Category Archives: Marrakech

Travels in Spain, The Palm Forest of Elche

Elche Palm Orchard 4

Close by to where Mick and Lindsay live is the city of Elche.  It is the third most populated city in the Community of Valencia (after Valencia and Alicante) and the twentieth largest Spanish city.  I would never have guessed that.  The twentieth largest city in the UK is Nottingham and I have heard of that of course and in USA it is El Paso, Texas which surprised me.  In Australia it is the splendidly named Albury–Wodonga in New South Wales.

The two main reasons for visiting Elche are to buy a pair of shoes (footwear manufacture is the largest industry in the town) or to visit the Palm Forests which are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  No one needed a new pair of shoes today because we had been shopping the day before and been in every shoe shop in La Zenia so today we were visiting the date palm orchards which date way back to the time of the occupation of Iberia by the Moors of North Africa.

In 2000 UNESCO designated the Palm Grove as a World Heritage Site citing the transfer of landscape and agricultural practices from one culture and continent to another – Moorish North Africa to Christian Europe.

Elche Palm Orchard 3

Currently, in the urban area of Elche there are almost one hundred different orchards containing about seventy-thousand date palms mostly in the east bank of the Rio Vinalopó. This number however does not include other large plantations located around wider urban area and all together the number may be close to a staggering two hundred thousand palms. It is the only palm grove of its type anywhere in Europe, the northernmost of its kind and one the largest in the world outside of North Africa.  Individual specimens of the palm trees can grow to a height of more than one hundred feet and be up to three hundred years old.

For statistical reasons I now digress.  The tallest trees in the World are the Californian Giant Redwood which grow to nearly four hundred feet, in Australia there is a species of Eucalyptus (Mountain Ash) which gets to three hundred and thirty feet and the tallest trees in the UK are the Douglas Fir which by comparison struggles to get to just two hundred feet or so.  The iconic English Oak (which we always think of a tall tree) is left way behind at only seventy feet!

Tallest trees

We arrived in Elche at mid-morning, found a convenient parking place and wandered off towards the palm forest, none of us thought about noting down the name of the street where we had left the car!

Elche Palm Orchard 7

Very quickly we were in the first orchard, a carefully managed public park with winding footpaths and clear direction signs but not very long after that we strayed into a less well managed area with winding dusty paths and not so many direction signs.  Soon it became clear that we were losing our sense of direction and as anyone who has been in a palm forest will know one palm tree looks very much like all the others because there isn’t a great deal of variation in shape or form.

We wandered around a little more getting ever further from our starting point and with realistic hopes of following the same route back rapidly deteriorating and it was at about this point that it suddenly occurred to us that we weren’t absolutely certain about where we had started from anyway.

Eventually we came across a busy road and close by a public park where there was an entrance fee to see the palms.  Having just seen about a thousand palms for free I wondered if this was necessary expenditure but we paid up and went inside and we were glad that we did because the gardens were immaculate and there were several interesting palms in there including one known as ‘Imperial Palm’ with seven stems in the shape of a candelabra and estimated to be about one hundred and seventy-five years old . It was named after Elisabeth, the Empress consort of Franz Joseph of Austria, who visited the plantation in 1894.

Palmera Elche

The visit over we made our way to the city centre but finding it to be a modern concrete sort of place with little really to interest us, it seems that most of the historical centre has been demolished and cleared away, we turned our attention back to the issue of finding a way back to the car.

We were still surrounded by a forest of palm trees on all sides so there was quite a bit of guess work involved here and several disagreements about direction and I always get nervous when Kim assumes the role of navigator because this is rarely good news.  I say nothing of course.  As it happened Mick had the keenest sense of direction, overruled all of our panic suggestions and insisted on a route that soon got us back to the car without any further detours.

Elche Palm Orchard 6

Image

Monday in Morocco

Essaouira Camel Ride

Travels in Spain – Andalucía, Malaga

Malaga Postcard

It was our final day in Andalucía.  The sun was shining.  We debated changing our plans.  We decided to stick to the agreed itinerary and drive to Málaga.  After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and headed south to the city which happens to be the birthplace of the artist Pablo Picasso, the actor Antonio Banderas and the golfer Miguel Ángel Jiménez.

It took about an hour to drive to the city and when we arrived I was horrified to discover just how big it is and difficult to navigate.  Málaga is the sixth largest city in Spain and the biggest most southerly city in all of Europe (apologies to Valletta which is slightly further south but only half the size).  Eventually we found a parking space in an underground car park and emerged from subterranean level blinking into bright sunlight somewhere close to the old town.

The journey had been stressful.  We needed a drink.  We found a pavement bar close to the centre and found a vacant table where we could examine the city map and get our bearings.

Malaga Andalucia Spain

It was Saturday and Málaga was busy.  There was a cruise ship in the harbour and tourists were wandering around like a plague of locusts, local people were out shopping (Kim reliably informs me that this is what people do on a Saturday morning) and the area was well provided for by roaming street entertainers.  We stayed for a while and after paying the staggeringly high bill then wandered off in the direction of the cathedral but we didn’t go inside because having just spent so much on a beer we were put off by the cost of admission so instead we made our way to the harbour and after that the beach.

Malaga Beach

It has to be said that this is a very good beach indeed and we walked for a couple of miles along a promenade which ran adjacent to a crescent arc of lush caramel sand and gentle blue water that softly caressed the inviting shoreline.  As we walked we assessed the beach restaurants where fresh fish and bubbling paella was being prepared on flaming barbeques and made a decision where we might eat.

Unfortunately we left this a bit late and by the time we had decided our first, second and third choices were all full up with no prospect of available tables for at least an hour or more.  So we walked some more and then some more again and when we guessed that the time might be right we returned to our first choice and luckily there was a table free and we enjoyed a meal of fresh red snapper and a house salad.  It tasted divine.

Malaga Cathedral

After lunch we walked back to the city centre and while Kim went to the shops I returned to the cathedral.  There was a service in place now which meant there was no longer an admission fee and because that is the sort of good luck that I really appreciate I took advantage of my good fortune, wandered inside and mingled with the worshippers until it was all over and then spent an agreeable thirty minutes exploring the church and the side chapels before stepping back into the sun-splashed streets.

Aging Hippies Costa Del Sol

I confess that I hadn’t been absolutely sure that I would like Malaga, it once had a reputation for boozy Brits and cheap holidays but this is a city that has thoroughly reinvented itself. Gone is its seedy reputation as a playground for misbehaving tourists and instead the capital of the Costa Del Sol has been revived as a cultural destination only narrowly missing out to Donostia-San Sebastián as the 2016 European Capital of Culture.  As I stepped out of the Cathedral I knew that I liked it here.

Malaga is a business hub and a tourist city now but it has a long and varied history.  The Romans built a city here and we walked alongside the ancient theatre, the Moors were here of course before the Reconquista and then the Christians built a castle on the site of an abandoned Alcazaba.

Malaga Bullring

Málaga was one of the locations where Muslim rule persisted the longest, having been part of the Emirate of Granada. While most other parts of the peninsula had already been won back the Moors still occupied Málaga. It was finally retaken by Christian forces in August 1487, only five years before the fall of Granada.  The Muslim inhabitants resisted assaults and artillery bombardments before hunger forced them to surrender – virtually the entire population was sold into slavery – that is Christian charity for you!

We paid the modest admission price and then climbed steadily towards the top.  The lower areas of the castle are functional and militaristic but at the top there is a Palace almost as good as that at the Alhambra with shaded gardens where sunshine was trying to break in like a thief, fine Moorish architecture and a sense that this was once a place not just of military muscle but also of intellectual appreciation of the finer things in mediaeval life.

When we arrived six hours earlier we wondered how we would fill the day as we waited for our flight home but as it happened the day was slipping away rapidly now as we left the castle and returned to the car park along a busy street that was filling up with local people out for a wander around the Saturday night streets.

We stopped at a bar for a final drink and watched the evening entertainment and then reluctantly paid up, left, returned to the car and drove to the airport for our late night flight back to UK.

We had enjoyed our few days in Andalucía but with so much more to see we agreed that we would surely have to return.

Malaga Street Entertainers

Travels in Spain – The Alhambra Palace and the Rugby Granada Cinema

Alhambra Detail

“Granada! Holy place of the glory of Spain,
Your mountains are the white tents of pavilions,
Your walls are the circle of a vase of flowers,
Your plain a Moorish shawl embroidered with colour,
Your towers are palm trees that imprison you” –  José Zorrilla y Moral

We had a good room in a nice hotel in Romilla and from the balcony we began to adjust to the pace of the place which, it has to be said was dangerously close to reverse.

The sun was shining now so we went for a stroll at what I would describe as a sort of normal walking pace but which seemed to startle a couple of the locals who were busy sitting around doing nothing and who broke out into a sweat just watching us amble by and then we came across a bar who seemed surprised to suddenly have some customers.  Anyway, it was very pleasant sitting in the sun at last and we stayed for a second beer and the barman prepared us some complimentary tapas.

I was reluctant to raise the issue of the obvious absence of restaurants in Romilla but despite my efforts to avoid it conversation inevitably turned to evening dining arrangements.  These were so limited that our only real option was to return to a service station at the side of the nearby main road.  This could have been a disaster for me but luckily it turned out fine, there was a motel on the site and an excellent reasonably priced restaurant where we enjoyed an unexpectedly good meal.

Alhambra Granada

We had an unusually early start the following morning because we were driving to Granada and had timed entrance tickets to the Alhambra Palace complex and believe me this is a good tip – make sure you book in advance on line because entrance tickets are strictly limited to a prescribed number and if you turn up on the day expecting to buy a ticket and it is full then you won’t get in.  End of!

I have been to Granada several times as it happens.  Not this one of course but the Granada Cinema in my home town of Rugby.  What a flea-pit it was.  A towering brick building built in 1933 and originally called the Plaza but later in 1946 changing its name to the Granada in the same way as so many others as they borrowed continental place names such as Alhambra, Rialto, Amalfi and Colosseum to make them sound more exciting.  Later car manufacturers did exactly the same of course and we had the Ford trio of Corsair, Cortina and Granada, Triumph had the Toledo and the Dolomite and the Seat the Ibiza and the Cordoba.

Rugby Granada Picture House

And not just Granada, I have also been to the Alhambra, that is the Alhambra public house in Coventry which was on the once a month Saturday night pub trail when I was a lot younger.

It was a short drive to Granada, one of the great cities of Iberia, located at the confluence of four major rivers and at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest in all of Spain and still snow capped at the highest peaks which created a picturesque backdrop as we made our final approach to the Alhambra.

At ten o’clock it wasn’t especially busy and we easily collected our tickets and began our visit to a place that with three million visitors a year claims to be the most visited site in Spain.

Alhambra Gateway

Top ten most visited are Alhambra, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Mosque at Cordoba, Santiago de Compostella, Burgos Cathedral, the Alcazar of Segovia, Roman Theatre at Merida, Casa Mila in Barcelona, the Cathedral and La Giralda in Seville and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I have visited them all except for the Guggenheim.

We began in the gardens of the Generalife, the summer palace of the Sultans and Emirs and built in the shadow of the mountains in the coolest spot on the site away from the suffocating heat of the Alhambra itself.

The Alhambra complex was built for the last Muslim Emirs in Spain during the the Nasrid dynasty who at the time were increasingly subject to the Christian Kings of Castile.  After the final expulsion of the Moors and being allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries, the buildings occupied by squatters, the Alhambra was rediscovered following the defeat of Napoleon, who carried out retaliatory destruction of the site.

It has been restored now to its former glory and exhibits the country’s most significant and most precious Islamic architecture.

Alhambra Nasrid Palace

The 1492 surrender of the Islamic Emirate of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs is one of the most significant events in the history of Granada as it marked the completion of the Reconquista of Al-Andalus.  As part of the deal the Muslims were allowed to stay in Granada and afforded religious toleration but within only a few years the Christians reneged on this and those who refused to convert were expelled.

El Cid 1

Christians took possession of the site and added a cathedral and a castle complex and sometime later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V demolished part of the site and built himself a grand palace but then having gone to all that trouble he never bothered to move in.  What a waste!

Fortunately today much of the Palace of the Moors remains intact (restored of course) and eventually we used our timed tickets to join a queue to go inside.  It was wonderful and it immediately transported us back to Morocco and the Palaces of Marrakech and Meknes.  Architecture that foams like a carelessly opened bottle of fizzy water, slender columns, floating arches and wood and stone that dissolves into fragile lace.

Alhambra Gardens

Hanging gardens, foaming fountains and sparkling streams of water, cool welcome shade, sunshine trying to break in like a thief, startlingly fine alabaster white stucco work, geometric tiled patterns exploding with colour, decoration like stalactites dripping from the elaborate ceilings, carved columns and horseshoe arches and I immediately understood why this just might be the number one place to visit in Spain.

We stayed as long as we possibly could in the Palace complex but inevitably the flow of visitors carried us like an estuary to the exit and we left with an overwhelming feeling of total satisfaction.

Palace of Charles V Alhambra

In the heat of the afternoon we visited the Palace of Charles V and the museum inside and then the Alcazaba with stunning views over the whole of the city of Granada.

I had hoped that I might persuade Kim to walk down into the city centre and at least visit the towering cathedral but I could tell that she wasn’t particularly keen so I kept that suggestion to myself with the thought that one day we might return to Granada and see all of the things that we were now going to miss.

Granada from the Alhambra

Perhaps we should have stayed in Granada rather than Romilla but it was too late to reverse that decision now so we made our weary way back to the village and the hotel El Soto de Roma and rested a while before making our way back to the village bar for wine and tapas and later we returned to the motorway service station for evening meal where we reflected on a really excellent day.

Alhambra Reflection

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!