Spinning though Andalusia and Morocco in Four Weeks



Although we had spent a couple of weeks in Barcelona and had driven a circle route through northern Spain and Madrid, this was the first visit to southern Spain and the first visit to anywhere on the African continent.




Day 1: Flight to Madrid; RENFE high speed train to Seville

Day 2: Seville. Jet-lag recovery.

Day 3: Seville. Alcazar

Day 4: Seville. Cathedral

Day 5: Bus to Grenada. Generalife and Alhambra.

Day 6: Drive to Sierra Nevada. Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira.

Day 7: Hike in Sierra Nevada. Return to Grenada

Day 9: Grenada.  Albayzin. Train to Algeciras.

Day 10: Ferry to Tangier. Train to Fès

Day 11: Fès. Fès el-Bali.

Day 12: Fès. Fès el-Jdid. Train to Meknes.

Day 13: Grand taxi to Moulay Idriss. Return to Meknes. Meknes medina.

Day 14: Grand taxi to Moulay Idriss. Trek to Volubilis. 

Day 15: Train to Casablanca. Hassan II mosque.

Day 16: Train to Marrakech.

Day 17: Transit to the Drâa Valley via High Atlas. Overnight in Tamnougalt

Day 18: To the Sahara.  Camel ride through dust and rain to bivouac north of M’Hamid.

Day 19: Off-roading in the Sahara. Bivouac in the Erg Chigaga dunes.

Day 20: Return through the flood waters to Ouarzazate.

Day 21: Return to Marrakech via High Atlas.

Day 22: Marrakech. Djemaa el-Fna and souks.

Day 23: Marrakech. Kasbah and Mellah. Overnight train to Tangier.

Day 24: Early morning fast ferry to Tarifa. Bus to Algeciras. Gibraltar.

Day 25: Endless bus ride to Cordoba.

Day 26: Cordoba. Mezquita and Juderia.

Day 27: High speed train to Madrid.

Day 28: Home.


RENFE high-speed train


I really don’t like travelling west to east—it really messed the biological clock since there’s no easy way to get back on schedule other than waiting for time to adjust.  Going the other way just means staying up an extra few hours and you’re back on time.  In any case, with a long wait for the train to Seville and a couple of very rainy days, and then add the ubiquitous low-key tourist rip-off attitude, and the charms of Seville never did overwhelm.


On this trip, much more in Spain than even in Morocco where it could be a bit more rationalized, the attitude of many in tourist service was, “How can we get just a little more from these yokels”.  Inflated bills, restaurant charges for items never ordered and never seen, “hidden” taxi charges.  Tiresome, and in the long-run macro-sense, self-defeating.  We’ve seldom gone out of our way more to avoid eating at restaurants or take taxis.  Someone may have ended up with a euro or two more in their pocket, but overall we spent far less in Seville and Spain generally than we might have otherwise done.


Seville is a nice compact city with a café cultural as appealing as any in Europe.



Seville                                                                          Cafes, Seville


It has the legacy of its moments in the sun: it was a capital of one of the kingdoms of Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus) after the disintegration of the caliphate of Cordoba, and it has the monuments to its colonial monopoly on trade with the Americas when all the riches of Spain flowed through Seville.  The two greatest of the monuments to the past are the Alcazar (fortress) and the cathedral.


Used by both Muslim rulers and Castilian monarchs (including Fernando and Isabella as they prepared for the final stages of the Reconquista), the Alcazar is a complex of Mudejar and Gothic architecture and beautiful walled gardens.


Patio de las Doncellas, Alcazar, Seville                        Interior detail, Alcazar, Seville                                     Gardens, Alcazar, Seville


Seville’s (Gothic) cathedral is the world’s largest (126 m by 83 m).  Part of the city’s wealth was transformed into its adornments (including the world’s largest altarpiece) and its treasury.  Christopher Columbus’ tomb lies within the nave (well, one of his tombs: the other is in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic).  The cathedral’s bell tower, the Giralda, was a minaret of the mosque which occupied the site before the cathedral—the square design is typical of modern Moroccan minarets.



Flying buttresses, cathedral, Seville                 Part of the cathedral treasury, Seville               Murillo’s La Inmaculada, Cathedral, Seville



Main altar, Cathedral, Seville                            Columbus’ tomb, Cathedral, Seville                 Giralda, Seville



Off to Grenada.


Bus station, Seville


Grenada was the last of the Islamic cities to fall to the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella in the Reconquista—in 1492, a big year for Spain.  The iconic sites of Grenada date from the 200+ year period when Grenada was the capital of the last remaining part of Al-Andalus.  These sites, the palaces of the Alhambra and Generalife, sit on hilltops above the city. 


The Generalife was the summer palace—a delight of symmetry in gardens, pool and fountains.



Patio de la Acequia, Generalife, Granada                     Jardin de la Sultana, Generalife, Granada


The Alhambra consists of a series of structures, including the Renaissance-style Palacio de Carlos V plunked down among the Islamic palaces and battlements.  The pennants that flew from the Torre de la Vela in the Alhambra symbolized the end of the Reconquista.  It is the Palacio Nazaries which is most famous—an unremarkable exterior leads to one of the architectural gems of Europe. 



Palacio Nazaries and Palacio de Carlos V, Granada     Torre de la Vela, Granada



Interior detail, Palacio Nazaríes, Alhambra, Granada    Palacio Nazaríes, Alhambra, Granada              Palacio del Portico, Alhambra, Granada


A rental car and three days in the Sierra Nevada (which include the highest peak on the Iberian Peninsula) allowed us to visit a trio of quaint villages hanging onto the edge of the Barranco de Poqueira valley, Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira (more research) and hike into the mountains.



Bubión                                                             Pampaneira



Hiking in the Sierra Nevada                                          Sierra Nevada


The main port linking Spain with Morocco is the underwhelming city of Algeciras.  From 5 am on, ferries leave almost hourly, most to Tangier.  Although labelled as a “fast ferry”, ours piddled along for a 2.5 hour crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar—saving fuel no doubt given the cost of oil.


Port of Algeciras


The first step off the ferry at Tangier was our first on African soil, and the completion of visits to all seven continents.  Tangier was once noted as among the most disagreeable places to arrive in the world.  The touts have largely gone and the ones left are almost helpful.  A quick petit taxi ride (only slightly over-priced), train tickets purchased, and we had left Tangier behind and were off to the oldest of the Moroccan Imperial cities, Fès, in little more than an hour.


We had allowed ourselves to be convinced that a guide was really necessary to navigate the labyrinth of Fès’ old city, Fès el-Bali.  In reality, we managed to end the relationship fairly quickly and plunge in to the alleys and souqs.  The medina of Fès el-Bali is the world’s largest medieval Islamic city—a warren of narrow alleys and walkways, a trial for the senses, especially smells, appealing and otherwise. And flies.



Souq, Fès el-Bali, Fès                                                  Souq, Fès el-Bali, Fès


Fès has a remarkable history, celebrating the 1200th anniversary of its founding in 2009. In 859 a university was established with the building of the Kairaoine mosque, making it the world’s oldest and Fès the intellectual and cultural centre of the western Islamic Empire. In the 20th century Fès’ students were central in the political challenge to French dominance, one reason the colonial capital was moved to Rabat.  Most of the university’s faculties now reside in a new suburban campus; however, theology is still taught at the Kairaoine mosque.


1200 years of history, Fès                                 The university, Kairaoine mosque, Fès


The most photogenic sights in Fès el-Bali are the tanneries, which still use natural processes.  Hides are successively soaked in vats containing an alkali solution, pigeon droppings and urine, and natural dyes.  The odours are distinctive and memorable.  Even back in Spain, it was possible to know the origins of the merchandise by just walking past a leather shop.



Tannery, Fès el-Bali, Fès                                              Tannery, Fès el-Bali, Fès



Tannery, Fès el-Bali, Fès                                              Tannery, Fès el-Bali, Fès


In the “new” section of Fès (i.e., the part originally built in the 13th century!) contains the Royal Palace and the Jewish Quarter (the mellah).  Useful hint: to clean large areas of brass, use lime juice.



Royal Palace, Fès                                                                     Cleaning the brass doors, Royal Palace, Fès


Meknes, less than an hour by train from Fès is the smallest of the Moroccan Imperial cities.  It’s a generally pleasant place with an interesting medina and historical sites related to its connection to the Sultan Moulay Ismail, a ruthless ruler, who in the 18th century nonetheless created the underpinnings for modern Morocco.  The monuments of Meknes owe their origins to his works.



Olives and fruit display, Meknes                                  Dates, Meknes



Bab el-Mansour, Meknes                                              Heri es-Souani stables, Meknes                        Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Meknes


The easiest way to travel between nearby towns in Morocco is by grand taxi.  All you have to do is find the right corner somewhere in town for the connection to your specific destination, pay a modest fare and crowd in.  All the grand taxis we saw in Morocco were older Mercedes and they only left once they had four passengers in the back seat and two in beside the driver in the front.  A few kms were fine—long distances, inadvisable.  The town of Moulay Idriss lies about 30 km north of Meknes and besides being a good subject for an ongoing research project, it is an important pilgrimage site for Moroccans with its mausoleum of the revered Moulay Idriss, great-grandson of the prophet Mohammed.   



Grand taxi stand, Meknes                                             Entry to the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss                     Market in Moulay Idriss


Less than 5 km from the town of Moulay Idriss lie the Roman ruins of Volubilis.  The most amazing feature is the presence of remarkably preserved mosaics.  Volubilis was among the most far-flung outposts of the Roman Empire.  Even after the fall of the Romans, the site remained occupied.  Moulay Idriss lived here in the 8th century before establishing his capital in Fès.  Indeed, until the town was levelled by the one of the most powerful earth tremors in history, the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1722, Volubilis remained inhabited.  What is left are the stones, some re-erected and the marvellous mosaic floors—any one of many of which would be a centrepiece of a museum collection.  The mosaics are uncovered and accessible, and vibrant.


The site of Volubilis                                                     Volubilis                                                                      Volubilis mosaic floor



Mosaic of the abduction of Hylas by the Nymphs, Volubilis     Mosaic detail: a somewhat insipid Hercules, Volubilis



Mosaic in the House of the Acrobat, Volubilis                          Mosaic detail, Volubilis


Another train.  Casablanca was the least charming of the Moroccan cities we visited: too much the business centre.  The initial attraction was subliminally related to Humphrey Bogart’s movie and someone has taken advantage: Rick’s Café was celebrating its fourth anniversary.


Rick’s Cafe, Casablanca


The highlight of the city is the new Hassan II mosque, the world’s third largest (reportedly 25,000 worshipers can fit inside).  The minaret is 210 m tall.  We caught it just at dusk.  Opened in 1993, construction of the site is still ongoing.



Hassan II mosque, Casablanca                         Hassan II mosque, Casablanca                                     Hassan II mosque, Casablanca


Train to Marrakech, a short overnight, and we headed over the High Atlas mountains, with some early snows, towards the Sahara.  The valley of the Drâa river runs south from the High Atlas into the desert creating a 200 km long oasis of date palm plantations and fields.  Although now fully tapped out long before it reaches the sea, the river once ran southwards and west to the Atlantic Ocean—the Sahara’s second great river after the Nile.



High Atlas, Morocco                                                     Oasis of the Drâa Valley                                               Soft dates, Drâa Valley


Camel caravans once crossed the Sahara from Timbuktu (in present-day Mali) connecting trade between West Africa and Morocco and even on to Europe.   Donkey and mule trains were needed to carry goods on the trails across the High Atlas so the town of Tamnougalt (near the modern French-built centre of Ouarzazate) once served as the commercial hub for the regional trade where deals were made, goods exchanged, and caravans rested.  Watch towers were constructed along the trade routes to allow warning of the incoming caravans.  The dominant architectural style is that of the kasbah: fortified houses built of mud with towers on the four corners.



52 days to Timbuktu sign, Zagora                                            Watch tower in Drâa Valley near Tamnougalt



Kasbah, Tamnougalt                                                    Kasbah detail, Tamnougalt                                           Improved reception for the Tour de France? Tamnougalt


The region around Ouarzazate in the Drâa Valley has become a major film production area with many film production companies taking advantage of the desert scenery, historical settings and modern production facilities.  In Tamnougalt, his hometown, we ran into Boubker Ait El Caid, the young co-star of the 2006 film Babel starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.


Boubker Ait El Caid and Nancy


South of Ouarzazate and away from the Drâa Valley lies the Sahara with little other than stony flats, dusty towns and occasional sand dunes.



Sahara road scene                                                       Tagounite


With our travelling companions, Annie from Quebec and David and Amanda from New York City, we’d arranged to have the “Sahara experience”: a trek by camel to a bivouac in the desert north of M’Hamid and off-roading some 60 km to the largest dune complex in Morocco, the Erg Chigaga.  Things started well, but night came quickly after about an hour and we could see lightning ahead.  First the sand, then the rain. 


We’d each bought a long cloth for a Taureg turban and when the sandstorm hit there was nothing to do but wrap the whole thing around your face and hope the camels knew where they were going.  Visibility was impossible.  Sand penetrated everywhere—for three days we were scraping sand out of our ears and I found half a cup of sand in one pocket a week later.  My camera was under my jacket but after a couple shots the next morning it ground to a halt, the victim of the sand which had infiltrated through every pore—hence the attribution of the pictures of the next couple of days.


Then the rain hit with lightning strokes every 2-3 seconds—some close enough to see the impact point.  It raged.  The storm produced more rain than had been seen in the region in 20 years.  I’m not sure I can take full credit as the rainmaker, but I have seen it rain in Death Valley three times.


The only advantage of all of this is that enabled me to forget my rapidly developing camel sores.  The camels milled around during the worst of it, but we did eventually find the bivouac.  A couple of tents had torn and collapsed, but we did get out of the storm.  Needless to say, there was no sleeping under the stars.



Camel trek, Annie and Nancy                           Sahara bivouac in the morning                                    Bivouac tents


The next day we did head out by 4WD into an unusual Sahara: one with kilometre-long lakes and treacherous mires and another wet bivouac as the rain came again that night near the Erg Chigaga dunes.  Blocked by water, we had to retreat the next day.  The main road back to Ouarzazate was cut by a torrent and the police had halted traffic.  Our driver did find an area shallow enough to ford the river in the 4WD with a stream of others following.



Off the road in Sahara (pic: Annie)                               Another 4WD mired in the Sahara (pic: Annie)              Erg Chigaga dunes (pic: Annie)


An overnight in Ouarzazate and we retraced out way back for three days in Marrakech.  For the first time the complexity of the Moroccan medinas thwarted us.  We’d arranged through an agency to stay in a traditional guesthouse (riad).  It took a frustrating three hours to find it.  Once there the Riad Medea was a delight.


Riad Medea, Marrakech


Within the 16 km of walls the medina of Marrakech contains many memorable sights.  The Palais el-Badi is now ruined, but still conveys a sense of its massive scale and former opulence.  Built in the 12th century the 70 m tall Kotoubia is the archetype of the Moroccan minaret.  



Palais el-Badi, Marrakech                                             Koutoubia, Marrakech


Marrakesh also has an interesting Cyber Parc with kiosks scattered around its 8 ha which allow Internet access.


Cyber Parc, Marrakech


The souks are the typical labyrinth.  Wild-captured animals and animal skins, many of which would violate CITES trade rules, are for sale in the animal souq.



Souq, Marrakech



Spotted cat and other skins in souq, Marrakech           Baby tortoises in souq, Marrakech                               Chameleon in souq, Marrakech


Without doubt the locus of Marrakech is the Djemaa el-Fna, the large open square in the medina.  By day it has a smattering of henna painters, fortune tellers, herbalists, water-sellers in traditional costume.  Come dusk and the Djemaa el-Fna truly seethes.  Food stalls open selling tajines, snail and sheep’s head soups, and fresh juices.  Story tellers gather crowds.  Bands of drums pound rhythms.  Snake charmers alternately charm their cobras and passers-by.  Others set up games of skill and chance.  In 2001, recognizing its role in preserving the oral history of Morocco, the square was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.



Djemaa el-Fna by day, Marrakech                                 Water seller, Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech                        Food stalls at dusk in Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech



Snake charmers in Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech              Snail soup stalls in Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech             Sheep’s head soup stall in Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech



Tajine in Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech                  Food stalls in Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech


The overnight train to Tangier; this time a fast ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar—to Tarifa; and a bus to Algeciras put us just a half-hour bus ride from Gibraltar. 


Gare de Marrakech


Gibraltar is an odd anachronism.  A little British appendage in southern Spain that over the years has vexed the Spanish—but probably no more justifiably so than the two little Spanish enclaves (Ceuta and Melitta) on the south shore of the Mediterranean in Morocco.  The border is now open so today one can walk from the bus station in La Línea de la Conceptión to the border with Gibraltar in five minutes.  It is then another 1.5 km to town, across the airport runway (the only road closes whenever a plane lands).  A Sunday visit isn’t advisable since everything is shut down tight; but Gibraltar is an amusing place, even if the clouds are hanging so low that there was no reason to scale the rock and see the feral “apes”.  A little bit of Britain with Spanish-speaking bobbies.



Airplane landing on runway, Gibraltar                          Flags, Gibraltar                                                            Trafalgar gravestone, Gibraltar



Royal Male, Gibraltar                                                    Dr. Who’s new persona, Gibraltar


Last stop: Cordoba, after an endless bus ride from Ageciras via Malaga.  Cordoba is the third of the great cities of Al-Andalus.  The historical centrepiece is the mosque, the Mezquita, the core of which was gutted in the 16th century for a cathedral.  A bare majority of the 1300 or so original arches remain, and when needed they have been embellished for the cathedral’s chapels.  The minaret was turned into a bell tower.  What remains is an odd mix of Islamic and 16th century European religious architecture.



Bell tower, Mezquita, Cordoba                         Doorway, Mezquita, Cordoba



Mezquita, Cordoba                                                       Chapel in Mezquita, Cordoba                           Main altar, Mezquita, Cordoba


Cordoba was also the centre of the Spanish Inquisition’s operations from the 15th to the 19th century.  The pretty gardens of the Alcázar de Los Reyes Cristianos, belie the fact that it was from here that the persecution of Muslims, Jews and those others deemed heretics operated.



Alcázar de Los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba       Alcázar de Los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba       Gardens, Alcázar de Los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba


The religious openness of Muslim Spain has often been overstated, but certainly, to varying degrees, religious minorities were often tolerated under Muslim rule.  The great Jewish scholar, Maimonides, lived in Cordoba and the remnants of an original synagogue were discovered beneath layers of plaster.  As with the Muslim heritage of Cordoba, the Jewish history and that of the ghetto, the Juderia, has been recast as part of the touristic package.



Maimonides, statue, Cordoba                           Synagogue, Cordoba



Door, Juderia, Cordoba                                                Juderia, Cordoba


Another fast train.  Overnight in Madrid and home—gratefully.


EMAIL ME: bardecki@ryerson.ca