Category Archives: Spring 2024

Malaga – Art

Museo Picasso

Centre Pompidou

Malaga – Semana Santa in Pictures

Sagrada Cena



Malaga, March 29- April 1, 2024

When we were planning this trip and exploring where to spend Easter in Andalucia, a region of Spain famous for its Semanta Santa (Holy Week) processions, Malaga was one of the cities recommended. Unlike other Andalusian cities, where the celebrations are sad and dark, Malaga is known to celebrate Semana Santa differently, with Malageños cheering as the processions pass. Having moved up our trip, we had now been witnessing Easter preparations in Malaga , Cordoba and Seville, and experienced Semana Santa processions in Cadiz. It was good to have a better understanding of these centuries-old celebrations, and how they vary from one city to another. Malaga is unique in its tradition of releasing a prisoner on Holy Wednesday. This practice dates back to 1759, when inmates in a Malaga prison discovered Easter processions would be cancelled due to a plague outbreak. In response, they escaped from jail and carried Jesus’ image through the streets before returning to their prison cells.

While the rainy weather continued to disrupt celebrations, we were able to see some of the Semana Santa processions in Malaga, which were certainly larger and more spectacular even than those we had seen in Cádiz . There are often two “thrones” or cajillos (not called pasos here) in a procession here. The first throne contains an image of Christ or sculpted scene of the Passion, and the second one, an image of the Virgin Mary, known as dolorosa. The thrones of Christ are adorned with flowers, the Virgin’s throne is covered by an ornate canopy. We arrived back too late to view the famous procession escorted by the Spanish Foreign Legion, but did see the Sagrada Cena procession from the comfort of our cafe table along the route. The procession was long and large, with the two huge thrones carried by more than a hundred men each. The rest stops for the nazarenos were frequent and the effort was palpable. On Good Friday, we watched the solemn Calvario procession coming from outside of the old city, again with two very large thrones. By evening, the afternoon rain had tapered off and we were able to see yet another procession from the balcony of our apartment. Pictures are in a subsequent post.

In between the celebrations of Semana Santa, we visited three of the many museums in the city. The Museo Carmen Thyssen contains a fine collection of mostly 19thC works by Spanish artists, predominately Andalusian. It was fascinating to see the works from Spain painted during the impressionist era, as well as depictions of places that we had seen in Andalucia. There was also a current exhibition of Spanish Figurative Art from the 20thC which showed the evolution of art as it was shaped by developments in Spain before and after the civil war.

A second current exhibition was of selected photographs by Man Ray.

In the Museo Picasso Malaga, we were treated to a wonderful collection of Picasso’s paintings, sculptures and pottery. Finally, we enjoyed an interesting exhibit in the Malaga Centre de Pompidou examining the tensions in our environment, particularly those between urban and rural life. Selections from the Picasso and Centre Pompidou exhibits are in a subsequent post.

The rain over Saturday and Sunday was heavy and relentless. We found shelter in the Cathedral for high mass on Easter Sunday. Lois wanted to experience an Easter Sunday mass and was intrigued to find that the high mass was actually a sung Latin mass, although not a version Lois recognized from her childhood, and the rest of the mass was conducted in Spanish. While Lois felt slightly nostalgic hearing the Latin mass sung (by a skilled choir), she was disconcerted to later read about a “Latin mass” movement among ultra- conservative Catholics.

In Spain we have benefited from the ability to rent apartments for a few days at a time but through an article in The Guardian discovered that issues of affordability and availability for residents are present here as at home. We noticed stickers referred to in the story on signs denoting tourist accommodation, like the one below.

Cadiz – Semana Santa in Pictures



Jesús Caído


Cadiz – March 22-28, 2024

With the hopes that we might have some beach time, we decided to spend 6 nights in Cadiz, a city recommended to us by our friends, Sharon and Charles.While the weather did not cooperate, we had plenty to see, including the beginning of the Semana Santa celebrations. We thank Sharon and Charles for encouraging us to explore this interesting city!

Cadiz is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Western Europe. On the Atlantic Ocean side of the city, there are long sandy beaches which are busy in the summer, but now are almost deserted. Also on this side there are at least three fortresses, confirming the importance of Cadiz as a port from the Phoenician and Roman times, underMoorish rule between 711 and 1262, when the city was called Qādis, through to when Spain was a colonial power in the east (Indies) and in the Americas.

We were excited to be able to view ruins dating from both the Phonecian and Roman eras. When the present day puppet theatre, Museo del Títere, was being built, workers discovered remains of Roman buildings, as expected, but to their surprise, underneath they found the site of Phonecian houses and streets, ( and two skeletons) dating from the 9thC BCE. Visiting the Yacimiento Arqueológico Gadir, we were able to view one of the skeletons, this of a man trying to flee a fire that destroyed the city. The remains of one cat, one cow’s skull and hoof prints were also revealed, as well as remains of clay ovens and the cisterns used for making salt fish, an important commodity of the times. It was truly remarkable to be able to see what had remained hidden for so long.

In the 1stC BCE, the Roman Theater of Cádiz was ordered to be built by Lucius Cornelius Balbo the Lesser. Since its discovery in 1980, excavations have allowed the recovery of an important part of the stands as well as the orchestra. The date of construction and its size (almost 120 meters in diameter) make it the oldest and the second largest Roman theatre on the Iberian Peninsula. It is estimated to have had capacity of more than 10,000 spectators. The importance of Cadiz in the Roman Empire is reflected in the fact that there were seats at the Colosseum in Rome reserved for representatives of the city. Much of the ancient city was destroyed by the conquering Visigoths in the 400s.

During the age of exploration, the city experienced a renaissance. Columbus sailed from Cádiz on his second and fourth voyages and the city later became the home port of the Spanish treasure fleet. Consequently, it became a major target of Spain’s enemies. Having grown up in the west of England, Paul remembers a picture of Sir Francis Drake sighting the Spanish Armada from Plymouth Ho in 1588. The previous year Drake had led an occupation of Cadiz Harbour for three days, an attack which delayed the Spanish Armada by a year. With the right to trade with the Americas expanded to most parts of mainland Spain in 1778, the monopoly of trade enjoyed by the port of the Bay of Cádiz came to an end. Many of today’s historic buildings in the Old City date from that era. These include 133 towers constructed as part of private houses, many designed to enable owners to monitor the arrival of their ships. We visited one of these towers, the Torre Tavira, to see a unique view of the city through a camera obscura. As it stands, the city’s skyline is not substantially different from what it was in the middle ages. Despite its relatively modest 45 meters of height, theTavira Tower still commands a panoramic view of the city and the bay.

Today, Cadiz’ population is decreasing for various reasons related to its geography, including the fact that Cádiz is built on a sandspit, making it a costly proposition to sink foundations deep enough to support the buildings that would allow for a higher population density. The main industry of the Province of Cadiz is tourism and the area has the highest unemployment rate in all of Spain.

In addition to soaking up history (if not sun), we experienced the beginning of Easter celebrations, with the first of the Semana Santa processions which just happened to go along the street directly below our balcony. Unfortunately, by Palm Sunday, the weather had deteriorated, causing all processions to be cancelled. Only one proceeded on Monday evening. While out for a walk along the sea wall that day, we noticed a number of (mostly) young women wearing cloaks and carrying or wearing teal-coloured capirotes (hats), walking away from or waiting outside the Iglesia del Carmen. Soon, the church doors opened. Curious, we went in to find it crowded with young and old waiting to view the two pasos, which were to have been carried to the Cathedral, but with the procession cancelled, were being guarded by honour guards. Some young people, including musicians, who were clearly upset with the cancellation of the procession, were being comforted by family members or friends.

Coffee notes: Sensa Cafe serving a blend of Brazilian, Honduran and Colombian cor espresso (9.5).

Seville – March 19-22, 2024

Seville is a large city, busier and more hectic than Malaga or Cordoba. Our host informed us that the Holy Week/ Semana Santa celebrations begin here on the Friday before “Easter Week” and advised us to plan ahead, as things would get busy. We had not yet booked transportation onwards to Cadiz and now discovered all the trains were full! Fortunately, we were able to find seats on a bus running between Seville and Cadiz.

Having sorted that out, we decided against visiting the “over the top” ( in Paul’s view) baroque Iglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador and went for tapas next door instead. The highlight was the Payoyo cheesecake! The cheese is a mixture of goat and sheep cheese from the Sierra de Grazemela, to the east. On our wanders later, we passed a church where we were able to view one of the Semana Santa processional floats, or pasos. We saw another paso in the church near our apartment. All through Andalucía (and many parts of Spain), Semana Santa is marked by ancient penance processions through the streets, performed by religious brotherhoods or fraternities. Each procession begins from its parish church, makes its way to the cathedral for a blessing and then back again. These processions can last up to 12 hours. Nazarenos, members of the brotherhood dressed in penitential robes consisting of a tunic, a hood with conical tip (capirote) used to conceal the face of the wearer, and sometimes a cloak, walk silently, usually in pairs, carrying processional candles, a long pole (vara) or a lantern. Following the nazarenos, and preceded by monaguillos (altar boys and girls), a magnificent paso or float is carried on the shoulders of the costaleros. Depending on the size and weight of the paso, there may be 100 or more costaleros. The pasos contain sculptures depicting different scenes from the gospels relating to the Passion of Christ or the sorrow of the Virgin Mary. Many of the floats are art pieces created by Spanish artists over the centuries. Usually, the pasos are accompanied by marching bands performing compositions devoted to the images and fraternities.

Our first morning in Seville, we decided to combine a long walk with a visit to the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC), across the river towards the site of Expo 92. Some parts of the Expo site are used as a theme park, but others, including a park along the riverbank appear neglected. Eventually, we found our way to the Monasterio de Santa María de las Cuevas, which had been converted into a porcelain factory by Charles Pickman in 1839 and now houses the CAAC. There are still kiln chimneys rising above the buildings. In the gardens is an Ombú tree (or type of grass that grows to about 15 metres, native to South America), believed to have been planted by Hernando Colón, the son of Christopher Columbus.

The art exhibits were extraordinary. The CAAC’s collection pays particular attention to the history of contemporary Andalusian art, in the context of Spain, Europe and the wider world. The exhibits are cleverly and artfully set out throughout the old monastery. One of the current exhibitions is a powerful installation of murals and sculptures by Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, a Romani activist and artist who challenges racist and colonial narratives of her people, particularly those of the women. Her murals, composed in colourful materials, dominate the walls of the main church and adjoining rooms. In another room, a lone sculpture represents the remains of a monument that she erected in a Polish forest commemorating a WWII massacre of her people. It was vandalized in 2016. Another exhibit showed a selection of works by more than 50 contemporary Latin American artists.

Taking a taxi back to centre of the old town, we headed to the Setas de Sevilla. This is an interesting but incongruous large structure housing a market and exhibition halls, with a viewing platform on top. Made of “micro-laminated” Finnish pine, it is apparently the largest wooden structure in the world. In the evening, we attended a flamenco performance recommended by our host, Tablao Flamenco Andalusí. Arriving early, we walked around the neighborhood and past the 18thC Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla, the 12,000 capacity bull ring still being used today.

The venue for the flamenco show was small and intimate, allowing the audience to be immersed in the experience. It began with a short video (fortunately with English subtitles) of the history of flamenco in Andalusia. The performance itself was mesmerizing, our attention flitting between the energetic footwork and dramatic gestures of the dancer, the virtuosity of the guitarist, the melancholic laments of the singer, and the rhythmic drumming of the flamenco box drum. Afterwards, we stopped at a local bar for tapas, including spinach and chickpeas and Spanish tortilla (omelette), with onions, garlic and whiskey! Paul notes here that 0% beer is available everywhere, even on tap. The best so far is Amstel, but the local Cruzcampo is a close second.

Two main draws in Seville are the Cathedral and the Real Alacazar and both were very busy. Compared to the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, the Seville Cathedral, Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede, left us cold and overwhelmed. When the Catholic Kings of Spain reclaimed Seville from the Moors in 1248, they converted the existing grand 12thC mosque into a cathedral. Then, in 1406, the converted mosque was destroyed and a new cathedral constructed, one which would demonstrate the city’s wealth. Completed in the early 16thC, the cathedral is one of the largest churches in the world and the largest gothic church. The tomb of Christopher Columbus is in the cathedral. It is massive, with 80 chapels, but gave us no sense of cohesion and its grand decoration was intimidating, which was perhaps the idea. Some elements from the ancient mosque were preserved, eg, the courtyard for ablutions, known today as the Patio de los Naranjos, which contains a fountain and orange trees, and the minaret, which was converted into a bell tower known as the Giralda, now the city’s most well-known symbol.

The Real (Royal) Alcázar of Savilla was formerly the site of the Islamic-era citadel of the city, begun in the 10th century and then developed into a larger palace complex on the 11th century. After the Castilian conquest of the city, it was progressively rebuilt and replaced by new palaces and gardens. Among the most important of these is a richly-decorated Mudéjar palace built during the 1360s. The Alcazar is a mixture of styles, but does give the sense of being a whole (unlike the Cathedral). It is known for its tile decoration. We were able to distinguish tiles made with the arista technique, where each coloured tile segment has raised ridges to avoid the mixing of different glaze colours during firing, and those using the majolica style, an innovation developed later in the 15th–16th centuries, which made it possible to “paint” directly on ceramics covered with white opaque glazes. “The Courtyard of the Maidens”, was part of the Mudéjar palace built by Pedro I in the 1360s. At ground level, several reception rooms are arranged around a long rectangular reflecting pool that runs the entire length of the patio. This pool is surrounded by promenades covered with a red brick pavement decorated with green ceramic borders. The garden and the pool were buried between 1581 and 1584 when the courtyard was paved with a white and black marble pavement, but the original structure was discovered and the hidden garden was uncovered after 2002–2005 excavations revealed the good state of conservation of the area under the patio and the ancient Mudejar garden was restored. Beyond the palace are extensive and peaceful gardens, one of which contain a large maze.

Needing reviving, we repaired to the Bar Alfalfa for tapas, a good “cervesa zero” and a glass of Albariño for Lois. This was followed by a marzipan and apple gelato for the walk back to our apartment. Before leaving for the bus station the next morning, we compared the espresso (and flat white) at two excellent coffee shops – East Crema Coffee Santa Maria (single origin Ethiopian 9.5) and Hispalis (Colombian and Ethiopian 9.5).

Cordoba – March 16-19, 2024

Cordoba lies on the Guadalquivir river, which during Roman times, was navigable from Cadiz up to Cordoba. The Roman bridge is from the 1stC AD, but has been rebuilt many times. In its present form, it dates mainly from the medieval period, with the latest changes made in 1876.

At the south end of the bridge is the Calahorra Tower – an ancient defensive fortress rebuilt in the 12thC. More interesting were the remains of mills in the river which fed a water wheel, built under Abd al-Rahman II, to carry river water up to the Emir’s palace by means of an aqueduct. It was dismantled by order of Queen Isabella who disliked the noise it produced so close to the Castle, the royal residence. The present wheel is a replica.

The Alhambra Decree of 1492 was issued by the joint monarchs of Spain (Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon) ordering the expulsion of practising Jews from their lands to discourage those who had converted to Christianity from reverting. The synagogue that we visited dates from the early 14thC, but was closed after the Alhambra and another decree. It is small, but has some very impressive decorative plasterwork and is a reminder of the contribution of the community to the city. Those Jews, and Muslims who had converted before the decrees, were subject to the Inquisition, which in Cordoba, was based in the Palace of the Monarchs. The Inquisition was intended to identify heretics amongst those who had converted. The decrees resulted in hundreds of thousands of “false” conversions, the mass expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain, 150,000 prosecutions and 3000 to 5000 executions.

Our most memorable visit was to the Mezquita de Cordoba, or the Mosque-Cathedral. It is worth quoting at length from the guide book as it shows that the two religious communities cooperated. In a strange way, this is the sense one gets from walking around the inside of the building where there seems to be a quiet blending of Islamic and Christian sensibilities.

When the Arabs first conquered Córdoba they bought from the Christians half the Church of St. Vincent to use for their Friday prayers and thus the church was shared between Muslims and Christians. The rapid increase in the size of the Muslim population, however, soon rendered this arrangement unworkable and so in 784 Abd ar-Rahman bought the other half of the basilica to erect a mosque on the site. He paid the Christians well for their property and allowed them to build new churches in other parts of the town. Work on the mosque went apace as the Muslim masons took advantage of building materials already present in the basilica and plundered a lot more, such as columns with their bases and capitals and even shafts of timber, from the surrounding ruins of Roman and Visigothic mansions. The mosque was open for prayer in 785, just a year after the work began, although it was not finished by the time Abd ar-Rahman died in 788. It was left to his son Hishan I to put the finishing touches to the square minaret in the court-yard, which was completed in 793. After the reconquest in 1236 and the subsequent christianisation of the Great Mosque no immediate alterations were made to the building itself. It was not until nearly 200 years later, in 1523, that Bishop Alonso Manrique obtained permission from is uncle the Emperor Charles V to build a cathedral inside the mosque. The building was not in fact finished until 1766 and architectural tastes and concepts had obviously changed during those 250 years.

The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Palace of the Monarchs) was built starting in 1328 by Alfonso XI of Castile on the site of the 8thC Caliph’s Palace. The structure retained only part of the Moorish ruins, but appears Islamic due to Alfonso’s use of the Mudéjar style. For us, the most interesting parts were the main hall, which contains remarkably intact and fine Roman mosaics unearthed in Cordoba in the 1950s and mounted on the walls, and the extensive gardens remodeled in the last century. Of note is the sculpture of Christopher Columbus with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, commemorating Columbus’s first meeting with the Catholic Monarchs which took place in the Alcázar.

As with other cities in Andalucía, the scent of orange blossom and of flowering jasmine is everywhere. Not forgetting another aroma, the single origin Brazilian espresso from Coffee Club was memorable (9.5).

Cordoba city walls

P.S. Lois forgot to mention her wonderful visit to the Hammam Al Ándalus on our last afternoon in this city.

Malaga – March 10-16, 2024

Our few days in Malaga were relaxing. We did some sightseeing, sat on the beach and enjoyed the warmth of the sun, found good coffee and sampled some local cuisine (including Pil Pil). We will return to Malaga for Easter weekend, to experience the final days of Semana Santa.

Although there were plenty of tourists, it was possible to find peaceful retreats. We expect it will be much busier during Easter celebrations.

After Morocco, we were interested to visit the Alcazaba of Malaga (the word Alcazaba comes from Arabic « AL-qasbah » referring to a fortification within a walled town), one of the best-preserved alcazabas in Spain, built during the period of Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus. Situated on a hill, previously occupied by Phoenicians since around 600 BC, a Roman villa after 205 BC – a Roman theatre, excavated and visible today, was built into the western slope of the hill in the 1st century AD – and an earlier fortress and mosque, the current Alcazaba was begun by the Hammudid dynasty in the early 11th century. Following the capture of Malaga by the Zirids of Granada in 1056, some additions were made during the reign of Badis (d. 1073). In the early 14th century, the Alcazaba was largely rebuilt by the Nasrid emir Muhammad II, including the fortifications and the palatial residences. While built as an impenetrable fortress, its architecture is impressive and beautiful. On the inside were delightful courtyards with fountains, the scent of orange blossom everywhere. From the parapets, we had stunning views of the city and the Mediterranean.

Malaga Cathedral – The north tower of Malaga Cathedral is 84 metres (276 ft) high, making this building the second-highest cathedral in Andalusia, after the Giralda of Seville. To defray the enormous expenses of the work, the Crown, after the War of Succession, imposed an excise duty or tax on the ships that called in Málaga, demanding an amount for each arroba of weight that they embarked. In this way, throughout the entire 18th century and especially since 1776, when trade with America began to be liberated, the work progressed rapidly. At the end of the century the budget to finish the work ran out as they were assigned by the king Carlos III to be sent as aid to the Americans who had risen against England to achieve their independence. The rest of the budget for port taxes was used to rehabilitate the roads, bring water to Málaga through the aqueduct of San Telmo, and Mount Pío of the ‘Fellowship of Vinneros’, mainly for widows, orphans of the militias that participated in the American Revolution. To this day, the south tower of the Cathedral remains unfinished which has led to the cathedral being called “La Manquita”, meaning in English, “The One-Armed Lady”.

The La Farola is a 21.64 meter high lighthouse in Malaga. The name is unique because lighthouses are generally called El Faro in Spain, using the masculine gender rather than La Farola, the feminine gender. It was built in 1817 and replaced an earlier lighthouse built at the location. The structure was damaged during the earthquake of 1898 and again during the Spanish Civil War, but was restored again in 1939. Today, La Farola serves the port and air traffic.

The Centro de Arte Contemporánio contains many interesting works from modern Spanish artists (and a number by Andy Wharhol).

We could see the spire of the Iglesia de San Juan from our apartment. On our morning walk to coffee (Next Level 9.0) we passed these walls of the church decorated with 18thC paintings.

Iglesia de San Juan

To Rabat – March 10, 2024

Lois felt a bit nauseous when she woke up and gradually felt worse on the drive to Rabat. Fortunately, the drive was all autoroute, so no winding roads. The weather was grey, cloudy and windy, with intermittent rain showers as we passed through flat land and rolling hills. The countryside looked lush and green, with fields of wheat, olive groves and other crops, and further on, pastureland for cattle and sheep.

Close to Rabat, we drove through the Maâmora forest, the largest cork oak forest in the Mediterranean. Also a recreational area for the inhabitants of four major cities and the main source of income for the local population, the forest is included in a recent restoration plan to address habit degradation and loss. Just inside the city, we passed the Royal Palace, marked by high walls and two sentries on guard every 50m or so. Khalid pointed out the Grand Theatre, a large performing arts center, and Hassan Tower, as well as the immense Mohammed VI Tower, the second tallest building in Africa at 250m, which will house a hotel and apartments. As befitting a capital city, the streets outside the Medina are grand boulevards with lawns, flowering shrubs and manicured trees.

On our arrival at our Riad, Lois, who clearly now had an acute GI bug, went straight to bed, soon developing a fever. Paul ventured out later to find some food and to have a look at the stormy sea from a large cemetery overlooking the coast. He returned to the hotel with fresh bread, Dutch cheese, bananas and local cookies. The hotel staff also kept us well supplied with tea, oranges and fizzy water for Lois. Fortunately, by morning, Lois’ symptoms had improved to enable us to make our 7:55 flight. The early start was made easier by the fact that it was the start of Ramadan and the clocks had gone back an hour during the night. Khalid was waiting for us at 5:30 am for the quick drive to the airport. We wished him Ramadan Kareem and, with some regret, said goodbye to Morocco.

Fes – March 7-9

Last night, we had a rethink of our plans for the next couple of weeks. The remaining itinerary of our tour with MSDT included a day off in Fes, with a guided tour of the city, and then a night in each of Chefchaouen and Tangier, before we were to leave by ferry for Tarifa, Spain. After travelling approximately 1500 kms by road over the past week. we, especially Lois, were feeling the need for some down time, to rest and to process all that we had experienced so far. We called Hamid and told him we would like to fly from Rabat to Malaga, Spain. Hamid was very understanding and said he would instruct Khalid to drive us to Rabat and then take us to the airport for our flights. We would still have a day off in Rabat, but without a scheduled city tour.

Leaving our hotel in search of coffee this morning, Lois noticed a sign for “Croissant-Rouge”, momentarily wondering (to Paul’s amusement) whether this might be a coffee option, before remembering it is the Islamic version of the Red Cross! We had a cafe noir in a souk by the Bab Bou Jaloud (the Blue Gate), before setting off on a self-guided online tour. Google maps and GPS were invaluable in the depths of the narrow alleyway of the Medina! It was less busy than usual being a Friday, which was just as well, although it also meant that some of the sites were closed.

We particularly enjoyed visiting Niijarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts. Once the traditional inn for woodworkers in Fes, the building displays samples of native woods and tools, as well as a great array of traditional wooden articles, including musical instruments, boards of customary law, and furniture. This museum is a remarkable omission from the Lonely Planet Guide. Easily finding the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II, the final resting place of the main founder of Fez and one of the holiest shrines in Morocco, we were only able to look at the intricate woodwork on the exterior. Next, we visited the Ras al-Cherratine Madrasa, built in the mid-17th century by Alaouite Sultan Moulay Al Rashid. This Madrasa was one of the city’s most prestigious student halls, housing up to 150 of the country’s best scholars studying at Kairaouine University to become imams. The cedarwood carved balustrades were impressive, but difficult to photograph as visitors kept leaning over the balconies to be photographed from below (or to sing Italian opera)!

After a lunch of veggie and cheese sandwiches on a rooftop patio, we took a taxi back to our hotel. Dinner at Veggie Pause, the 5th best vegetarian restaurant in the world according to Trip Advisor (!), was Moroccan (vegetable) lasagne and a veggie burger, with fresh fruit smoothies. In search of a (stronger) drink afterwards, we were told at a 5-star hotel that there was no alcohol because of Ramadan (although Ramadan had not yet started), but then we just happened upon a beautiful courtyard of a Riad where a guitar concert of Andalusian music would begin later. On inquiring about tickets, we were told that a glass of wine or beer was included! We were not sure how well-advertised the event was, as only a handful of people drifted in after us. But, the concert, an enjoyable mix of Andalusian and contemporary music, was fun and the atmosphere enchanting.

Midelt to Fes – March 7, 2024

Out of Midelt we climbed again up to 2100m through forests of cedar, Holm Oak and pine. Stopping to take a photo, we came across a temporary encampment of “nomads” living in shelters by the road. The women were selling eggs. Later on, we saw others grazing their sheep, with the help of dogs.

Stopping at Lac Aguelmame Sidi Ali, we walked down to the shores of the lake where it was sunny, but windy and cold. The luxury hotel above the lake was in sharp contrast to the nomads’ tents we had just witnessed. Approaching Ifrane, we caught sight of families of rare local macaques who are found in the National Park.

Ifrane was a bit confusing to the eye, with its leafy parks, wide boulevards and alpine-style architecture. Known as “Little Switzerland, the town, founded in 1929, is a premier summer and winter resort, with nearby extinct volcanoes equipped with alpine runs. local ski-hill (and a Hotel Chamonix). It is the skiing station of the king, who has a residence in the town. It is also the home of Al-Akhawayn University, an expensive university modelled on the American university system.

The Middle Atlas to Midelt – March 6, 2024

After Merzouga, we stopped at Rissani for coffee on the way to visit the mausoleum of Moulay Sharif. An Arab Emir whose family claimed to be descended from the prophet Mohammed, Moulay Sharif, who died in 1659, is considered to be the founder of the Alaouite Dynasty of Morocco and a predecessor of the current King. We hired a guide to show us around the religious complex, which had been rebuilt in 1955 following a disastrous flood from the Ziz river (Oued Ziz). Our guide explained the intricacies of the restored architecture, including sophisticated tile and painted woodwork. Not being Moslem, we were unable to go inside the mosque or to see the tomb, but we could look through one of the intricately carved doors and take photos. We were then shown around the neighbouring 17thC Ksar, which still houses many families.

Next, a stop in Erfoud to sample and purchase some Medjool dates, for which the area is famous. Once the floor of a large prehistoric ocean, the region is also well known for fossils. We visited a factory where we viewed marble slabs mined from a nearby quarry that contain fish, plant and other marine fossils. The marble is used to make countertops, sinks and even sculptures, which are shipped worldwide.

Back on the road, we followed the Ziz river valley north for over 100kms, the walls of the canyon steep and craggy, the valley floor covered dense with date palms, stretching as far as you could see. Khalid pointed out evidence of an extensive fire that whipped through the palmerie in 2022, extinguished quickly using water from the dam upstream, built after the 1955 flood. Although the bark of the palms was scorched for many kilometres, the trees are producing fruit again. In addition to palm trees, other crops are grown, eg, fruit trees, grains, alfalfa and vegetables.

Eventually, the road began its ascent into the Middle Atlas Mountains, emerging onto the high plateau at 1500m. It snows here in the winter and the roads can become impassable. It is also apple country, with a climate similar to that of Washington State. We were now passing field after field of apple orchards. Apparently, many species are grown, primarily for the domestic market.

On the way into Midelt, again we saw, in large letters on the hillside, the “motto” of Morocco, Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik (God, Country and King).

Erg Chebbi – Sahara Desert. March 5-6, 2024

Finally, we arrived at the edge of Erg Chebbi, one of the eastern sections of the Sahara Desert located in Morocco. 30 kms in length, Erg Chebbi is renowned for the colour of its sand dunes, which reach heights of 160 m in places. Incidentally, a couple of days ago there was a story on BBC about “star dunes” and, in particular, one in the Erg Chebbi, the base of which was determined to have formed 13,000 years ago.

We were booked at Sanmao Desert Luxury Camp, one of a number of these camps on the edge of the dunes, offering tent accommodation with king-sized beds, electricity, private bathrooms and showers. We elected to take the 1-hour camel trek to our camp, rather than the jeep option, which was a great (if somewhat uncomfortable) experience! Although we were aware of people riding quad vehicles out on the dunes, it was a peaceful and transportative experience and the dunes became even more golden towards sunset. Lois did object, however, when our camel driver seemed to assume we would wait out on the dunes for another 1 1/2 hours until sunset!

After recovering over the ubiquitous glasses of mint tea, we tramped up on the dunes (snowshoes might be useful here?), hoping the gathering clouds would still permit us a desert sunset. Unfortunately, the clouds prevailed. We returned to the camp dining hall to enjoy a traditional Moroccan meal of olives, dates, bread, vegetable tagine (with cheese), vegetable couscous and fresh fruit. On the way to the camp, Khalid had asked if we wanted to buy wine to bring to have with dinner. This we shared with another Canadian couple from Waterloo. Later, we were treated to drumming by an open fire.

Paul ventured outside in the middle of the night to find a clear star-studded sky. Lois regretted having decided to stay snuggled under the quilt when he returned to tell her this! The next morning, it was cloudy again, so we missed the sunrise, but the colors of the dunes were no less impressive.

Returning to Merzouga by 4×4, we were surprised to be invited into a hall decked with the flags of Africa to watch an impromptu performance of Gnawa music by local artists. The music is characterized by instrumentation with heavy iron castanets known as qraqab or krakeb, and a three-string lute known as a hajhuj, guembri or gimbri, or sentir. For us, three young men sang and played the castanets, accompanied by an electrified gimbri and a drum. It was wonderful to hear live the kind of music that we have been listening to on our road trip so far, via YouTube, thanks to Khalid.

To the Desert – March 5, 2024

We are heading to the desert, but first we must experience two spectacular canyons carved by the Dades and Todra rivers. The Dades Gorge is characterized by fascinating eroded rock formations and folds in colours of rusty red and gold sedimentary rock. While the Dades river seems little more than a creek at this time of year, the floor of the Dades Valley is lined with olive groves, date palms, poplars, small wheat fields (for bread and couscous) and the occasional walnut and almond tree. To protect themselves from invaders, the Amazigh erected hundreds and hundreds of kasbahs. The number of crumbling mud-brick castles give the valley its nickname: “The Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs”.

Khalid dropped us at the entrance of the deep gorge of Todra where we walked along the road below the red limestone cliffs, staring up at climbers on steep faces high above. The high walls of Todra gorge are Morocco’s top rock-climbing spot. As we were leaving, we were approached for money for shoes by two young girls leading donkeys to fetch water from a spring in the gorge. Khalid referred to these girls as nomads. Some nomads continue to live in troglodyte caves, using the valley as a seasonal pathway to grazing pastures in the High Atlas.

Lush palm trees cover about 48 kms along the Todra valley, irrigated by an ancient network of pipes and irrigation canals. On the flat rocky desert beyond, we could see scattered bushes of tamarisk, an occasional herd of sheep and goats and lone donkeys being led by their custodians. The old town of Tinghir, which looked impressive to us, has been deserted for newer buildings which, as is common here, still used the traditional architecture.

Getting closer to the desert, we decided we should buy scarves for our camel ride. Khalid, dressed in traditional dress for the desert, helped us choose the right length for protecting us from wind and sun. In the photo below, he proudly shows us the “Berber” flag.

Over the mountains – March 4, 2024

Our driver , Khalid, was waiting for us ,with the new Skoda, when we came downstairs at 8:30. Leaving Marrakech, we followed National Route #9, tracing an ancient caravan route from the great Marrakech plains to the gateway to the Sahara desert, climbing from 500m above sea level to 2205m in the High Atlas Mountains. This mountain range, which separates the Sahara desert from the Atlantic, stretches diagonally across Morocco for 1000kms. Featuring more than 100 bends, the route to the pass is known as one of Morocco’s hair-raising drives. Fortunately, we were in good hands. Through the foothills we passed Amazigh villages interspersed with green wheat fields, olive and walnut groves, stopping for coffee at Taddert. As we continued to climb, the landscape became more barren, with patches of snow remaining. Reaching Tizi n’ Tichka, “the pasture pass”, we were rewarded with spectacular views over rugged peaks.

Descending, we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou, an historic ksar (fortified village) and UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating from the 11th C. Its location along one of the main trans-Saharan trade routes gave this earthen clay ksar strategic importance as a trading post, e.g., indigo from what is now Mali was traded for local salt extracted from the river water. (The community had to collect fresh water from a site 10kms away). Crossing the stream on stepping stones, we approached the ksar through an archway which was built for a movie set. Several films were made on location here, including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and, more recently, Game of Thrones. Climbing up through the ksar, we saw evidence of damage to ceilings and walls from the earthquake last September. Considering that the buildings are constructed from mud and hay with bamboo and mud for the roofs, and have been standing for centuries, they have remained remarkably intact. Although most people have left for the new town across the river, some families remain. Khalid asked a woman if we could enter her house and she kindly showed us around and even offered tea. The goats (milk) and sheep (wool) were housed in a room inside the home. The UNESCO citation says that Ait Ben Hadou is a fine example of a southern Morocco ksar which would have housed a family grouping, but also community areas: collective sheep pens and stables, lofts and silos, a market place, meeting room for the assembly of family chiefs, mosque, and madrasas, for example. In contrast a kasba is palace fortress, a seat of local power.

On the outskirts of Ouazazate, an historic gathering place for traders from the high Atlas and the Sahara, we passed the entrances to two large movie studios. This is a successful industry where the background of the desert is required. We did not visit the Cinema museum, but did wander through the 19thC Taouirit Kasbah which was interesting for the designs on the walls and interwoven reed ceilings. It has also been a movie set. Some of the structure was not accessible because of damage from last year’s earthquake. Later on, we were surprised to find ourselves in a region growing roses, the Valley of the Roses. The pink variety of Damask rose grown here dates from the 11thC, apparently brought by an Amazigh trader from Damascus. From April to mid-May, the valley produces around 4000 tonnes of roses, gathered by women by hand and processed for culinary and cosmetic purposes. Driving through, we saw sculptures of roses in the middle of roundabouts and even the taxis are pink!

Next, we entered the area of the Gorges Dadés (1600m). Here, the valley base was lined with groves of olives, argan, date palms, the occasional almond tree and stands of poplar, and, on the hillsides, stood crumbling kasbahs, earthen Amazigh villages and unusual sandstone rock formations. Our hotel for the night, Riad Dades Paradise, served us the best meal that we have had so far in Morocco!

Essaouira, March 2-3, 2024

We began our tour with an overnight visit to the seaside city of Essaouira. We wanted to see the coast before heading further inland, and Essaouira, in particular, was of interest, partly for its links to Saint-Malo, one of our favourite towns in France. Occupied since prehistoric times, the present city of Essaouira was built during the mid-18thC by Mohammed III, a Moroccan king, who engaged a French architect , Théodore Cornut, among others, to develop a fortress and modern international port and city. Cornut built the walls modelled on the city of Saint-Malo. Walking around the city and its walls overlooking the sea, brought back happy memories of our visit to that French port with the whole family in 2019. From the time of its rebuilding until the end of the 19thC, Essaouira served as Morocco’s principal port. Goods from sub Saharan Africa came from Timbuktu, then through the desert and over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech and on to Essaouira. After some years of decay when Morocco was a protectorate of France, the city revived in the late 20C and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Normally in his office, Hamid elected to drive us in order to give one of his drivers a day off. Along the route, we passed many olive groves (both domestic and Spanish varieties), fields of melons and ripe green beans, wheat and other crops. The land looked dry, but we were told that the water table is high and easily accessible by wells. When Paul expressed a liking for North African “Saharan Blues” music, Hamid introduced us to bands such as Tinariwen and Daraa Tribes. In turn, Paul introduced Hamid to one of his favourite albums, Talking Timbuktu, by Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder.

After an espresso break (Segafredo – 7/10), we entered the region of Argan forests. Indigenous to Morocco and southwestern Algeria, Argan oil has traditionally been used in Morocco for cooking, prepared from roasted Argan kernels (e.g., to dip bread at breakfast, as a salad dressing, or to drizzle on couscous or pasta), but gained popularity in the 2000’s as a cosmetic ingredient. At a women’s cooperative, we observed the manual process of extraction. The unroasted kernels are extracted from ripe fruit which has been sun-dried for a few weeks, the dried peel removed and the kernels crushed to produce the oil. The remaining mash is kneaded by hand to produce more oil. Lois bought some of the products to support the women (as well as for cosmetic use!) Hamid informed us that the king sanctioned the creation of women-only cooperatives, but at least one investigator showed that not all coops operate as originally intended.

We took advantage of Hamid’s presence to quiz him about Morocco, its history and culture. He is proud to be Amazigh, the indigenous people of North Africa, previously referred to as Berbers. While also Muslim. the Amazigh have retained their own cultural practices, language and alphabet, despite pressures to assimilate. Outside of the cities, the Amazigh live in distinct communities. Although the Moroccan Constitution recognizes the Amazigh identity and language, rules for officially implementing these rights are still evolving. Morocco has not adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Arriving at Essaouira, we were required to park outside of the Medina (next to Orson Welles Park commemorating the making of the 1951 movie, Othello, on location in Essaouira ). We walked to our hotel, a porter transferring our luggage in a trolley. Leaving Hamid, we lunched on a very good seafood chowder and then went down to the beach in front of the city walls, clambering over volcanic rock and watching the Atlantic waves crash to shore. After wandering the souks, we had an enjoyable dinner in the Cafe Sirocco (named after the ever present wind) -freshly-caught sole and delicious chocolate fondant (but, no wine, sigh).

Sunday morning we visited the Bayt Dakira museum commemorating the history of the Jewish community of Essaouira. In the first half of the 19thC, the majority of the population of the city was Jewish as in the previous century Mohammed III encouraged Moroccan Jews to settle in the town and handle the trade with Europe. According to Wikipedia “Changes in trade, the founding of Israel, the resulting wars with Arab states, and the independence of Morocco all resulted in Sephardic Jews leaving the country. As of 2017, Essaouira had only three Jewish inhabitants.” This account does not make reference to the severe discrimination against the community during the first half of WWII when the Vichy controlled the country. The museum houses the Haim and Célia Zafrani Research Center on the History of Relations between Judaism and Islam.

We continued our wanderings into craft shops until lunch when Paul enjoyed a tartine with eggplant and sardines and Lois had fresh green pea soup with mint. The drive back to Marrakech was uneventful, but included a stop for tea for us and prayers for Hakim.

We checked into Perlekech Riad, another gem, and had a seafood feast of scallops and gambas.

Morocco – Marrakech Feb 28-Mar 1, 2024

Watching wet snow fall from the coach window on our way to the Schwartz Bay ferry terminal, we were glad of our decision to leave Victoria two weeks early! Our original plan had been to head first to southern Spain and then to Morocco at the end of Ramadan, but with an earlier departure, we could now go directly to Marrakech. A 10 hour (Air France) flight from Vancouver to Paris and another 3 1/2 hour flight to Marrakech, and we were back in the warm sun of Africa. 

We chose Marrakech as our Morocco starting point as we are both keen to get a glimpse of the Sahara. But, Marrakech itself is a fascinating destination. Known as “the red city”, with its sandstone buildings painted to match the red ochre colour of the surrounding land, it is one of four imperial cities in Morocco, its walled medieval centre (medina) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With Amazigh (formerly known as Berber) roots,  it was an important trading centre for tribes of the Atlas Mountains, the snowy peaks of which we could see to the east.  Our first night was spent in a traditional guest house (riad) found behind an ancient wooden door at the end of a maze of narrow cobbled winding alleys in the medina. With traffic restricted, the medina is quiet but for the sounds of the Bulbuls and regular calls to prayer (adhan). We were greeted by our host with sweet mint tea served in a greenery- filled inner courtyard. Our small room, with its windows facing the interior courtyard was dark and cold, however, reminding us that it is still winter, despite the 22C in full sun.  Resisting the temptation to sleep,  we ventured out for a walk, stopping at an all-day cafe for vegetable tagine, followed by drinks on the rooftop terrace of Hotel la Maison Arabe and then almost getting lost on our return to the riad! The next morning, we had decided we would change hotels, although we felt a bit badly after being served a sumptuous breakfast  that included traditional bread (khobz) and pancakes (msemen), fried egg, soft cheese, fresh fruit, yoghurt and strong coffee. We will not need lunch in Morocco! After hauling our suitcases on and off narrow sidewalks and avoiding the motor scooters barreling past, we checked in to the Dar el Assafir, a lovely riad with a larger room and sunnier rooftop terrace. The manager put us in touch with a tour operator, Morocco Sahara Desert Travel (5/5 on Trip Advisor). Later in the day, we sat down with owner, Hamid , and came up with an itinerary for the next 11 days! 

We dined on falafel and vegetarian couscous on the terrace at Cafe Medina Rouge, while peering down at waves of scooters, taxis, buses, donkey carts and caleches bustling past the 12thC Koutoubia Mosque. The minaret is visible from all over the city as it is forbidden by law to erect any building that exceeds 77 metres. Although Morocco is a Muslim country, drinking is allowed, but strictly controlled and not available in many restaurants, so we moved on to the Kabana, a rooftop bar recommended by Lonely Planet, for a nightcap. For Lois, this was a glass of excellent white Grenache from Meknès, Morocco (Domaine de Sahari Reserve Blanc). The stairs leading up to the bar were lined with b&w photos of celebrities who had apparently visited,  including Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Andy Warhol and Margaret Trudeau. We wandered back past small shops open to the street selling marble work, brass lamps, 50” TV sets, leather goods, earthenware tajine, parts for bicycles and scooters, and more. 

Friday morning, we were met by our city guide, Hassan, for a tour of the medina. Outside the Koutoubia mosque, we were given a lengthy history of the mosque and its Andalusian architecture (as non-Muslims, we could not enter the mosque, but it is currently closed to all because of damage from the earthquake in September); we visited the beautiful 19th C Bahia Palace; wandered through Jamaa el-Fnaa, the main square; and navigated the labyrinth of Marrakech’s famous souks.

In the evening, we returned to Kabana to share a delicious veggie burger made with lentils and house-made Fraisier for desert (and another glass of the Grenache!)

Tomorrow, we leave for an overnight stay in Essaouira.