Dubai. I had made plans to visit Syria which, sadly,  is no-go as are my other dream destinations: Libya and Mali. Although it’s not the Middle East, I’m an avid visitor to Morocco  too. I have lost count of the times I visited, particularly when I was living in the South of Spain and hopping across to Casablanca all the time. Or to Ceuta for a  whiff of the exotic.

Pidgeon Rock/ Beirut

 

Petra/Jordan

 

Soukhs/ Sharja

 

Sunset in Dubai

Now it’s Oman with a short stop over in Bahrain. Apart from taking me back to my favorite part of the world, this trip is also a rarity for me, because, for once, I’m not traveling on my own. My dear friend Wendy is coming with me. Like me she will do anything,  go anywhere, try any food and poke her nose into every secret corner. We had a smashing time together in Morocco, the only other occasion when I was traveling in company.

Wendy cooling off in Marrakesh

Wendy has a little foible though which makes me laugh: being British she just LOVES animals. In Morocco she couldn’t pass any stray cat, dog or donkey without talking to it, stroking it or throwing it a morsel. She even fed a Polo mint to a donkey in Marrakesh. What did the ungrateful animal do? Spit it out, it didn’t want to have fresh breath!!

The donkey which didn’t like fresh breath

This habit however makes for very slow progress when you go exploring on foot. This time she is only allowed to pay attention to every third donkey and leave the dogs and cats alone. Do they have donkeys in Oman? Maybe I get lucky and they don’t. They do have fabulous horses though.

Nobody in their right mind goes to Oman in August because it’s the hottest months. Temperatures are well into the 100s and it doesn’t cool down much at night. But, like me, Wendy thrives on heat. When it’s cold, we just want to shrivel up and hibernate until the warm weather rolls around again. Inside there is plenty of AC, so we will be fine. And, of course, there is the big advantage of low prices. My  return flight from Istanbul costs all of $400. We have parked ourselves in the fabulous 5 star Crowne Plaza Hotel with private beach and all other luxuries for approx. $130 per night per person.

Crowne Plaza Hotel Muscat

You may think that this is rather stiff, but in full season it would cost twice as much. I have  also often found that people are under the misapprehension that Middle East equals cheap. Not so. You can eat cheaply if you are not afraid to venture into holes in the walls (we both just love to do that), get around by taxi if you bargain fiercely in advance, but otherwise it’s not what you would call a budget destination. We could have saved a few bucks by sharing a room, but some off time and privacy makes for a much more enjoyable trip if you travel in company. So, it’s well worth the additional money.

Oman is a much more traditional country than say Dubai and on top of it, it’s Ramadan. So, we are faced with a fashion challenge because, outside, we have to cover our arms, legs and head. Instead of seeing it as an inconvenience, I love the idea of putting light but cover all outfits together. And so does Wendy.

It is another misapprehension which I have encountered often: people think they will stay cooler if they wear as little clothes as possible. Again, not so: Wide, long sleeves and trousers, flowing long dresses or skirts allow what little air there is to circulate and prevent the sun from burning your skin. On top of it, you always look good and elegant, whereas halter tops and short  shorts don’t do anything for anyone over 25.

I haven’t told you much about Oman itself,  that is reserved for my upcoming stories once we are in situ. Our base is the capital Muscat with many excursions planned from there, among them to fly to Salalah in the south and to visit Sohar and Nizwa a bit closer to Muscat. The sound of the names alone makes me already dream.

Nizwa Castle/Oman

 

 

 

 

Getting a thrill in Morocco

My friend Mandy and I share a birthday. Born under the same astrological sign, it doesn’t come as a surprise that we have a lot in common, among other things an unconditional love for travel and adventure.  Each year, we celebrate our  birthday by  going  off to another dream destination.

Last year’s trip started in Marrakesh  where we booked ourselves into the most romantic and picturesque hotel imaginable,  a converted riahd nestled deep in the winding alleys of the medina. An unremarkable thick wooden door, set into  a high wall opened up into a scene right out of a  fairy tale: a green and blue tiled courtyard illuminated by copper lanterns and a crystal chandelier handing from an iron chain. A fountain surrounded by potted palms and rose bushes in full bloom whispered in the middle, birds in silver cages twittered in the niches, benches covered with plush silk  cushions invited to rest and enjoy  steaming mint tea. The rooms are arranged on galleries around the court yard and offer four poster beds, carved furniture and a bathroom with copper basins and an array of lotions, potions and rose water in silver containers. Candles and vases with fresh roses completed the picture.

Our dream hotel

After a night of  happy dreams, followed by an enormous breakfast spread served on the roof terrace with views all over Marrakesh’s medina, we started to plan the adventure we had really come for. A trip over the Atlas mountains to the desert city of Ouarzazate, also known as the ‘Gateway to the Desert’ and  home to one of  the most beautiful and important Kasbahs in Morocco: Taouririt with its massive rose colored walls and towers and sin fin of workshops, stalls and restaurants within.

 

Assessing our chic clothes and age, the friendly receptionist said: ‘Madame, we can arrange for a nice car and driver to take you to Ouarzazate. Air conditioned and very comfortable.’ ‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘but we want to go by bus.’ Shock spread over her face, but she recovered quickly. ‘Hmm,’ she said, ‘yes, there are I think some organized coach tours, I can make enquiries, if you wish..’

‘No,no,’ Mandy jumped in. ‘What we mean is local buses, you know those used by people from here who want to visit relatives etc.’  Now the poor girl was really shocked. ‘ Yeeees, there are two per day from the bus station. But, they are crowded, noisy, no air con and quite slow.’

‘Splendid,’ I beamed, ‘just what we want. Point us in the right direction, tell us departure times and we are off.’ Still shaking her head, the girl did as asked,  and the next day we made our way to the bus station located a 10 minute walk from Djemaa-El-Ina near Bab Doukkala.

Pushing through the milling crowd of women in pastel colored dhellabahs their faces covered with black veils, men with silver daggers in their belt, boisterous kids, live chicken in wire cages and other men humping sheep carcasses on their backs, we located our bus. Luckily, nearly everybody in Morocco speaks some sort of French, which helped. Ensconced in the back seats and surrounded by chattering locals who threw a few curious glances at us, we were on our way.

The first few miles out of Marrakesh led through elegant suburbs, palm groves and lemon tree plantations, until the road got steeper and  the landscape became more barren as  the ascent into the mountains started.   The views which awaited us were spectacular. The higher up we got, the more we could see of the valley du Draa, a river slowly meandering along, with oasis after oasis at its banks, cutting its way through sheer rock forming a massive canyon. Soon it became clear why this road is known as one of the most scenic and hair-raising in all of Morocco. Hair bent turn after hair bent turn, with rocks on one side and sheer, bottomless drops at the other. Definitely not a ride for the faint hearted, especially when the bus from the opposite direction thundered down the road, passing us with an inch to spare. But, what a thrill!!

Men and women are seated separately on the bus and soon the ladies around us overcame their original shyness. Food baskets were brought out and we were invited to share home made meat filled pastries and delicious sweets. They told us about their relatives who lived in France or Belgium and their Berber villages high up in the mountains. We got to hold babies and to admire the henna tattoos on the hands of a recent bride. When we reached the snow line, we all got off for a break and they made sure the mint tea vendors came over with their silver pots and we got our share of hot drinks.

Finally, the city of Ouarazate, rising out of the endless sands and dunes of the desert came into view, with the red walls of the kasbah  glowing in the last rays of the sinking sun. We parted company with our new friends, having gained invaluable insight into their lives and  their respect for having chosen to travel like locals.

A few camels along the way

Our home for the night was the splendid Hotel Berbere Palace which not only features lush gardens but also many original props from movies like ‘Gladiator’, ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Lawrence  of Arabia’, all of which were, at least in part, shot here.

One of the movie props in the hotel