Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Morocco: Into the Sahara

Dinner at our encampment in the Sahara was followed by Berber music, enthusiastically performed by
camp workers. All the other guests here were members of a tour group from Finland. Like us, they had
brought their own wine and could out-drink and out-dance just about anyone. 
The Sahara is such a place of mystery and fascination that when you're in it, it's hard to focus on what it really is: an amazing landscape of shifting dunes, strong winds and clear skies.
     We had been in a desert at Ait Benhaddou, but it was a rocky landscape with a hard stony surface underfoot.  When we arrived at the edge of the Sahara, at our hotel Riad Madu, we found the flat landscape similar to that at Ait Benhaddou, more stony than sandy, but a few hundred feet away were Saharan sand dunes.

For the itinerary of our three weeks 
in Morocco, and links to hotels, click HERE

     We stayed one night at Riad Madu, enjoying a fairly posh room with a great shower, and enjoying the hotel's large pool, though in March the water was a bit chilly for swimming. Late in the afternoon the next day, we were driven in an SUV a few kilometers to a staging area for camel treks arranged by Riad Madu. We climbed aboard our beasts -- they're sitting on the ground and then stand in two lunging movements that threaten to send the rider flying -- and were led into the desert by our guide. There would be a large tour group of Finns with us at the encampment, but someone thought we'd be happier by ourselves and not traveling with the other group.  Nice idea.
     The encampment consisted of two groups of tents, each made  of wool with Berber blankets serving as door flaps. Berber rugs were inside and outside the tents, used as sidewalks connecting guests' tents with the large dining tent. Dinner, a host of preliminary dishes followed by an avalanche of lamb, was served at nine. Afterward camp workers formed a band to play Berber music and to encourage dancing, in which some of the Finns participated with great energy.
     Our tent was equipped with an en suite bathroom complete with a hot-water shower, and there were even electrical outlets for recharging phones and cameras. None of the furniture was what anyone would associate with camping. We had a real queen-size bed, comfortable chairs and ottomans, and plenty of room.
     The next morning, we awoke at dawn along with everyone else to walk out and see the sun rise over the dunes. The air is too try for the sunrise to be spectacular, but what was spectacular was the way the low-angle rays spotlighted the dunes. After breakfast, we chose an SUV rather than a camel to get us back to Riad Madu, where a driver was waiting to take us  to Meknes, our next destination.
The pool at Riad Madu. The weather in March was fine for wading and sunbathing, but the water was too
cold for swimming. We're looking east here, toward Saharan sand dunes.

Jane, Queen of the Desert, finds a bit of shade during a walk near Riad Madu.

Riad Madu is near the town of Merzouga, but we
did not go into the town.
Great saddles make for a comfortable camel ride. My camel was Bob Marley. Jane's was called Jimi. 

SUVs as well as camels make tracks in the desert. 

Our camels get to rest outside our encampment.

Sunrise in the Sahara.

Berber rugs keep the sand at bay. Like the rugs, the tents were made of wool.

Our tent was outfitted with Berber textiles.

In the foreground, the whitish stony surface that's seen just west
of the Sahara. In the background, dunes of golden sand are the Sahara
itself. The tall and darker dunes in the rear are really Saharan golden
sand, but in the shadow of a cloud.

Below, on the road for the seven-hour drive to Meknes. The first part, here, was
desert. Later there were rivers and forests. 

Morocco: Ait Benhaddou, Movie Set and More

The ancient ksour or citadel of Ait Benhaddou. At the top, tourists and local children on school
tours make their way to a former grain storage house. At the bottom, a movie is being filmed. We
were told that it was Jackie Chan's production company but that he's not in this film. 

You've probably seen Ait Benhaddou or the desert that surrounds it in movies.  Films in the "Star Wars" series have been shot here, along with just about any movie that needed an exotic desert: "Lawrence of Arabia," Orson Welles's "Sodam and Gomorrah," "Gladiator," "Alexander," and "Jesus of Nazareth," to name a few. A couple of big film studios are within a few minutes' drive.

For the itinerary of our three weeks in Morocco
and links to hotels, click HERE.

      This area is part of the Atlas region, but not the High Atlas, and was once a stop for caravans traveling from one oasis to another. Today it's a tourist attraction, though people still live in the mud-brick buildings. A more modern community is across the river (from which the photo above was taken), which is where most of the restaurants and hotels are.  The winding passageways of Ait Benhaddou are lined with shops selling Berber textiles and other goods.
    We stayed a few kilometers down the road at Kasbah Titrit, which is near the ruins of Kasbah Tamdaght, which appeared in "Gladiator." For 10 dirham (one U.S. dollar), you can enter Tamdaght and clamber around its crumbling walls and even venture onto what roof it has left. One interior room is in pretty good shape and is used to display costumes, mostly dresses, from movies that were shot here.
    Kasbah Titrit is architecturally similar to Tamdaght (mud bricks, towers, terraces) but has been restored as a boutique hotel boasting an indoor pool, a hammam and spa, a dining room serving mainly French cuisine, and large, beautiful rooms with views of the desert. We spent two nights here. Below are some snapshots.
The intact and crisp towers of Kasbah Titrit provide a contrast to the crumbling ruins next door.

A view from inside Kasbah Tamdaght.

Storks find a home at Tamdaght.

The view from our room at Titrit. 

A street in the Ait Benhaddou ksour. 

Steps to the granary atop Ait Benhaddou.

Ait Benhaddou is riddled with public passageways such as this.

Jane and me atop Ait Benhaddou with stunning views
of the desert and oasis countryside.

The pool at Kasbah Titrit.

Our rather palatial bathroom at Kasbah Titrit.

Morocco: The High Atlas Mountains

I'm not sure what led us to the High Atlas Mountains. Maybe it was a nice turn of phrase in The Rough Guide to Morocco, or just the allure of mountains named for the titan who once shouldered the earth.  Or maybe because the mountain village Imlil (a hiking and mountain-climbing center) was included in a suggested itinerary for Morocco.
    As it was, coming from Marrakesh, we drove through Imlil but didn't stop. We went a couple of kilometers beyond it to the even smaller village of Tamatert, which clings to a mountain slope below the road from Imlil. The sign to our lodge there, Douar Samra, on the side of the road points out into thin air. Going to the side of the abyss and looking down, one sees the first buildings of the village below and a gravelly, narrow series of switchbacks that leads down.

For itinerary of our three weeks in Morocco
and links to hotels, click HERE.

    Tamatert, at about 2,000 meters elevation, is the highest of the villages surrounding Jbel Toubkal, the 4,167-meter peak that is the highest in North Africa. All the other guests at Samra were much younger than us and  had come to hike. In mid-March, sunny spots in the mountains got warm during the day, but shadows, overcast days and nights were cold. Winter snow could still be seen in ravines and on the mountain tops. The inn's hiker guests were a diverse lot: a couple from London with their six-month-old daughter, two other international couples who were based in London, another couple from Norway, among others.
    Samra was built and is still owned and run by a Swiss woman who says she wanted a traditional Berber house. Without blueprints or professional architectural advice, she directed local workers to "put the walls here," "put the steps here," etc., as they assembled the stones and mud bricks until she got the inn she wanted. It's all very organic with few straight lines or even rooms on the same level. It reminded me of Moonhole (click HERE for posting), a rustic community in the Southern Caribbean.
    The inn has no electricity in the main building. The hammam in the basement is heated by wood fires under its floor. Outbuildings do have electricity, hair dryers, places to recharge phones and cameras, and heat supplied by wood-burning fireplaces. Dinner each night was by candlelight at low tables in the main building's lounge. Always a meat dish and a vegetarian dish.
    Samra and the High Atlas in general are not for people with mobility issues. Steep stairs and paths are everywhere. So are amazing mountain views, fresh mountain air, unexpected flowering plants and friendly, hospitable people.
    Here are some snapshots:
The road between Imlil and Tamatert.  We walked the mile or so down to Imlil in lieu of a real mountain hike.

The lounge/dining room at Douar Samra is heated by a wood-burning
fireplace. Breakfast and dinner are included in the rates.

Candles are lit as guests relax before dinner at Samra. Despite the absence of electric lights and outlets,
there was wifi access. 

The door on the right was our room. It had a full bathroom with
very welcome hot water in the shower.

The main street in Imlil. Some of the stores on the left
are hiking and mountain-climbing outfitters.

I think this is Jbel Toubkal, the 4,167-meter mountain that is the highest in North Africa.

As in many mountainous areas, terraces are used
in agriculture. We saw a lot of fruit trees here.

The terrace on the roof of our room was pleasant in March, as long as the sun was out.
In the distance far below is Imlil.
Here's the sign directing us down the steep hill to Douar Samra. The
buildings are the highest in the village of Tamatert, which continues
down the hill for several hundred meters. Samra is in the middle
of the village. Donkeys help with luggage.