Wednesday, February 14, 2007

in which we visit famous film settings in Morocco and then cross to Spain

from John:

Bonsoir, or should I say Buenas Tardes, as I write from Granada, freshly bathed and laundered, fed and watered. We arrived here on Monday afternoon after a "fast boat" across the Straits of Gibraltar and a comfortable bus ride from Alge├žiras. Not wishing to break from all things Moroccan, we thought we´d check out their legacy here in Spain. However, we draw a line at Tagine.

From Marrakesh we had headed west to Essaouira on the coast - a small fishing port with old Portuguese fort walls and now a quiet touristy little town. Orson Welle´s Othello opens with a scene shot on the ramparts here, and a small square has been named in his honour. We were pursued into the old town from the bus station by two touts - one an older woman who had a room in her nice house, and the other a young fella in a bright red hoodie who had a room in his nice house. We blanked them completely, but they took it in turns to accompany us on the long walk until they finally turned on each other. We left them having a screaming match in the souk. Having so bravely fought them off, we then got hooked by a smooth talking boogaloo who took us to his cheap hotel, which turned out to be a room in someone else´s nice house. There is an art to touting, and you´ve either got it or you haven´t.
After a restful few days walking the windy beach and windy plazas and windy streets we went north to El-Jadida, another old Portuguese port which now serves as a snazzy resort to Casablancans. When I say snazzy, I mean by Moroccan standards. The old walled town still has great ramparts and a wonderful vaulted cistern for water storage, which also features in Welles´ Othello. The rest of it looked like a slum, full of children playing. In the evening we promenaded with everyone else, ate and shopped in the large souk. In the meat section we came across two cow´s heads perched at the foot of a counter, their tongues lolling out of the corner of their mouths. Above them hung their feet. We watched someone buy a chicken: she picked it out as it scratched around the floor of the shop. The man weighed it, took it to the back to kill it and dip it in scalding water to remove the feathers. Although we´ve had the odd ropey chicken (in one restaurant we could´ve tied them together and dropped them out of the window to make our escape), most of the time they´ve been remarkably good - now we know how fresh they are.
Casablanca was described to us by an enthusiastic Moroccan as something akin to New York. There is lots of traffic, true, and neither of us have visited New York, so he gets the benefit of our often applied doubt. We didn´t stay. It is famous for having one tourist attraction - the enormous and splendid Hassan II Mosque. It is the 3rd largest in the world, built by 25,000 craftsmen working 24 hours non-stop in 6 years, with a capacity of 40,000. Or was it the 6th largest built by 24 craftsmen working 3 hours in 40,000 years with ........? To be honest I didn´t really listen to the tour guide, since I spent most of the time wandering around face upwards admiring the tilework, stucco, marble and woodcarving. It is quite remarkable from the outside alone - sat on a slum clearance site at the sea´s edge, away from the sludge of the city. Moroccans had to contribute to the construction of this stunning building/ despot´s folly (depending on your point of view), and I am quite sure our guide didn´t actually say how much it cost to build. Having seen some of the poorer south, it did appear rather extravagant - reminded me of the great gold-encrusted cathedrals of South America.
The same day we moved on to Rabat - calmer and cleaner. The coastal plains here are covered in green fields - kinder on the eye and a relief after the dry south. The fields roll down to the beach and many are still farmed by hand, ploughed by cows or mules. It made us think of what Highland crofts might have looked like (on a sunny day). It´s our second time in the capital and we explored some of the familiar streets. Although it´s been two years, the same people are serving in the same restaurants or stalls, as in Marrakesh. We feel like time-travellers. We swap our guide book for two penguin classics. Who needs a guidebook second time around?
Onwards to Meknes, the country´s third Imperial City - built by a sultan who had to murder 83 half-brothers to safeguard his right to rule. He ransacked Marrakesh and Fes and the nearby Roman remains of Volubilis to build his new capital in the 17th century. Nice man, by all accounts. We popped in and said hello at his mausoleum. We also visited a huge granary - an arched warehouse basically, most of it now ruined - built to store the grain to feed his 12,000 horses. This apparently was used in The Last Temptation of Christ. And then onto Volubilis, out in the lovely green hills. Not much left of it, and UNESCO have labelled it a World Heritage Site, which doesn´t stop the ticket seller trying to short-change the excitable and inattentive tourist. It´s main feature is the large number of mosaic floors that have survived and remain in-situ. They filmed some of Carry On Cleopatra here. It was a lovely day out, by all accounts.
We had taken an en-suite room in a hotel that could not deliver hot water - it took us 36 hours to be told that hot water was only available after 9.30pm. We knew it had to exist because the foyer, lift shaft, corridors and rooms were constantly filled with the smell of woodsmoke. On occasion it billowed past our bedroom window. Sure enough at 9.30 prompt, the water was boiling.
From Meknes we took the comfortable train to sad Tanger and revisited a funky hotel near to the docks. We had the same room and I had the same sensation that I´d felt last time when we went to buy our ferry tickets - a combination of relief and faint regret. For despite all the wonderful sights, the film sets, the street scenes and kind people, there is the knowledge that all the other travelling hassles will not exist in Spain.........................

P.S. okay, I was kidding about Carry On Cleo