Category Archives: Africa

Travels in Spain, Alcoy and the Festival of the Moors and the Christians

I do like Spanish carnivals and I have always been keen to see a Festival of Moors and Christians which take place regularly throughout the year mostly in the province of Valencia in the Levante region of Spain.

Earlier this year I was trawling the airline web sites and reconciling these to suitable events and came across the perfect combination; cheap flights to Alicante and one of the most famous of all these festivals in the nearby town of Alcoy near to Benidorm and with dates that matched perfectly,  I didn’t take a lot of persuading to book the flights.

Finding a hotel was a lot more difficult, Alcoy gets rather busy during the three day festival and the nearest that I could find at a price that suits my skinflint budget was twenty miles away in the village of Confrides near to Guadalest.

The Festival of Moors and Christians celebrates the seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 which has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised and interpreted their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become an established feature of the self-image of the Spanish people.  It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade but it is a confusing story because Spain has largely embraced its Muslim occupation as a proud part of its history.

In popular culture the reconquest has been raised to the status of a crusade and the expulsion of the Moors as liberation from an occupying army but this is not strictly the case and it would be wrong to interpret it in this way.  At this time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe.  Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished.  Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe.

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and in eastern Iberia the Moors created the landscape of the region. After irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.

As it is essentially a celebration the people of the town and the surrounding villages split themselves equally into Moors and Christians and then organise grand parades and mock battles to tell the story of the ‘Reconquista’.

After meeting Mick and Lindsay (my sister and her husband) we began by driving from the airport directly to our hotel and when I say directly I use this term in the loosest possible sense because the mountain drive from Alicante to Confrides is anything but direct with roads that sweep and climb and rise and fall around the contours of the pepper grey mountains decorated with sprawling orchards and fruit trees.

Just a few miles out of Alicante and we noticed something pretty dramatic – suddenly, almost within the turn of a corner, the landscape changed from brown and arid to green and mountainous; the high-rise concrete hotels gave way to pretty villages and we found myself in lush valleys of oranges, almonds and lemon groves.

We were delighted with the hotel, a simple place on a bend in the road that provided excellent views along the fertile valley.  There is nothing boutique about Pensión El Pirineo just a down-to-earth place with unpretentious rooms and a promising menu so we booked a table for later and made our way to Alcoy.

The town was busy and parking was difficult but eventually we squeezed into a spot along a dusty track and made our way on foot to the Plaza Major which was anticipating the procession of the Moors.  The Christians had arrived earlier this morning so we had missed that already.  The procession was timed for five o’clock and as the event got closer the square was filled to bursting with people taking up their positions ready for the parade.

It was mad, chaotic and disorganised.  In my last job once a year I helped organise a street parade in Spalding in Lincolnshire but by the time it stopped forever the police and the health and safety fanatics had squeezed the life out of it but this was not a problem in Alcoy I can tell you as people pushed and shoved and wandered around unrestricted on the parade route.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it was wonderful. The Moors arrived on horseback and in marching columns some in historically accurate uniforms but others with a very loose interpretation of Moorish costumes. – rather more carnival theatre than history.

The Festival lasts for three days and is all rather intense so we were happy with our one afternoon, this year we saw the parade, maybe next year we will return for the final day siege.  As it happened we had to battle our way out of the town as people filled the streets and the bars and the festivities continued on every street corner and we felt happy to have shared a happy slice of Spanish life and culture.

We shared another slice of Spanish life later that evening back at Pensión El Pirineo where local people came and went through the bar and the restaurant and we savoured an evening of local cuisine and Murcian wine – it was delightful!

Camels and Lost Manuscripts

Essaouira Camels

“I distrust camels, and anyone else who can go a week without a drink” – American comedian (if there is such a thing) Joe E. Lewis

The beach at Essaouira in Western Morocco stretches for a couple of miles or so and about half way along there are camels, lots of camels.  Once they used to carry trade goods from the Sahara to the port but now their job is to provide rides for visitors and tourists.

I have always thought that some things should only be done once in life and for me a camel ride is quite high on this list.

I took a camel ride in Lanzarote in 1984

Camel Train Timanfaya Lanzarote

Having very quickly forgotten my lesson in the boat yard about being easily hustled I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself negotiating with a camel owner for a one hour ride along the beach and before I could say Lawrence of Arabia I was sitting on a shaggy carpet on the back of a dromedary and being hoisted into the air!  It is a long way up on a camel so once on board there is no realistic opportunity of changing your mind that won’t involve a sprained ankle or a broken leg!

To be fair I was happy with the price – 150 dirham (£12) for one hour and one mile which compares very favourably with £2.50 for a five minute and two hundred yard donkey ride at home on Cleethorpes Beach, near where I live.

Cleethorpes Donkeys

And so we set off at a leisurely pace along the beach with the camel man persistently trying to persuade me to spend more and extend the ride to two hours.  I refused, I was certain that an hour was long enough and I held out.  I was proud of myself for that.

Essaouira Camel Ride

In my pocket I had brought with me some pages from a note book so that I could make a record of the day and at one point I thought of something so brilliant, so Bill Bryson, so Hemingway, so Laurie Lee, that I felt I needed to write it down immediately in case I forgot this potential literary gem and I reached inside my pocket for pen and paper.

Unfortunately it was quite windy and as I clung on firmly to the wooden saddle with one hand I was surprised by a strong gust that separated me from the paper and it went back-flipping across the sand like an Olympic gymnast and it was lost.  Now I would have to rely on memory.

As it happens, this was rather like Lawrence of Arabia himself.  Lawrence kept extensive notes throughout the course of his involvement in the First-World-War and he began work in 1919 on the manuscript of his book ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.  By December it was almost complete but he lost it when he misplaced his briefcase while changing trains at Reading railway station sometime in the following year.  It was never recovered and he had to start all over again.

At least Lawrence still had his notes but he did have to rewrite four years of memoirs, I only needed to recall four days!

T E Lawrence

Another famous loss is the story of Thomas Carlyle and his book ‘The French Revolution: A History’.  In 1835 he finished volume 1 and gave it to his friend John Stuart Mill to read for his comments.

book-burning

Unfortunately it was the only copy of the work and Mill’s servant allegedly mistook the book for household rubbish and used it as a convenient source of material to get the kitchen fire going one morning!

Unlike Lawrence, Carlyle apparently kept no notes at all and had to completely rewrite the first volume entirely from memory.

Little wonder he looked so glum…

Picture_of_Thomas_Carlyle

Anyway, the camel ride continued until it reached a block of stone in the sand – a ruined red brick fortress, battered by the years into submission and collapse by the unrelenting waves.  At some point in the late 1960s Jimi Hendix visited Essaouira and stayed a while in a nearby hippy village and they like to tell you around here that it was during this sojourn that he was inspired by the ruin to write his song ‘Castles in The Sea’ but sadly the dates don’t quite correspond and it turns out that he actually wrote the song two years before ever setting foot in Morocco.

And so the camel ride had reached its turning point and then returned me as promised to the start where I was mugged for a second time today when the owner told me that we had been out for an hour and a quarter and that I owed him 200 dirham.  Another lesson learned!

Castles in the Sand Jimi Hendrix

Morocco, Essaouira – More Blue Doors

Doors of Essaouira

The custom of painting doors blue extends across Europe and beyond and is common across the entire world.

Even today in provinces of Spain buildings are decorated with blue bands and designs, houses in Egypt, in the Arab villages of Israel, and entire villages in Morocco, have blue walls.  The same colour decorates the houses of Mexican Indians and in the United States the Amish in Pennsylvania paint their doors blue because, just as in Greece, many folk magic traditions and customs maintain that a witch cannot cross a blue threshold and according to such belief, a blue door is an effective barrier against evil, much like laying a broom across the thresh hold, putting salt on the windowsills or a hanging a horseshoe above the door.

Read the Full Story…

More Doors…

Doors and Windows of 2015

Sardinia – Doors and Windows

Brittany – Doors and Windows

Blue Doors of Essaouira

Doors of Catalonia 1

Doors of Catalonia 2

Doors of Catalonia 3

Doors of Catalonia 4

Doors of Dublin

Doors of Northern France

Doors of Portugal

Doors of Siguenza, Spain

Blue Doors of Europe and North Africa

Wooden Door of Catalonia Besalu

Catalonia, Spain

Door Detail Dinard Brittany France

Brittany, France

Dublin Doors 2

Dublin, Ireland

Milos Greece

Milos Island, Greece

Doors of Ronda 1

Ronda, Spain

Burgau Algarve Portugal

Algarve, Portugal

Essaouira Derelict Doors

Essaouira, Morocco

Amsterdam by Delph

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Black Forest, Germany

More Doors…

Doors and Windows of 2015

Sardinia – Doors and Windows

Brittany – Doors and Windows

Blue Doors of Essaouira

Doors of Catalonia 1

Doors of Catalonia 2

Doors of Catalonia 3

Doors of Catalonia 4

Doors of Dublin

Doors of Northern France

Doors of Portugal

Doors of Siguenza, Spain

Morocco, Top Travel Tips – The Majorelle Gardens

“A visit to Marrakech was a great shock to me. This city taught me colour”  – Yves Saint Laurent

The gardens were just around the corner now and it was hot in the sunshine as we stood in line for our tickets and then went inside through the gates.

The garden was designed and laid out in the 1920s by the French painter Jacques Majorelle who created marble pools, raised pathways, banana trees, groves of tall bamboo, coconut palms and bougainvillea but first of all we followed a path through species of cacti carefully collected from all over the world.

The path led to a lily pond that reminded me of Monet’s garden at Giverny in France and which stood in front of a house, a museum now but closed today during refurbishment, which is painted a unique shade of blue.

This seemed odd, it was in contrast to every other building in Marrakech and I wondered how the painter had managed to get around the crimson decree which specifies that everywhere must be red.  The blue is called Majorelle and is made from pigment found only in the Moroccan soil and he must have been especially fond of it because as well as the house the garden was full of large pots all painted predominantly in this colour and contrasting nicely with others in orange, yellow, red and green.

Majorelle, it turns out wasn’t an especially great artist and his garden, rather than his paintings, was his masterpiece.  It is composed and coloured like a work of art. As well as the pots, water is an important feature and there are water filled channels, lily ponds with reflections of the towering palm trees and bubbling fountains.

He was an avid plant collector but after he died in 1962 the house was left empty and the garden abandoned lay for nearly twenty years.   Eventually it was threatened with demolition which is a reminder that sometimes what we create in our life times is only temporary.  After a long period of neglect the garden was then taken over, saved and restored by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

As we wandered along the meandering paths the blue sky suddenly and without warning gave way to grey cloud and within seconds we were in the middle of a heavy rain shower and we had to take cover in a café where there was shelter under the leaves of the banana plants planted around the perimeter.

It took about twenty minutes for the heavy rain to slow down and before we could leave the shelter and then as the rain eased off we returned to the gardens which somehow managed to look even better now with the shiny wet pavements catching shimmering reflections of the brightly coloured pots.

There was a shop of course where I was chastised for taking a picture of an attractive corner and the assistant stood over me and insisted I delete it from the camera.  I fooled her by not following the procedure all the way through but she was satisfied that it was gone and she let me go without calling the photography police.

The path took us around the blue house with its bright yellow windows and strategically placed pots, through tall pergolas where exotic climbing plants raced each other to the top of the poles, past ponds full of goldfish and terrapins and through the bamboo swaying in the breeze as though in a hypnotic trance.  A second wave of rain passed over and we had to shelter next to the memorial to Yves Saint Laurent but it passed over quite quickly and we were able to continue the visit as rain drops splashed us as they dripped from the overhanging leaves.

On balance we would have preferred to have visited the garden without the rain but I suppose the plants all enjoyed the drenching.

    

When we had completed the walk around the garden and Kim was finally satisfied with her collection of pictures of the pots we left and started to walk back the way we had came.  We hadn’t got very far however when it started to rain again and this time it was really unpleasant.  It came in at an angle that got underneath our umbrellas, it had turned quite cool and the sky was grey and horrible in all directions.

We still had a few hours left before the flight home and we didn’t want to walk around all day in this but then as Kim moaned and Margaret complained about the plan to walk to the railway station Mike and I could see some better weather in the north so at a busy crossroads we found a café where we sat and sheltered and thankfully watched the weather, and the girl’s moods, improve as the pavements quickly dried as the sky turned blue and the temperature began to rise.

Morocco, Top Travel Tips – The Atlas Mountains

I continue my series of Top Tips when visiting Morocco and today head for the Atlas Mountains…

We drove on and the road started to follow the river now which wasn’t deep but it was wide and fast flowing.  The silver water dashed between gullies like flashing blades and rushed over rocks like leaping salmon and further on the river dropped in between steep banks and the only way to cross was by using rope bridges with sun bleached wooden slats that didn’t look awfully permanent.

Hassan stopped the car again and our next stop on the itinerary was to visit a traditional Berber house.  The Berbers are a unique ethnic group who live in North Africa, the oldest settlers in the region and quite different from the Arabs of Marrakech and the rest of Morocco.

It wasn’t a real house of course, it was a sort of living museum and women in traditional costume were preparing food in a small corner of a disorderly arrangement of ramshackle rooms that Hassan showed us through one-by-one and explained the traditional domestic arrangements as we went.

Opposite the house there was a small building where a women’s cooperative was producing Argan oil.  Argan oil is valued for its nutritive, cosmetic and numerous medicinal properties but is one of the rarest oils in the world due the small and very specific growing areas because it is produced from the kernels of the Argan tree which are only found in Morocco.

In the past Berber women would extract the undigested pits of the Argan nut from goat excrement on the ground (probably without gloves) because the animals are very fond of the fruit and will even climb the trees to reach it but that isn’t terribly hygienic of course and I think they have stopped doing it that way now.

Argan Oil Goats

Mike was sceptical about whether this was authentic or simply a set-up for the tourists but inside the building women were sitting on the floor with rough rectangular stones between their knees cracking pits with rounded rocks and after a while it was clear that Mike was most probably correct and somewhere there would be a modern factory producing the oil in a much more efficient way.

Hassan drove on and still we were climbing and following the river on our left and the boundary of the Parc National de Toubkal to our right, which includes the highest mountain in Morocco, Jbel Toubkal.  After a while he stopped the car and for no apparent reason invited us to take a walk across a precarious looking rope bridge to the other side of the river.  We understood why when a toothless Berber man in a check kaftan and bright blue skull cap appeared from the side of the road and it seemed to be his self appointed job to usher people over to the other side, have his photograph taken with terrified tourists and charge a few dirham for the privilege.

I say terrified because to cross this swaying, rotting foot bridge required Indiana Jones type nerves of steel.  Some of the planks of wood were missing and the steel cable that held it all together was rusty and corroded.  With two or three people on it at the same time it rocked and lurched precariously from side to side and below us was a drop of about twenty metres to the fast flowing river strewn with sharp rocks and jagged boulders which, if it didn’t kill you outright, would have guaranteed an unpleasant landing and maybe a night or two in a hospital bed if the whole thing had come crashing down.

Crossing the river was an interesting experience but I think we were all glad to get back to the other side and continue the journey for the last few kilometres to the village of Setti-Fatma where the road into the mountains ended and the final stage was to be on foot.  I imagine Setti-Fatma was once a desperate and inhospitable sort of place but the locals have turned it into a bit of a tourist trap with cafés and shops for the visitors who find themselves caught at this natural mountain valley terminus.

Hassan quickly found a guide for us for fifty dirham each was going to take us further up the valley to visit the waterfalls, which were promised as the highlight of the day.  We crossed the river over one of the rickety apple-wood rope bridges and then began a gentle ascent at first as we set off for the top.  We were at one thousand six hundred metres (that’s about half as high again as Mount Snowdon in Wales) and we were going to climb another two hundred to get to our destination.

At the beginning there was no real indication about how tough this was going to be and the path meandered gently through shops and cafés but after a while the track narrowed and started to get steeper and suddenly instead of just strolling to the top, as we imagined we were going to, actual climbing was required instead. What made it even more difficult was that people coming down had to use the same narrow track as those going up so there was quite a lot of congestion to cope with and a quicker group behind us was showing irritation with our slow progress as their pushy guide tried to find inappropriate short cuts so that they could get ahead of us.

It took about thirty minutes to get to the end of the walk and to the inevitable café at the top where we stopped for an expensive bottle of water next to the waterfall that was plunging through the rocks and vegetation.

Going down was if anything more difficult than going up and fairly soon our legs began to ache as we slipped and slithered down the uneven path.  Gradually the path levelled out and we passed through the shops again.  Shops which incidentally sold pottery and I cannot imagine for one minute why anyone would want to buy pottery while climbing up the side of a mountain.  Back at the road we said goodbye to the guide and thanked him for getting us back in one piece and then he led us to a tagine restaurant by the side of the river which was probably owned by a member of his family.

In the garden of the restaurant we sat at a table by the water and had a simple lunch of meat skewers and local sausages all swilled down with a nice glass of beer and then I realised that I was hallucinating because it was just a nice glass of ordinary mineral water!

Morocco, Top Travel Tips – The Historical Sites

Volubilis Morocco

I continue with my short series of Top Travel Tips for Morocco and today I recommend the historical sites and specifically the Roman City of Volubilis.

Taking a day trip out of the city of Fez and after a long drive we eventually saw signs for the excavations of Volubilis and our guide for the day, Abdul, left the highway and followed a dusty pot-holed track towards the Roman City.

I am not sure what I was really expecting but this took me by surprise rather like the moment we came across the Roman ruins of Segobriga in Spain in 2009 for even from the road it was clear that this place was much bigger than I was expecting.

At the entrance to the site we paid the reasonable entry fee and then negotiated with a local guide who offered to give us a guided tour and a history of the city and when we were all satisfied with the price we set off along a dusty path towards the excavations and Hamid began his commentary

Volubilis was the Roman capital of the Province of Mauritania and was founded in the third century B.C., it became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings.  Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in the middle of this fertile agricultural area.  The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans had gone and at some point converted to Islam and Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.

It is now of course a UNESCO World Heritage Site, admitted to the list in 1997.

Roman City of Volubilis Morocco

Volubilis was an important and versatile place, a garrison town which protected the far south western boundary of the Empire, an agricultural bread basket producing important crops like wheat and olives in the fertile valley to be transported across the Empire via Tangier to the North next to the Mediterranean Sea and a city of rich noblemen who built themselves fine villas and a beautiful city in an enviable location.

Much better I imagine to be posted here than to the northern extremes of the Empire at Hadrian’s Wall.

Volubilis, it turns out, is the most important ancient archaeological site in Morocco and Hassan took us into the old streets running north to south and through the foundations and walls of the houses that flanked them.  In many of them there were fine mosaics and I thought it a little surprising to find them here exposed to the elements and not having been removed to a museum nearby.

Volubilis Morocco

The houses were huge and with a bit of imagination it was almost possible to imagine what this place may have been like two thousand years ago.  It was interesting to walk around the old streets, wander through the corridors of the houses, along the main street of shops and imagine that in this very place there were soldiers marching, classic plays being performed in the theatre, emperor worshippers in the temples, magistrates swaggering around importantly in togas, and slaves to do all of the dirty work.

After walking along the main street lined by the remains of grand columns and arches we arrived at the centre piece of the city, the triumphal arch which has been carefully pieced back together by French archaeologists nearly a hundred years ago.  Next to the arch was the Forum, the centre of political life in the city and adjacent to that the ancient Basilica where the citizens came to worship their gods.

Hamid concluded the tour with an explanation of Roman life in this area and tried to speculate why the Romans suddenly abandoned Morocco but like many historians who have wrestled with this question before him could provide no answers.

He walked us back to the car park where Abdul was waiting and we paid the agreed fee and added a tip to thank him for an excellent tour.

Read this wonderful interpretation of what might have happened at Volubilis at Nareszcie Urlop.

Volubilis Morocco