15 November 2013

A Day in Paradise
(Saffron paradise that is...)

There is always something new to discover about life in Morocco - and today is no exception.

Let me back-peddle a bit here... Last April at a charity auction, much to my dismay, my slightly-inebriated husband placed a bid to spend 2 nights full-board at a saffron farm in the Ourika Valley, some 20 minutes away from where we presently live. Now not only is this located just down the road from us but I must admit that my initial thoughts were this: 'Why would anyone want to visit a saffron farm, much less stay there?'

Well, I now stand corrected! It is at 7.30 am this morning that we make our way along the quiet country roads to the afore-mentioned saffron farm, by invitation of the enterprising owner, Christine, to whom we've spoken several times recently to try and arrange our weekend with her - but somehow our stay has never materialised due to illness on our part or lack of availability at the farm. Because of the amount of work undertaken during harvest time, we cannot stay this time either, but, as those of you who follow this blog will know, I love to take photographs, so the kind invitation to come and see the saffron harvest just for the morning is just too good to miss! So here we are, armed with cameras, at this beautiful but early hour of the morning, making our way to Le Paradis du Safran.

The clue is in the name - 'Paradise' is an apt description. Le Paradis du Safran is located 3km off the main road on a piste surrounded by fertile agricultural land and a few houses dotted here and there. A friendly shepherd waves and greets us as we try to avoid his sheep wandering aimlessly in the middle of the piste, a man on a donkey laden with goods moves aside so we can manouevre the car past him, children wearing the ubiquitous white coats which are the standard school uniform in Morocco stare at us Europeans and a smile slowly forms on one girl's face. All are standard features of a drive through Moroccan countryside.

This way...

We arrive at the gates and are greeted by Christine along with her two large beldi (country) dogs who jump up at us in excitement - a lovely welcome. Then the tour begins. We think we are visiting to see the saffron harvest but, before we even reach this area of the land, Christine takes us for a walk to show us the amazing abundance of exotic fruit trees and herbs she has growing in her 2.5 hectares of land - papaya, mangoes, lemon trees, kaki fruit, lavender, thyme, rosemary, verbena - not to mention rows upon rows of the sweetest smelling roses. It seems that anything can be grown in Morocco due to the ideal climate and fertile land - added to a bit of know-how of course. As we meander, she cuts bits off for us to sniff and try to identify and places them in a bag for us to bring home. Her passion for her crop shines through as she gives us information about each plant, tree and herb. It is a joy to spend time with her in this beautiful place.

Roses, fruit trees and herbs

Soon we reach the main plot of land where the crocuses are being collected for harvest by approximately 20 workers, all local women and girls, who work for 3-4 hours then tuck into a fabulous breakfast lovingly prepared for them before proceeding to extract the saffron threads from the flowers they have collected this morning. It is a hard job physically, each woman bent double as she plucks the crocuses from the ground and places them in her basket.  Hats and scarves are worn to shield their eyes from the harsh heat of the sun.

The beautiful setting with rows of crocuses

Stunning crocuses growing in a cluster

The crocuses are planted in rows and each crocus bulb can bear up to four flowers. Each of those flowers contains three vivid crimson stigma - these are the saffron threads which, once dried, are quite literally worth their weight in gold. Christine tells us she plants 600,000 bulbs weighing approximately 6 tons....and approximately 200,000 flowers are needed to obtain 1kg of saffron. That's an awful lot of crocus-picking and stigma-gathering that needs to be carried out in order to have enough saffron threads to form a decent weight to be sold. No wonder saffron is so expensive to buy!

Picking the crocuses

Hard at work

Signs around the land let visitors know what is what

The work of harvesting the crocuses takes place over the course of 3 weeks in November each year, so we are very fortunate to be able to see it for ourselves. As we watch them picking the crocuses the girls/young women break into song, an old Berber song we are told, though nobody seems to know what they are singing about. It is a cheerful sound to accompany their hard work. Here's a short video:

Once collected, the individual baskets of crocuses are all emptied into larger baskets which are then carried to another group of girls who sit around a table on low stools and tenderly extract the individual strands of saffron, placing them in bowls.

Christine gathers crocuses into a bigger basket

These baskets are very heavy once full!

Girls painstakingly remove the stigma from each crocus

The colour of the saffron is amazing - Christine only sells the very best and her saffron has been classified as of the highest standard. She shows us how the crimson red saffron threads stain the hand yellow - and tells us to beware the people in the souqs (markets) who sell the saffron that stains the hand red as this shows it is not pure but has been mixed with other substances such as hair, bits of meat and colouring - yuk!

The saffron threads are placed in bowls

Only the best saffron is produced

All too soon it is time to leave...but of course not without first purchasing some of the genuine article and some small gifts from the boutique. We are sad to be leaving as we have thoroughly enjoyed our morning here. But we will be back - we still have our 2-night voucher to use here - and now we can't wait to return. Thank you so much Christine for welcoming us to your beautiful Saffron Paradise!


21 October 2013

Road trip to Fes - Tahanaout to Azrou

It was a storm unlike any other we had seen in Tahanaout - and we had it relatively easy! Marrakech experienced severe flash floods; several houses collapsed in the old medina, rivers swelled to cover roads, houses of friends were flooded out - thankfully, nobody we knew was injured. It was the next day, however, that we were due to travel the long and scenic route to Fes. Which way to go? Would roads in the mountains be passable after the heavy flooding? In fact, we questioned would the road still exist! (We have had a past experience in Morocco en route to Tata when we were diverted through several muddy fields - or should I say our car was pushed by several strapping lads through the fields - because the road had literally been washed away by flooding!) How would we find the route today?

Miraculously, the following morning, the sun is shining brilliantly and, in Tahanaout at least, all signs of the storm have vanished; it is as though it has never taken place! So off we set. Signs of the storm are all around us as we near Marrakech - palm trees sitting in fields still full of water, diversions for traffic - ignored by intrepid motorbike riders who insist that they will cross through the flooded roads! However, as soon as we reach the rural areas, we need worry no more, the roads have not been affected at all.

The route through the countryside is pretty. We are surrounded by fields, trees and nature, without the blight of heavy traffic. I won't bore you with the whole route, but I will pick out some of the highlights for those of you interested.

Our first day of travelling is not that exciting to be honest. We make our way into and through the city of Marrakech, then take the country roads leading to the town of Beni Mellal where we decide to stay overnight. It's a nice route, but with few unusual sights. It is on the second day, after a good night's sleep, that the exciting part of the journey begins.

After a hearty breakfast we set off, me marking off the names of villages and towns on my map as we travel...Kasba Tadla...Khenifra...until we see the sign we've been waiting for...'Sourses Oum Errabia', the source of the river Oum Er-Rbia, the second longest river in Morocco, 555km in length. To get there, we head off towards the cedar forests which cover large swathes of the Middle Atlas, a mountain range which is new to us, where I've been reliably informed the endangered Barbary Macaque apes still live in the wild.

The river is this way

Nice place to stop for our picnic lunch

I can see for miles

Mountain roads

As we draw nearer to the source of the river we begin to see signs of life...colourful rugs slung over walls and rocks to dry in the heat of the sun. Then we spot the women along the banks of the river itself, scrubbing away at these fine pieces of decoration, getting them clean and ready to adorn the floors of their small houses.

Colourful rugs drying in the sun

Washing clothes in the river

We follow the signposts and come across a large car park and are immediately surrounded by men and boys dressed in hi-viz yellow vests, all eager to look after our car and show us the way to the source of the river. Naturally, we have none of it and head off on our own in a direction that looks highly likely to be the route to the spring. Ahead of us we can see a group of Moroccan boys, a family with young children and a few girls - we must be going the right way. We climb up and up and find ourselves suddenly in the midst of a row of small shops...jewellery, scarves, belts all vie for our attention, but we are distracted by the distinct aroma of tagines cooking on burners which is wafting through the air. Moroccans never miss an opportunity to sell!

Makeshift shops

As we survey the scene from above, we can see that several families now seem to live along the bank of the river in small shacks. Their washed clothes are draped over a huge boulder to dry.

Housing along the riverbed

As we continue walking, we stumble across rocks and boulders which lead to a rickety bridge. There's no way I'm going to traverse this, so hubby stealthily makes his way over it whilst I enjoy the scenery of the valley. I say 'stealthily' but in actual fact he is clinging like an ibex to the side of the cliff as he contemplates whether to take the risk of dropping his camera in the river. He goes for it anyway. This is Morocco after all, so no surprise when yet another man appears from nowhere in a hi-viz vest asking for 10 dirhams to cross the bridge which leads to the spring. Amazing how people can charge for access to a feat of nature on no-man's land!

By the river


The clambering is all worth it in the end. The water cascades from the spring with incredible force, forming many rock pools which flow faster and faster downhill to form the river. It is indeed a sight to behold.

One of the stunning cascades

Bubbling waters

After eventually leaving the spring we encounter the one and only toilet for miles...I think I'll give it a miss!

Erm...no thanks

Off we go again, this time heading for the cedar forests and them there monkeys! I don't know about you, but I just adore monkeys. It all started with my 'Jacko' monkey I was given as a child, bought from my local Woolworth store (remember them?!) He was my favourite toy ever, a sleazy-eyed 3ft tall monkey wearing a red and white striped vest with light blue bottoms and a permanent smile, his 'hands' functioning very nicely in gripping the bar of the doll's pram I used to push around. Sometimes he even lay in my pram, giving well-meaning adults a nasty shock as they pulled back the covers to admire 'baby', much to my amusement :) That must also be where my wicked streak began ;-)

So now you know why I'm soooo excited to be here, seeing these wonderful creatures in the wild for the first time.

With trepidation we approach the forest, my eyes darting in every direction as hubby drives slowly along the winding paths. The trees are huge, spreading their branches to form a canopy over the 'roads'. But I'm just staring at the branches, longing to see one of these beautiful primates I've heard have made their home here. Every large boulder I see on the ground becomes a possibility; every twitch of a branch makes me think 'this is it!' It's not long before I am rewarded with my first genuine sighting. Another car has stopped on the road ahead and three teenagers are looking at something. We pull up behind - and before I know it, there right in front of me is a monkey sat on a rock eating the peel of an orange. In stunned silence I move my eyes to scan the horizon - several more monkeys come into focus, some on the ground, some swinging in the trees, others sitting on branches watching me watching them! My heart skips a beat. I am surrounded by these wonderful creatures.

NB I make no excuse for the number of photos below; reader, I fell in love....

Beautiful cedar forests of Azrou


I've 'ad an 'ard night, leave me alone!

Keep still!
We're watching you!

Got an itch

We love these trees

This is my best side!

Oy, there's a great view from up here!

Grass and sunshine is all I need

What ya doing over there?

In my own little world

I love eating the muffins you bought for your lunch on the roof of your car!

I'm concentrating

Playing in the road

Okay, you took my photo so where's the food?

Just swinging around

One-eyed Joe


Okay, so I adore monkeys...and therefore it's nearly 3 hours before we eventually leave the forest behind...oops! Soon we arrive in the town of Azrou, a popular stopping-off point for people like us who are en route for Fes. Our first sight on entering the town is the rock after which the town is named, azrou meaning 'rock' or 'stone' in the Berber language. It dominates the whole town and the summit is marked by a crown. A quick coffee and off we go again.

The rock at Azrou

Our next and final stop before arriving in Fes is in the interesting town of Ifrane. The reason I describe it as 'interesting' is because it is not like any other town we have visited in Morocco. Because of its altitude, lying at 1655 metres (5460 ft), one thousand feet higher than Ben Nevis, the town has an alpine climate, experiencing both sunshine and snow. The houses have therefore been built with sloping roofs and look remarkably European/Swiss in style, some of the hotels and restaurants even bearing names reminiscent of Europe such as Hotel Chamonix. The town is spotless and there are numerous gardens in which to stroll, resplendant with flowers. I feel as though I'm back in England in a beautiful country village rather than in a Moroccan town! The highlights of the town are an American-style university where learning takes place in English, Arabic and French, a Royal Palace and a stone carved lion! Yes, you read correctly - a carving of a lion takes pride of place in the town. Legend has it that the lion was carved out of limestone by a prisoner of the second World War (Ifrane was used as a camp for prisoners at the time). It is difficult to believe there were once lions in Morocco, right up until the 1950s so I hear! It is a long-standing tradition for visitors passing through to have their photos taken with the lion, so dutifully I oblige.

The Cotswolds? No, Ifrane!

Picturesque gardens

The Lion and I

Eventually we arrive in the city of Fes where more adventures await us...but that's a new blog post...

17 September 2013

Back 'home' again

As we walk down the steps off the aeroplane at Marrakech International Airport, laden with burgeoning hand luggage, the warm air hits us - and we smile at the sudden awareness of being back in our second home - Morocco.

We never planned to live here this long - nearly two years now - it just sort of happened. Three months was our plan, but somehow each three-month period of time living here was never enough; there was always more we wanted to see, hear, visit, experience. Friendships have been made, both with ex-pats and locals, jovial relationships with waiters at local cafés have been built, neighbours have accepted us into their village and lives, we've even been welcomed as 'family' by friends in the desert and mountains alike. Morocco has truly and unintentionally become our second home.

So begins the all-too familiar routine of our first night and first full day at 'our' house.We are met at the airport by our friend, Adil, who has brought our hire car to meet us. 'Which car have you brought us?' we ask. 'It is your car, Mr Martin,' he replies to my hubby, '...always your car!' We arrange to meet up soon for a tagine next time he visits our village, then we are on our way, driving towards the mountains - and home. A quick stop at the local Carrefour supermarket is all we need to tide us over with basic groceries until tomorrow. As I look after the car which is full of our baggage, hubby buys the bits we need. It's only a few seconds before friends spot me hovering in the car park (too hot to stay inside the car) and make their way over. Life is like that here - always bumping into friends when you least expect it!

A quick chat later and we're off on that road towards home again, filled with trepidation as to what we will find has changed since the last time we were here. There's always something - and it can be either a change for the better or the worse!

Just to rewind a little...when we left the house in late July, there were 3 adult dogs at the house and 7 cute little 8-week-old puppies, plus a cat and her 3 tiny 3-week-old kittens. Will any of these still be there, we ponder. I do hope so; as you may have gathered by now if you read this blog regularly, animals play a very important part in my life here - but unfortunately this country is not a nation of animal-lovers in general; poisoning and shooting of dogs is rife, especially in the countryside as so many dogs are to be seen roaming around. Cats, however, tend to fare better due to the common belief that the prophet Mohammed was in favour of them. So who knows what we will find...

We notice very little the first night. Saïd, the guardian, greets us like long-lost friends, we find some bedding from amongst our belongings we left at the house...then it's to bed. We are very tired and our large comfortable bed is a very welcome sight indeed. We awake to the sound of a cat miaowing outside the window, a disdainful look on her face. 'Where have you been?' she seems to say haughtily, 'And where is my food?!' Soon, two lively little bundles of fur appear, following mum...they've grown so much and now look like proper kittens as opposed to having the rat-like features they sported last time we saw them! Saïd tells us that the third kitten has disappeared, 'eaten by mongoose,' he says. Moroccans are renowned for their storytelling - is this a story or is it the truth? Either way, only two kittens have survived. He also tells us he has 'given away' all 7 puppies and he proceeds to count...2 to my father, 3 to builders who have been working at the house, 2 to my friend and 1 to another friend....maths was never his strong point ;-) I really hope I can trust what he has said and that the puppies have gone to good homes. I am helpless to do or say anything - their fate is out of my reach. So I choose to trust that he is telling the truth and decide to put all negative thoughts to the back of my mind for safe-keeping. I still have 3 dogs, 1 cat and 2 kittens to look after! Having said that, Mrs Dog and Mr Sneezy are apparently 'having marriage' as Saïd so eloquently puts it. Hence they have disappeared into the long grass of the local fields and can only be seen from a distance through binoculars! Oh dear, not more puppies to be catered for, is my immediate thought. Why won't anybody take responsibility and spay the female dog? This cannot be good for her health. It is a real problem in Morocco.

So, what has happened in the house? We are told that workmen have been trundling through our home for the last 24 days! They have varnished everything in sight it seems - from furniture to ceilings and everything in between! Not only is everything now covered in splashes of varnish, but the beautiful geckos who used to live in the ceiling have now sadly had to find new homes...I will miss them. Grease has miraculously appeared on the cooker top in this 'vacant' property, the tagine has somehow broken its own lid, the chair covers have been washed and have now turned a weird shade of yellow instead  of the cream colour to which I had restored them when I washed them just before I left the house, and in general everything is covered with dust! To add insult to injury, the garden plant pots have been painted a hideous shade of dark green with a red wonky stripe, the same colours echoed in the large metal gate - which now also sports a red misshapen 'diamond' on one section. We try to laugh it all off and concentrate on the positive developments instead. I now have an 80-metre washing line, erected on flattish land so I no longer find myself standing with one foot in the dug-out section of the lemon trees whilst pegging out my sheets; we can see over the newly chopped down hedge and have a clearer view towards the mountains; the garden has generally been tidied.

Such is the fate of a vacant property left in the hands of a guardien in Morocco! One never quite knows what to expect after being away for a period of time!

The best thing of all has to be the fact that we are now back 'home' and can start the process of restoring the house back to its former state of cleanliness....until the next time we go away...

NB: Look out for my next blog coming soon - we're off to Fes this week, so I'm looking forward to writing about it already!

20 June 2013

A Moroccan Wedding Celebration:
Day 4 - The Desert

A well-earned rest this morning after so much partying and all those late nights (or should I say early mornings!) This afternoon we are heading in convoy to the desert - once the temperatures have dropped a little. I'm so excited - I absolutely love the desert - the dunes, the isolation, the tents - and the journey there is somewhat spectacular too!

It is about 5 pm when we are all ready to set off. Only family and close friends are making the trip to the desert. We feel very privileged to be counted amongst those. Drivers arrive in their 4x4s to pick up the family from the hotel and, after our farewells to the lovely staff, we too set off on our 2-hour journey to our desert camp for the night. Everyone is competing to take on the driving - it's a special experience to drive in the desert, negotiating the dunes without getting stuck in the sand!

After nearly 2 hours of bumping and sliding along the alternately hard ground and soft sand of the desert floor, we arrive at the camp. This is a different camp to where we have stayed before, the final part of the route being lined with old tyres and the 'gates' being palm fronds, supporting two pieces of material which form a 'fence'! A creative bunch, these desert people!

Our car is one of the first to arrive and we are met by some of the young men who run the camp as well as by Bobo and Tine, the newly-weds. There is music blaring out from a DJ installed in the 'corner', European-style this time, in stark contrast to the previous traditional Berber music to which the lines of men and women were dancing and drumming in M'hamid only last night!

The sun is now beginning to set, so there's just time to throw off our shoes/sandals and run up to the nearest dunes barefoot in the cooling sand to watch the sun disappear for the day. Some of Tine's family decide to hitch a ride to the foot of the dune on the camels that await.

Perfect sand dunes await us - unsoiled by human steps. It as if they have been just created for this moment in time.

Swirls of cloud create patterns in the sky high above the dunes...I could just stay here all night watching the clouds, gazing at the blue sky and observing the final rays of the sun for today - but I have a party to go to!

As we return to camp, the mood has changed. It is beginning to get dark and neon balloons light up the rugs laid out on the sand. There are drums, both djembe and bendir lying on one rug alongside the krakebs, castanets traditionally played by the Gnaoua tribes. The men of the desert take their places and soon are playing haunting melodies as well as lively traditional songs of love and happiness. They clap and sing, taking their cue from each other so as to harmonise. We Europeans are mesmerised as we clap and sing along. These young men are proud of their heritage and love to share it with others.

Interspersed with the traditional singing and dancing is the music played by the DJ and acrobatic feats from the young men. Everyone dances together - there is a real sense of family and fun which prevails throughout the evening and on into the night. I can't remember the last time I danced to 'Coward of the County' by Kenny Rogers :)

One thing that I find very moving is how at one point all the men, both nomadic and European, are dancing together, moving around the sand doing the same sort of 'free-style' dances that are often seen at weddings - all in a spirit of fun and camaraderie. The women sit and watch - and laugh!

About 11 pm food is served. As usual, I am amazed at the quality of the food provided - chicken tagine, salads of all varieties, rice dishes, followed by fresh fruit and sliced sweet melons. The young men serve us and ensure we take plenty of food, wishing us BisaHa (Good Health). We sit at long tables with banquettes and eat by candlelight. Once fully satiated the musicians start up again and more dancing continues. It is 1 am when a fire is lit to combat the distinct chill in the air. We all sit around the fire on low Berber stools, gazing into the fire and seeing only silhouettes of families and friends. As I look across the sand I can suddenly see something white in the sky...it is a Chinese Lantern - and across a dune I see more silhouettes of people letting more lanterns loose into the night sky. It is a feast for the eyes as one after another they ascend and finally disappear somewhere over the dunes.

It is 3 am when we finally decide that all the partying has finally taken its toll on us and we really ought to try and get some sleep. We head for our tent....but the music continues till about 5 am - and tents don't have walls! We listen to Bobo making a speech and the hardcore revellers still singing and dancing to the loud beat of the music.

It is 7 am when I wake up and decide to go for an early morning walk on the dunes. It is beautifully tranquil as I tiptoe past the debris of the night before and the bodies strewn all over the sand; the sun is just rising and bringing a lovely hue to the colour of the sand. Not for the first time I thank God for the beauty of the scene around me - it is glorious. I idly inscribe my name on the sand as if to mark that I am really here at this momentous event.

All too soon everyone is awake and a wonderful breakfast is somehow produced of hard-boiled eggs, yoghurts, bread with jams and piping hot coffee - all served with a smile of course! And then soon after off we go in convoy again, taking a different route out of the desert across the dry salt lake named Lac Iriqi. We feel we have grown really close to all these people of the desert having spent so much time with them during the wedding celebrations and we've made friends among the other guests too - we are sad to leave. We promise, however, that one day we will return....maybe for the birth of Bobo and Tine's first child.... ;-)