On the second day in Morocco my friend Liz and I decided a day trip out of the city was in order. A lovely couple from our Riad decided to join us and I imagined a trip for just the four of us. I should have realised that for 200 dirham it wouldn’t be quite that exclusive!
We were taken by taxi to a petrol station near the Koutoubia Mosque, where we joined about 15 others on a minibus.
It was a nice trip but rather cheesy. We headed into the Ourika Valley.
Our first stop was at a herb/argan oil place. Although touristy, it was genuinely interesting and I bought Amber perfume, which I love (still haven’t quite worked out what Amber actually IS though!).
Onto our next stop, which was truly cringe-worthy. A beautiful Berber man guided us round a ‘traditional Berber house’. I don’t like being shown round people’s houses when I’m not a real guest. What need do I have of gawping at someone’s bedroom or storeroom? I was glad to leave simply because I felt it was a plastic experience.
We headed up the valley to go see some waterfalls. This was huge fun, with local daytrippers as well as international visitors.
Clambering ensued, to reach a small and then a larger (just) waterfall. They weren’t spectacular but it was fun watching our guide scamper around sure-footed as a mountain goat, helping everyone from slip-sliding middle-aged women to a five-year old girl. Moroccan men showed off by leaping from rock to rock, while women with high heels or backless slip ons tip-toed up and down, much to our amazement.
I have no photos, as they died in my memory card crash. Hot and thirsty, we tripped back to the city and headed for our rooftop haunt to watch the sunset and the world going about its business.
It was a touristy, fun day. I wouldn’t particularly recommend the trip we did but it’s a nice punctuation if you’re only going to be in Marrakech and want to see something else of Morocco.
Our third and final day started early-ish. The Majorelle Garden was top of my list of things to do as, along with the Ben Youssef Medersa, I had missed it last time. I had read that it’s super busy by 10 a.m. so my original plan was to be there for eight. That didn’t happen but thankfully it was still quiet when we got there at 9 am. I really would recommend being the first in, as by the time we left, it was getting busier.
You can read about the gardens here. It’s a gorgeous walled garden, filled with water features, the famous ‘majorelle’ blue at every turn and urn, and is delicious in its clever walkways and bowers.
It is also very difficult to photogrpah! Here’s my poorly attempts at capturing some of the delight.
We returned to the square – well, it was time for coffee and, of course, more people-watching!
Next up was some actual shopping rather than simply ‘souking’ up the atmosphere. Liz wanted a rug. I didn’t, as there is no space for any more. We headed for the carpet section and I was immediately distracted by a cute little kitten.
Liz bought a rug and, inevitably, I did too! I have a high atlas one (traditional deep red kilim) but simply couldn’t resist the Berber colours and designs.
Once you have decided to buy a rug, it’s a hugely enjoyable process. The key to it is to start with a rough budget in your head. If you can afford to spend £100, for example, don’t go crazy and spend double the amount!
Choose your shop, accept a glass of mint tea, sit back and let the show begin. As many rugs as you want to see will be arranged in front of you. Then you narrow it down to two or three. If you don’t think they’re quite right, look at more until you stumble across ‘the one’, the rug that makes your heart sing.
Once you have it sight, start the negotiations, keeping hold of your budget and feeling confident that hard-bargaining on both sides is all part of the fun. If you can’t get down to a price you’re comfortable with, then be prepared to walk away.
But don’t walk away too early as a tactic!
I don’t know why I thought I would come away empty-handed. As Liz bought her big rug, I salivated over another that she had rejected. Alas, it was way outside my budget so I negotiated on a smaller one instead. We were all happy!
We couldn’t leave before trying out a traditional Berber wedding cloak!
More shopping and then lunch. Yes, you’ve guessed it – more people-watching.
We wandered around and deliberately got lost. Now that we had done our essential shopping, we were happy just to discover.
By this time we needed a rest. On the way back to our Riad, I took three of my favourite photos of the weekend.
Our pretty Riad was the perfect place for a rest.
Before we knew it, it was time for our final night in the Jemaa el-Fnaa. The food from the stalls is far more interesting than what we had eaten in restaurants and I only wish I hadn’t been so chicken before!
And so the long weekend drew to a close…back home to cold old Britain!
Last weekend I was in Marrakech. My friend and I arrived after dark and after storms, so we woke on Saturday morning unsure of what would await us outside.
This was the wonderful blue sky that greeted me as I opened the door of our room.
I was happy and couldn’t wait to start the day.
First stop was to find our way back down to Jemaa el-Fnaa, as we had become pretty lost the night before. After many digressions into souk alleyways we made it and headed straight for the Cafe de France balcony, which gives a great view of life happening down below. It was to become a regular haunt in our short stay.
I could have stayed there all day – not only was the people-watching magnificent but the coffee was superb. Best of all there was shade for me and sun for Liz – the perfect arrangement! But the Ben Youssef Medersa, the tanneries and the souks were calling.
When I visited Morocco in 2002 with a travel company that still claims to be all about ‘small group travel’, even though we were in a group of 24 (begins and ends with ‘e’), our local guide promised we would visit the famous Ben Youssef Medersa (or Madrassa as it used to be – why the change, I wonder?). He failed to deliver on his promise two days running, so this architectural gem was top of my sight-seeing list.
I could quite happily have spent a few days contemplating life and studying in one of the tiny rooms off the courtyard. Here are my snaps. If you go to Marrakech, I would recommend it as a ‘must see’.
We had a lovely lunch break nearby and I couldn’t resist taking sneaky snaps. There are so many interesting, craggy and beautiful faces in Marrakech but it’s not a place where I feel comfortable asking to take people’s photos – it’s hard to get your hands on small change and many people who would make for the best pictures would need a little ‘thank you’.
So these are my sneaky lunchtime ‘world goes by’ photos.
We strolled through the streets to go and visit the tanneries. My advice? Don’t bother! Before we could find the classic views of the vats of colourful dye we were gathered up into an impromptu tour of one man’s ‘patch’. It was interesting enough but the photos weren’t even worth keeping and I can’t say I learnt anything about the process that made it worth the smell. If anyone knows how to find the section that gives the classic views (I visited them last time I was there), do post a comment with info!
A bit more ‘souking’ followed – we weren’t necessarily interested in buying. Rather, wandering around the ancient alleyways is a major sight-seeing joy in its own right. Here’s today’s selection of pictures. There will be more tomorrow!
Our final stop in our crammed day was the Menara gardens. Personally, I wouldn’t bother going again but I imagine if you went in the early morning or at sunset, the view would make up for the fact that this is a rather dull garden with a big resevoir and a building that frames pictures of the snowy mountains rather nicely.
The highlight in these gardens was being ‘mobbed’ by a group of about 30 very enthusiastic school children who all wanted their photo taken with us. While we were joining in and finding it good fun, when their teachers arrived, they were horrified that the kids had ‘bothered’ us. They explained in French (and I was chuffed to understand) that the children were from a rural area and hadn’t met many tourists!
We forfeited the sunset on our second evening in favour of going for a beer in a hotel off the square. It was an expensive stop (about a tenner for two beers served with lots of gorgeous nuts and olives) but absolutely worth it, as it had been a hot day of wall to wall sight-seeing! If you find yourself needing a beer stop, then head for Hotel Les Jardins de La Koutoubia
Tomorrow – a trip to the mountain waterfalls with no photos, the Majorelle Gardens, rug-buying and some sunset pics.
Getting lost in the souks is an absolute must in terms of the Marrakech experience. To be honest, you probably won’t have a choice! If you do, then do just go with the flow. Worst comes to the worst – accept a tag-along ‘friend’ and pay them a bit to help you find your way again.
My friend Liz and I arrived at our Riad at about 8pm, so by the time we were ready to go out and eat, it was pretty dark. Armed with a hand-drawn map of the ‘short cut’ to the Jemaa el-Fnaa we set out. Within seconds we were confounded. I had been so laid back and ‘non preparing’ about the weekend break that I all I knew was that we were somewhere north east of the souks. Beyond that, I simply figured that we’d find our way with what the Riad staff provided us…should have known better as I’ve been to Marrakech before.
The alleyways around our Riad were straight out of the middle ages – dark, narrow and mysterious. At night, with lads lurking and eager to ‘help’, it could have felt dangerous. But do you know what? It just wasn’t. We smilingly shook off offers of help and found our way into the souks. At the northern end some were beginning to pack up for the evening. Eventually we stumbled upon the main artery, still packed with people at 9pm.
And out into the heaving, smoky square. The Jemaa al-Fnaa is a sensual feast. Musicians and story-tellers attract huddles of locals, keen to enjoy the evening’s entertainment. The smoke rising from hundreds of food stalls forms ever-shifting clouds, stinging the eyes and making the mouth water (and I’m not even a meat eater!).
I was a right old chicken on that first night, refusing to eat the street food in case my stomach rebelled. How foolish I was. It was the best food in the city, something I only found out on the last night. Take it from me, eating in the square offers the best choice, particularly if you’re a veggie who gets bored of unseasoned five-veg couscous and tagine after a couple of days!
Here’s some night time photos of the Jemaa el-Fnaa.
Tomorrow, it’ll be onto souks, sunsets and people-watching!
My Burma chronicles are nearly done but the memories will live on forever. The more I have written, the more I want to make sure I go back in 2015, ideally as an election observer (unlikely, as there are far better qualified people) or simple to join in with celebrations, which I hope will come with change.
2015 feels a long way off still and anything could happen. In the meantime, I will dwell on the final leg of my trip, a relaxing visit to Inle Lake.
In my head, we were going to be staying right on the shoreline, watching the sun set over this beautiful lake. Had I thought about it a little harder, I would have realised that unless you are an ‘exclusive’ traveller, this would be unrealistic. Why would we want the banks of this lake spoilt by clusters of backpackers hostels and guesthouses?
Sensibly, whoever has developed the burgeoning tourist trade here has made sure that a nearby village has become the restaurant and guesthouse hub. It’s a sweet place…relaxed, friendly and delightful to cycle round. It reminded me of a little places like Banos in Ecuador (I’m talking 1996 by the way, so the comparison may be redundant now!) or Panajachel on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (ditto!).
The highlight of a trip to the lake is – of course – a trip on the lake. The light was stunning, even at 8 a.m when we set out. There is a clarity out there that – again – put me in mind of South America and Lake Titicaca. When we set off, I was nervous that a day on a powered long boat would feel like being on a tour bus, as there were dozens of them, all jetting off at the same time down the canal leading to the lake. How could this be a peaceful day? As soon as we reached the lake I remembered a key fact from my guide book. Inle Lake is 13 miles long and 7 miles wide, with hundreds of tiny canals winding away from it to little settlements and villages. Other tourist boats were soon lines on the horizon and we only felt the tourist scene at the major sites, such as Indein, the biggest village on the day trip trail.
The on shore visits were fine rather than mind-blowing but that’s not important. The magic of came from watching everyday life as we streamed past. The fishermen seem like a tourist cliché, given how many award-winning photos of them appear in our press and online, but when I put the camera down and just watched them, the elegance of their rowing was a joy to see. Once in his ‘spot’ the fisherman stands at the end of his low, long boat (which were similar to Oxford punts) and balances on one leg, with his free leg woven around a long oar. This leaves both hands free to handle the nets. It amazed me that this style is unique to Inle, as it seemed such a sensible way to operate on a calm lake, as it means no pause in fishing when they need to move the boat a few metres this way or that.
As we motored down the canals, the variety of life on the banks or at the edges of the waterline was fantastic, from a man riding a water buffalo, to people growing veg in floating gardens.
Just as we were all enjoying the ease of swanning about in a motorised dugout, (relative) disaster struck. The boat I was in cracked over something as we puttered along a shallow canal. ‘Oh,’ said Bernadette, who was at the back, just in front of the boatman, ‘we’ve got a bit of water coming in.’ A ‘bit of water’ turned out to be fast-flowing and within seconds we realised we were sinking fast. Thankfully, the second boat for our group was behind, not in front and they arrived just in the nick of time. As we held bags and cameras aloft and urged the others to grab them from us, we stepped into their boat and looked round. What had been a boat just seconds before was now a wreck.
Thankfully, Paddy prioritised photos over sitting down safely! We thought she was mad at the time but I’m grateful now, as it’s funny to look back on it. I should point out that accidents are very rare indeed, so do not let this put you off an iconic tourist experience!
We motored on to the lunch stop and borrowed a friend’s newly purchased fisherman’s trousers. I inadvertently caused hilarity among the waiting staff when I emerged from the toilets with the trousers on back to front. Sorry, no photo to show but needless to say I was immensely grateful that Will had bought them just before lunch. As Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood would say, I had a soggy bottom, which is never a good thing.
Our biggest concern was for the poor boatman. This was a borrowed boat, as his had engine trouble earlier on in the day. Over lunch, we discussed with our tour leader how the accident would affect him. Time taken to med the boat would mean him losing about two weeks’ worth of income. So we decided to club together to help out. It was easy for us to do and when we gave him the money the next day, it was clear that it meant alot to him.
There’s not much more I can say about my wonderful day on the lake that my photos can’t, so enjoy I hope you enjoy this final gallery.
I’m near the end of my Burma trip, so I’m going to prolong the blogging pleasure by posting photos of the journey to Inle Lake, not just writing about the lake itself.
It was a wonderful journey. As always in Burma, there were some great bits of traffic and scenery en route.
It was Christmas Day and although not a soul on our trip was remotely fussed about celebrating (well, we wouldn’t have escaped our home countries if we wanted fireside, satsumas and too much food, would we?), it was good to have a decent lunch stop. This was our view – I don’t know the name of the little lake but it doesn’t really matter. Just being somewhere so different at a time of year that I really don’t enjoy Britain much, was superb.
Just before we arrived in Inle Lake, we went to Shwe Yaungwe monastery. I think these are probably the most photographed monks in Burma but they don’t mind. In fact, the young boys doing their chanting at 4pm seemed happy to have a distraction. They looked so serious in the photos and then when the cameras went down, they waved and grinned!
Here’s a puzzling thing. Back home when I think of young boys and girls going off to boarding school before their teens, I feel a sense of outrage, that they are too young to be shipped off and if their parents wanted them, why are they sending them outside the home. So how come I had none of that feeling in Burma, seeing young monks and nuns in a similar situation? I have no explanation for my double standard.
I wonder whether it’s because going to a monastery can give a young person an education in a country where there is no compulsory education at all. That’s right, not even the most basic primary education is free in Burma.
These are some of my favourite photos from the trip to that monastery.
Before we went to Kalaw, our tour leader warned us that it would get cold at night, very cold. Well, the Brits and Yanks among us scoffed, as we had left Britain in the depths of winter. The Australians simply couldn’t imagine cold. We had layers; they didn’t. Cue frantic market shopping in Mandalay’s night market for blankets and sweatshirts.
It wasn’t as crisp as we thought it would be but it was chilly, as Kalaw is a hill town.
Our first sight as we got off the bus was a wedding car complete with very cute dolls. I couldn’t resist a snap.
After our shocking hotel in Mandalay (as I said before, avoid The Classic unless you have a particular fondness for pigeons, barbed wire and dust), the welcome in Kalaw was superb. The hotel owner stood at the door and ushered us in with a warm smile. When it came to our rooms, we were like kids on their first day at a boarding school, running in and out of each other’s exclaiming joyfully at the size, the cleanliness and comfort of the beds.
It was just as well that the beds were comfy, as I spent 95% of my time in Kalaw in mine – the other five per cent was shared between the bathroom and the street market on the morning we left.
By the time we left, on Christmas Day, I was well again and loved the next episode of Burma. We had a lovely bus journey, filled with pretty countryside and photogenic traffic.
The came Pindaya. Now, some people feel that a huge cave filled with 8,000 golden Buddha images is a) a bit over the top and b) only deserving of a few minutes ‘look see’. As for me, I loved every little nook and cranny of this labyrinthine maze of a place. Yes, it’s a crazy ostentatious treasure chest but it’s also beautiful and rather touching. People from all over the world donate these Buddhas and while I struggle with the ‘build/buy for karma’ side of the religion, it is testament to the devotion of its followers.
Here’s my selection of the best from Pindaya.
The highlight, though, was undoubtedly seeing how parasols were made. I bought one of these traditional laquered paper umbrellas in Bagan, so seeing how they are made was a real treat.
Even the ‘not interested’ couple from Wisconsin bought homemade paper. Now, that’s magic!
The day we left Mandalay, we stopped at the world famous U Bein Bridge.
I was feeling mighty peculiar – a bit vague and drained. Little did I know that I had a bug and fortunately that wasn’t revealed until the middle of the night. If it had come on sooner, that six hour bus journey between Mandalay and Kalaw might have been tricky.
So when we went to the bridge I singularly failed to get a decent picture of the bridge. Here’s some snaps of rural life going on around it instead – from ploughing to fishing.
If I make it back to Burma, I will definitely go there at dawn to get some of the pictures that you see winning travel photography competitions. For an example, you just need to pick up the new edition of fantastic travel magazine, Wanderlust! It’s a great article, by the way, and anyone who has been or wants to go to Burma should definitely buy it.