Friday, April 28, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF MOROCCO

The Air France 737 banked onto final approach into Casablanca, and I was surprised how green Morocco was.

Twenty-two degrees hotter than Vancouver two days ago, and in an airport with no AC, I was soon dripping. About 45 minutes after I retrieved my bags, my driver showed up and drove me into the heart of this big city amid gridlock and no AC. I was not nice to know on arrival and immediately met two fellow tour members. I scurried off to shower thinking about Morocco.

I vividly recalled the red earth of Africa and here it was again welcoming me back. A rich, deep orange that colours Morocco in buildings, art, pottery, and interior design.




Many fields surround Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco of 20 million. The north is agricultural and the crops here feed the country. Beans, mint, the sweetest tomatoes I've ever tasted, barley, onions, and more. winter is the rainy season.

The smell of the heat, sweat, and animals could not be missed either, and in certain areas dust and dirt covered everything. Some small towns looked as if they'd been sprayed with garbage, while others were spotless.



An untidy Stork's nest, Rabat

I'd forgotten that storks breed in North Africa. Their untidy nests were all over the place on poles, towers and minarets, and because it was breeding season, the birds were busy clacking their beaks to attract a mate.


Traffic followed no rules. Three lanes were always four, vehicles drove straddling the lane markers and, on narrow roads, they occupied the middle, playing chicken with oncoming traffic. Roundabouts abound in Morocco and, as far as I could see, no-one and everyone had right of way. Drivers were out to beat others and win! Cities were slow-going in a vehicle. Pedestrians crossed roads with extreme caution. It was chaotic and terrifying for an orderly Canadian.

Hundreds of donkeys, mules, and small horses pulled carts laden with produce headed for the markets and souks. Mint, fava beans, nuts, even plastic chairs. Some animals were obviously well cared for but others were not. Donkeys without carts carried heavy panniers and sometimes a farmer rode sideways.

Outside the cities, every flock of sheep or goats, however small or large, had a shepherd. Mainly teen boys, but the odd female too. My Explore guides told us that they had all done this — "It builds responsibility and self-reliance," I was assured.

Date palms in Tinghir
Further south the land rose into high mountains with oasis valleys. These are spectacular; the roads are not!! Narrow switchbacks with no guard rails. Green fields morphed into scrubby plains between mountain ranges, and later into a sandy yellow desert with grey gravel and little vegetation. As we slid down the south side of the High Atlas, the main crop changed to dates in the many palmeries around the rivers that rushed along the valleys.

Abandoned fort near Merzouga

The days grew hotter and drier until we reached the edge of the Sahara. The buildings changed too — now built of red sandstone adobe and very ancient. This was the Morocco I'd been expecting and I loved it. Our guide explained, "The buildings come from the desert and, once abandoned, crumble back into it, leaving no trace."

Here hotels were built like red forts and rooms were arranged around lush courtyards full of birdsong and flowers. Windows were tiny and often the AC didn't work. Hospitality became more obvious and more friendly — we were met with mint tea in the reception areas and had willing help with baggage to our rooms.

Tajines in the Meknes market

Food was cheap and, if you stuck to tajines, quintessentially Moroccan. Tajines are the conical pottery in which lamb, beef or chicken stews are cooked. Delicious fare. Pizzas are prevalent in all cafes and are often dismal. Burgers likewise, but they were not for me. Almost everyone on our tour suffered from tummy trouble and our leader handed out Imodium like candy! Tap water is not for drinking, so soon we all learned to buy about three litres of bottled water every day — under $2.

My penultimate impression about travel in Morocco is that it is a cash country. The currency is Dirhams, 7.45dh to CAD$1.00. I was glad I carried more than one bank's debit card as my RBC card didn't work that well here. Tipping is a way of life too. So is haggling over price, except in pharmacies and supermarkets.

And then there are the camels. Actually dromedaries to those who don't know the difference. Hundreds of them around the towns on the edge of the Sahara

Dusk falls on a caravan in the Sahara

ALL IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2017
All rights reserved

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

MOROCCO IN TWO WEEKS

The red dunes of the Sahara

Today is four days after the whirlwind tour of Morocco that lasted two weeks. It was non-stop places, info, and a new hotel almost every night. Internet was unreliable, rarely available in my room, and sometimes non-existent, so blogging was impossible.

I was wise enough to book four days in a Marrakech hotel at the end so I could breathe freely again and process all that I'd seen and done. I was overloaded with info, had 2000 images in the can, and was fatigued. Thanks to many SPG points, I chose Le Meridien N'Fis to recover. It has been a perfect resort and oasis for my downtime.

Tomorrow I catch the train back to Fes for five nights where I hope to see what I missed in the earlier one-day stop on the tour, and will take in a full day cooking class at the house next door. I may or may not hire a private guide for a morning.

Morocco is the type of country where a solo traveller is better off with a small-group tour. It really is the best way to see everything because, not only do you have a trained tour leader/guide, but also local guides everywhere you stop. I enjoyed my fellow travellers — most were from Britain, one from Australia, three from the US, and me from Canada. All were middle-aged or older, three couples and the rest of us were singles. All were well-educated and very well travelled. Made for great conversations throughout. Many had toured with www.explore.co.uk before — one twenty times and another, fifteen. This speaks volumes for Explore's tours and organization.

We stayed mostly in standard hotels, not luxury properties. This meant being tolerant of deficiencies and no kleenex, facecloths, soap or shampoo. Beds were often like concrete, but no one complained. We had been warned. Our 15-seat bus, was the exception. It was a new Mercedes Sprinter with huge clean windows and AC. We needed the latter when temps rose to 36C inland and in the Sahara. Our driver was cautious and safe in the chaos that are Moroccan roads.

The tour pace was fast so we could see everything Morocco has to offer and to include all kinds of activities and walking tours. We visited all the Imperial Cities, medinas, souks, three mountain ranges (stunning), the Atlantic coast, and the Sahara where we rode camels, met Berber nomads, and listened to a concert.

I shall post more on the individual places later when I have time to better collect my thoughts and sort out the photos.

In the meantime, here are a few images to get you interested:

The third largest mosque in the world at Casablanca — Hassan II. It holds 25,000 of the faithful inside, and 80,000 outside. It is the only mosque in Morocco that is open to non-Muslims and juts out into the Atlantic. Inside, it is even more spectacular than outside.

In the souks, donkey carts and some tuk-tuks are the only way to move goods in and out. This one carries fava beans into Meknes.

Tajines are always for sale in the weekly markets held in most towns and villages throughout Morocco

 The very well-preserved Roman ruins of Volubilis have astonishing mosaics. This is the basilica with the forum in front.

 The huge medina of Fez where there are over 9,400 alleys. Visitors must have a guide here or become hopelessly lost even with a map!

 A butchers in a Fez souk.

 Ilyas, our intrepid tour leader, on the right with Ali, our marvellous local guide in Rassini, near the desert.

 Looking inside a small mosque from a beautiful courtyard.

 Our camels await in Merzouga

Ait Ben Haddou an ancient Berber hill fort where Gladiator was filmed.

At the top of the pass in the High Atlas Mountains, an ancient caravan route for Timbuktu to Marrakech with a long oasis in the valley. About 8,000 feet.

Essasouira on the Atlantic coast. Fishing port and most attractive.

Our hotel in Marrakech was stunning


ALL IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2017. All rights reserved.



Sunday, April 2, 2017

MY FIRST OVERSEAS TRIP IN OVER TWO YEARS....

In four more sleeps, I take off on my adventures again after a two-and-a-half year hiatus. This past stretch has been difficult for someone who has itchy feet like mine. First my husband was in poor health and was unable to travel, then he passed away, and I devoted most of 2016 sorting out his estate.

Last September I started planning my travel again with much joy and excitement, and one shock.(See http://stampsinmypassport.blogspot.ca/2016/10/solo-travel-is-now-for-me.html)

This is not my first solo travel by any means, but it does feel different with no one to talk to about my upcoming explorations and no one to come home to. One thing I am interested in experiencing is more of my fellow travelers and meeting more locals — couples tend to be left alone and singles are more approachable.

Today, my camera gear sits ready in a corner of my office. The mail is on hold, the newspapers cancelled, and my phone is unlocked. My hot weather clothes are laid out on the spare bed.

Fez, Morocco
I'm flying to Paris and thence to Morocco for a month. I have chosen to start with a small-group tour of the whole country with Explore, a British company. A good friend whose judgement I trust recommended Explore to me and I have been delighted with their customer service so far. The low British pound and reasonable solo supplement are a bonus.

The tour takes a busy two weeks but once it's over, I'll not be done with Morocco. I have built in a rest in a resort in Marrakech for four days, during which I shall also see what I missed with the tour.

Fes is next for a week, but here I will be staying in a traditional riad — a large house surrounding an inner courtyard with a fountain that has been converted into a small hotel in the medina or old quarter of the city. I will have spent 36 hours here already but have plans for a day in a cooking school and a private guide for another day to show me what I've missed.

Prado (Wikimedia CC)
I will be spending my final week in Madrid. I've visited a lot of Spain
already but I want to focus on the famous art here, especially in the Prado. I thought it was silly to fly back to Paris overtop of Madrid without taking the opportunity to stopover.

I may not have internet everywhere I'm going but I plan to post when I can, both impressions and images. Stand by!!

Friday, November 18, 2016

THE INDIAN CANYONS, PALM SPRINGS, CA


Andreas Canyon Pride Rock
I always try to visit the Indian Canyons south of Palm Springs when I stay here. They are some of the most beautiful canyons and oases to visit and today was my fifth time. I never tire of hiking and photographing them.

We packed a picnic and set off about 10am on a cloudless day with temps expected to reach about 77F. The Andreas Canyon has a gurgling stream running through it, one of the few, and the mile loop is one hike everyone should do.We set off heading west on the north side with

fantastic rock formations on our right hand and the tightly packed palms along the stream on our left. 

The narrow trail climbs with rock steps and winds around the outcrops. I heard the stream all the way up as I stopped round every corner to take photos. I remembered to always turn back to see the views behind me as we would not return this way. It's cool here as the trees provide shade in most places.


I felt I would never reach the turn-around point but, of course I did. Pausing for a rest and looking high above us, I could see houses built into the barren rock of the mountain side.


Cahuilla Indians have lived here for thousands of years, artefacts have been dated to 3,000 years ago but the oral tradition indicates they have been around a lot longer. Andreas Canyon must have been a paradise for them in this barren, inhospitable desert.

Tops of the palms with the mountains
behind that I'd just walked beneath

The hike back to the trailhead is totally different on the south bank of the stream. It's high above the canyon floor and there are distant vistas of the mountains that I walked below on the way up. Here we were in full sun all the way down to the car.

Animals that also frequent the canyon include coyotes, deer, bobcats, to name a few. I saw none, but the scat of coyotes. Lots of birds too.

Out came the picnic and we rested under the shade of palm trees listening to the song of the stream flowing past us as we ate with good appetites. I always love a picnic. 


I wanted to go to the gift shop to find some American Indian flute music that I love. The shop is at Palm Canyon that lies at the head of the valley, a place I'd also visited many times. It's very different from Andreas Canyon — wider and much longer. One feature of the road in is Split Rock. One car can just squeeze through at a time.

I recommend a day out in the canyons to anyone who can walk on rough terrain. Hiking boots make it easier and safer. Take water with you and a camera. Rangers give interpretive talks and lead hikes.

There is a small concession stand at the parking lot at Palm Canyon but nothing at Andreas. Neither are accessible for people with mobility issues. But the drive is also enjoyable.

IF YOU GO:

  • www.Indian-Canyons.com
  • Cost: Adults USD $9.00; seniors and students $7.00; kids (aged 6-12) $5.00; military free.
  • Hours: 8am to 5pm (last car in at 4pm)

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2016. All rights reserved.



SPINNING MY WAY TO THE TOP OF MT. SAN JACINTO

The Palm Springs Tram
I finally rode the famous spinning Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of Mount San Jacinto after twenty years of visiting the Coachella Valley in Southern California.

The closest parking lot had space, thank heavens! The walk up to the Valley Station is very steep and then three flights of stairs. We were just in time to photograph the tram coming in. It carries a max of 80 passengers for the two and half mile ride through Chino Canyon to the top.

Everyone sees everything because the floor slowly rotates about three times on the journey. And, what a journey it is! To me it was the highlight of the visit. We swooped over the four towers as we passed changing rock cliffs and views down the canyon. As we rose, the flat Coachella Valley came into view — the wind farms and Palm Springs in the west to the Salton Sea in the east. Cameras clicked, people oohed and aahed.

The four storey Mountain Station perched on rocky outcrops has an elevator, a cafeteria and a restaurant, two movie theatres, a natural history museum, a gift shop, and a park ranger to assist. Out back are the trail heads through the evergreens and there are many to choose from, the shortest being a mile loop.
Atop at the Mountain Station

We went up to the top storey and out to the observation deck that leads up to Grubb's View. The sky was deep blue and criss-crossed with con trails below thin high cirrus clouds. Visit when the sky is clear, not when clouds cover the peak! The views in various directions at 8,500 feet were, for me, another reason I came. I was not disappointed.

Usually the temperature at this altitude is about 20F to 30F below the valley heat, but today it was surprisingly warm. I took many images but missed the shot of the tram coming into dock.

I came for lunch too and chose to eat in the more expensive restaurant — Peaks. Every diner has a view here as the tables are arranged on terraces. The food was not worth it — my avocado BLT on crispy French bread was poor. Wilted lettuce, a scrape of avocado, stale bread, unripe tomatoes, and overcooked hard bacon.

The ride down was crowded but, if anything, more exciting than zooming up. There is more sensation of speed as the rock walls flash by and the valley rises to meet you. Cameras overheated again!

If you go:

  • Wear stout walking shoes or hiking boots.
  • Take a sweater or jacket
  • Book online at https://www.pstramway.com/ 
  • Cost in USD: Adults $25.95; seniors $23.95; Kids (3-12) $16.95
  • Arrive 30 mins before departure from Valley Station, some parking lots are a long way away.
  • Accessibility for visitors with mobility challenges — it would be wise to call ahead and find out more about assistance from the parking lots. The Valley and Mountain Stations are accessible, but not the short climb to Grubb's view or the hikes.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2016. All rights reserved.