San Sebastian (Donostia), Basque Country
This despatch comes to you from an ancient hilltop fortress at the mouth of the Río Urumea which divides the city of San Sebastian. We’ve walked up here to take in the scenic panorama. The fortress itself is now surmounted by a more recent, gigantic limestone figure of Jesus, arms outstretched, assumedly giving his blessing over the whole city below him (somewhat like Rio de Janeiro I suspect). The city is situated on a neat, shell-shaped bay and is, purportedly, the most elegant and fashionable Spanish seaside resort. At either end of the bay is a tower topped hill between which, in the mouth of the bay, lies the small Isla de Santa Clara. It may be a resort town, but it is still a working fishing port, with many colourful small craft in the bay adding to its picturesque image. Old and grand hotels look down from rocky promontories onto the beach and fishing boat harbour, while grand old apartment buildings and more fine old hotels line the promenades along the beach-front: restaurants and cafés within are strategically situated to afford panoramic views out over the promenade, beach and harbour.
Any city of size in Spain solves its accommodation problem with the urban-ugly and prolific apartment block: this city has its share. However in spite of these, like many other towns along this northern coast dotted with islets, small sandy bays and rocky promontories, it is impressively beautiful. You ignore (as the Spanish obviously do) the urban cram. It would need a separate book to do justice to the wonders of the bars, restaurants, bodegas, and cafés that abound here. The food and lifestyle of the Spanish is legend. Those who have been and seen will understand. Suffice to say, we are suitably impressed.
We entered Spain overland from Belgium and France, having latterly spent a good few days in Bordeaux, a remarkable ancient city to which we hope to return, exploring the region famed for its vineyards. We crossed over from Biarritz on the French Riviera, to Hondarribia (Fuenterrabia) in Basque Spain and were immediately seduced. We found accommodation in Irun, not far from the coast, and I set about the task of trying to impress Rachel with the hospitality and cuisine of Spain as I remembered it. We struck a brilliant bar and it was, coincidentally, the time of the paseo. The conviviality, variety of tapas, and free-flowing wine was impressive. We indulged ourselves and Rachel was most impressed.
While waiting for our clothes to be washed at the local Laundromat, I had a haircut at a ‘Peluqueria Caballeros’ (Men’s Hairdresser) and was relieved to find it cost only $AUD9. In France it would have cost me $AUD30. Food and drink is equally affordable here. What a relief. Apart from Spain and Portugal, Europe is always very expensive for us, and a problem seeing that we are to be travelling this time for seven months. Funds can dwindle rapidly.
As always, I am tantalised by the Spanish clothing styles, colours and fashions. They have distinct seasonal designs and fabrics (currently warm autumnal tones). Travelling light as we are for our long journey, we miss the access to our finer clothes at home, and I would love to arrive with a couple of empty suitcases to restock my wardrobe. Ultra casual clothing is being introduced from America and is finding a ready market thanks to American TV, but on the whole the Spanish are very stylish in their dress and enjoy dressing well.
There are noticeable major works and developments going on throughout this land (as in France and Belgium) rail, roading, housing (apartment blocks) etc. Apparently there is a big injection of development finance coming in from major European Banks to enable Spain’s structure and economy to be brought up to par with its more prosperous Euro neighbours. I gather it is to be a ten year haul for Spain. Unfortunately, this may just mean that it becomes as expensive here for us as in its eastern neighbours when the EEC finally becomes a reality.
By a series of buses we head further west. While this coast is unquestionably beautiful, we are often dismayed to see industrial effluent being pumped, seemingly untreated, into these turquoise coastal waters. What a shame. We stay a couple of days in Santander, before heading south to Madrid. Here we buy first class rail tickets on the overnighter to Lisbon. It’s odd, that trains always seem to depart and enter cities through the least attractive part the arse end if you like, no matter which country. However, it is still a very relaxing way to travel.
Quite a few people are living a borderline existence here. But then, compared to what we saw in Mumbai … ! What strikes me early on though, is that there are a lot of very dark, coloured people here. As with all the western European countries, one need only look to their former colonial territories to know where the migrants come from. As usual, they tend to fit all the menial jobs in their first step upward. We see a lot of them on the construction sites throughout Portugal. Most of them will be bi, if not trilingual. I envy them that ability. For our first meal here today, I thought I had ordered scrumptious looking char grilled chicken for us, and, as one does, we were drooling in anticipation of it. When the meal arrived however, it was obvious that my Portuguese language was lacking: we were both served up a big tentacle of octopus! Oh well, it was good too, but … well life is full of surprises. Actually, my Portuguese is non existent: I was making the assumption that it is similar to Spanish, which it is, but not that similar.
Lisbon, the ‘grande old dame’ of Portugal, lies near the mouth of the mighty Tagus River (Rio Tejo) on its north bank. The very high and long Vasco da Gama suspension bridge links it to the southern shore. In the north of the city, an 18th century Aqueduct dominates the skyscape. Some 109 arches, some as high as 66 metres, take it from Belas, north of Lisbon, to the reservoir near Rato Lake in the west. It is impressive. Dramatic, monumental limestone structures – commemorating the early Portuguese explorers who set out from here, are situated along the river’s bank, best seen when entering the city from the sea. The city has wild and extravagant, eye catching architecture, and there is great use of beautiful tiles and ceramics. These are painted in a distinctly different style and colour scheme to those of Spain. Whole walls are sometimes covered in framed murals: all tile work. It is not uncommon to see whole houses clad in tiles in Portugal.
In the bigger towns there is a similar bar food culture to that of Spain, and we found Portuguese food, once we had cracked the code, to be equally addictive. Fresh, roasted chestnuts are being sold on the streets here too at this time of the year. Oddly, and contrary to my experiences on earlier visits, the cost of living here now appears to be higher than in Spain.
We catch a train down to Setubal, a smaller, more manageable city with a busy fishing port just a half an hours drive south of Lisbon. It’s at the mouth of the Sado River, another wide confluence, and its history dates back to Neolithic times. The remains of Roman habitation and industry have been carefully preserved and are accessible to the visitor. We set up camp in an old, cheap hotel here: our room overlooking the busy main plaza. From here we leisurely explore the old town: the narrow winding streets with all their fascinating little shops; the waterfront with its seafood restaurants and bars; the local market and the bars within (always a source of good, cheap food and beverage); and go for long, rambling walks along the attractive and hilly coast, finding more restaurants and bars in isolated, scenic little bays.
We commute into Lisbon on the train to explore more of that grand old capital, and ride out along the coast on their suburban rail. We are drawn into more little beach bars, where we study the mating habits of the locals. Mmmm. Well the language is different. One day down at the ferry wharves, gazing out at the river and its busy traffic, we followed our noses and were dismayed (again) to see very raw city sewage pulsing out of a 1m diameter pipe, straight into the harbour beneath our feet. The tide was low, otherwise it wouldn’t have been so noticeable. There is however, something very comfortable about Lisbon.
Eventually we feel the need to move on, and catch a train all the way down the coast to the charming border town of Vila Real de Santo António at the mouth of the Guadiana River. We book into the charming old Hotel Guadiana on the river front, where our room has a view across the river to Spain and the town of Ayamonte. The river is the border here. We are only able to afford this otherwise expensive hotel because we are here at the low season. Not liking hordes of tourists (and local holidaymakers), we are only too happy to be here at this time of the year. Most of the Iberian Peninsula has a mild winter anyway, and we get our share of sun and surf back in OZ or NZ.
On our first night, we were woken at 3 a.m. by the yammering of diesel engines. I stumbled to the balcony to find a fleet of fishing craft out on the river just going back and forth, up and down stream. It turned out that they were dredging for cockles, and they kept this routine up for the duration of our stay. The early start is to enable them to get the shellfish to market first thing that day. These people like their seafood fresh! It didn’t bother us too much as it befitted the seafood theme and locale of our stay, and they were working hard for their catch. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that they were Spanish boats.
On a more recent visit to V.R. de S.A. we noticed their absence (and a large, new yacht marina across the road from the Hotel Guadiana). When we mentioned this to the desk clerk at the hotel – who remembered Rachel, but not me – he told us the story. The local hoteliers and business community were finding that guests were avoiding their river front establishments in favour of other areas – the early morning noise upsetting their guests – so they put it to the authorities to have this dredging stopped. The Spanish fishermen simply ignored the request (we’ve noticed that there is no love lost between the two races) and dredged on. They were formally asked to cease the practise five times and thumbed their noses at the Portuguese each time. In retrospect, I see that the plans for the now very popular yacht marina would have had a bearing too. Anyway, the sixth time, the by now pissed off Portuguese Port Captain had an armed militia on board. When he was again ignored, they opened fire on the recalcitrant Spaniards, killing one of the crew: the upshot being that the Spanish fishermen no longer dredge for cockles there! A pity really.
There is a sardine canning factory down near the river mouth: both Ayamonte and V.R. de S.A. are busy fishing ports. A ferry regularly plies across to Spain and we would often pop over there for a change of cuisine. Spanish by the busload stream into V.R. de S.A. daily, across the main highway bridge further upstream, to buy the cheap goods here and for their own change of cuisine. A band of Gypsies, always dressed in black, operate a daily market on the river front street, selling mainly cheap clothing. It’s a charming place, and the accessibility of another culture with its differences a short ferry ride away, adds to its ambience.
Half an hour away by car, or several hours on foot as we did the first time, is the old town of Castro Marim: a sleepy, but charming little village nestled between two mounds. This site was once strategically significant to the Romans, and the ruins of an ancient castle, built in the 15th century by the religious-military order of the time, are over the Roman fortifications. Archaeological excavations were underway on both our visits there. This Roman find, and the Fort of Säo Sebastiäo (Saint Sebastian) built in the 17th century on the other mound, are still in remarkably good condition and easily accessible, with no entry fee. It is good for a days romanticising of ‘days of old, when men were bold, and women weren’t invented …’ etc. Truly, there is very little female ‘presence’ in castles and forts: they are such masculine domains.
Costa Del Sol, Andalucia
Yesterday in Malaga, in between scoffing roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and snacking on churros from the churrreria, we came across a Pet Shop. What drew us in were the usual cuddly puppies and kittens, but what we found inside was a real treat.
Just inside the door a big, gorgeously coloured Macaw greeted us from its perch. Across the aisle, 2 full sized Piraña fish, swimming sulkily in their confinement could be bought for the equivalent of only $AUD500 – ‘Complete with tank’. They are not what I would call an attractive fish. Here, it began to dawn on us – this was not your ordinary old pet shop, and so we were drawn deeper inside.
Passed the rows of exotic tropical fish, a sign ‘Reptiles’ pointed to the rear. This we had to see. But first there were the mice, gerbils, rats, guinea pigs and hamsters to pass. Then, huge scorpions: shiny black ones, and white ones – 10cm long, with their tails raised. These are Pets? Oh boy, now a huge, hairy tarantula. Brightly coloured iguanas – in three different sizes. Big frilly lizards, smaller brownish ones, long thin ones, and some that seem to be aquatic. Huge millipedes run/stroll/walk/amble(?) around their terrariums. Here, a seething mass of what appears to be giant maggots – probably a pet food stock. There, tiny turtles by the kilo, bigger ones about 15cm long: ‘A pair, second hand, unmarked.’ – for $AUD50.00. And now the reptiles: small and yes – large ones. God, what boring pets they would be. And the creature we most wanted to take home was, of course … a cute little puppy. Mind you, we’re so tired of trying to avoid stepping in dog-shit here in the streets of Europe, that it’s just as well we didn’t add to the problem.
We’ve chosen to up-grade our accommodation standards for a modest increase in budget. We now only take rooms with an ‘Ensuite’. Especially here in Spain at this time of the year, we’ve been getting wonderfully clean and tidy serviced rooms, sometimes with superb views, for between $AUD30-50 per night ($AUD50 would include breakfast). We’re more than happy with that. We no longer enjoy sharing toilet facilities with strangers.
There’s a noticeable absence of dog excrement on the footpaths of Morocco. Granted there’s a lot of donkey droppings, but that is much more fibrous and doesn’t stick to ones shoes. Yesterday we were all day on a bus from Tetuan to Fez. An ordinary, full bus. Piled high on the roof were clutches of live chickens (tied by their feet), bunches of empty plastic bottles (to be filled with raw olive oil at a village en route) and all sorts of odd shaped bundles: the passengers stamping, singing and shouting, and Police checks every 50 K’s or so. At one such check, a young man was pulled off for having something secreted under his jellaba (robe). It must have been a small amount of drugs, because they took him over a ridge by the side of the road and we never saw him again. It might be a few years before he gets to Fez now.
Yesterday we reached saturation point at the local meat market. The sight of so many goat heads, un-skinned, has put us off for a while. We can’t help but recall our pet goat which we became so fond of: a wonderful animal that showed much affection for us. These heads were just lying around on the floor and on counters in bunches. The raw, bloody wound of their beheading is, in itself, quite affronting: the look in their eyes is, once seen never forgotten, and disturbingly familiar. They remind me of pictures I have seen of severed human heads. The skinned heads don’t look so … life like: just bizarre. Also, the lower legs of sheep, goats and cows are popular here. These hairy and woolly things stand around, tied in bunches – so they can’t run off? Good for soups and stews, after singeing. There is a cloying, overpowering smell of fresh, warm blood and guts. There is little confusion here about what one is buying. Dead animal. The skinned baby lambs always have a tuft of wool left at the end of their tails, and the eyes – those dead eyes! In NZ and OZ there appears to be a trend to sanitise, and even disguise meat. In supermarkets it has become a plastic wrapped package (approved by the heart foundation) bearing little, if any, resemblance to the animal it came from. Around the Mediterranean the consumer is quite comfortable with the association between animal and food.
I am informed that at the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, it is traditional for a family to slaughter and eat a sheep. In Morocco alone, this amounts to 15 million of them! It pays not to get too sentimental about those woolly baa lambs. The Koran specifically forbids the consumption of pork. Now if I were a pig, as I’ve sometimes been called, Morocco would be a good place to see out my days.
A note on Beggars. Well I’ve stopped looking into their eyes: it’s too depressing. So much misery. I find I’m giving more these days, but I’m still selective. The lives of the people at the lower end of the economic scale here is bloody hard. Who knows, it is possible that there is a lot of happiness too, but definitely a very hard life. Lack of education is apparently at the root of it, yet I am reliably informed that state education is abundantly available, and free. Apathy, and the economic necessity to have children earning money is the fault, rather than the system. There is obvious, large scale unemployment here too.
What really touched me today (and I’m becoming quite hardened to suffering) was a kitten dying on the footpath, from god knows what ailment or injury. It lay there weakly mewing, and I wanted to give it the ‘coup de grâce’, to stomp on its neck perhaps, to put it out of its misery (what a curious phrase). But I couldn’t bring myself to do it – so I left it, torturing myself with my conscience. But as Rachel said “You’re not God!” I guess she’s right … but then …
A middle aged man, very polite and well dressed in a worn suit with down at heel shoes, and no socks, had been shadowing us all over Fez. Always at hand, offering his services as a guide, he was undeterred by our frequent and sometimes irate rejection. Having a couple of hours to spare before we caught the train to Marrakech however, we decide to hire him to show us through the ancient Medina – the old city, and its souk. The souk and the old city merge as one, and are so labyrinthine, so large and confusing in their layout, to outsiders, that you can get hopelessly and seriously lost. They are also incredibly fascinating: the types of goods for sale and activities within just the same as in the last millennium. It’s like going through a time warp. The Medina is densely populated, and throughout the narrow, shaded alleys – often only wide enough to allow donkey traffic through, one catches wafting aromas of fresh baked bread and, frequently, hashish smoke. Wonderful.
In the souk itself, we find stalls selling aromatic spices decoratively arranged in colourful, peaked heaps; coffee; perfumes, oils and scents sold in curiously shaped little bottles; bright brass and copper ware stacked to the rafters, and deep in the gloomy rear of the little box-like stall, the artisan tinkering away with his hammer on metal; colourful woven woollen fabrics and rugs piled on counters; beautifully made silken and cotton kaftans (for the women) in all the colours of the rainbow, and jellabas – the long, loose, full sleeved woollen garment worn by all Moroccan males, are made deep in the back of dingy rooms by young boys and older master sewers; stalls with colourful babouches, the pointed Moroccan slippers, neatly and decoratively arranged; sweet and fragrant mint tea is served in dimly lit small cafés; small lots of fresh fruit and vegetables are sold at the sides of the alleys. It’s a fabulous and magical scene, like something out of Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves.
We had struck a fee to hire our guide before we started, and given him parameters of our needs and timing. Although he was not one of the official guides, he was as good as his word and very informative along the way. We will happily track him down on our next visit, if possible. He was good.
Interestingly, whereas we always tend to find (without wanting to) noisome sewage outflows or overflows, sometimes in the most scenic of places (the waterfall at Ronda, in southern Spain springs to mind) we haven’t come across any such offensive effluvium in Morocco – a raw country if ever there was one.
For an extra $AUD10, we opt for a first class train ticket to Marrakech. In rural Morocco we pass biblical farming scenes: donkeys, mules or camels used as transport beasts or to pull single furrow, wooden ploughshares; occasionally a camel is used in tandem with another animal, the land often very steep and the plots, for the most part, comparatively small; farmers scatter and sow their seed by hand; crops are reaped by hand-held sickles; lonely, usually young boys or women goat-herders watch over their flocks as they graze the countryside.
Here, they only build stone walls around their gardens and homes to keep the grazing animals out, and house them at night in stone corrals: the land is not fenced. Many villages are still built with mud brick and roofed with a mud-clay and straw mix. Hay stacks are sealed by being covered all over with this same mix, and take many different shapes and forms. Visually, it is very appealing. Tractors are seen only on the few, rare, vast holdings. They are not, at this stage, common. Who knows what the future may bring though.
Marrakech leaves an indelible imprint on our senses and memories. Vivid, pungent, brightly coloured images. This is my second visit, the idea being to show Rachel the places I enjoyed as a younger man.
In my early 20’s I had lived in the Arab quarter, given floor space in a house rented by an eccentric American hippie named Lee who, weirdly, was being funded by a group in America called The Brotherhood of Eternal Love (It was ‘The 60’s’). Life was centred around drugs and being ‘out of it’. Morocco, like Afghanistan at that time, was one of the ‘drop out’ countries for the global legion of so called hippies. I never aspired to be one of them. They were far too self absorbed, insensitive and hypocritical for my liking.
Much kiff was smoked and other imported drugs were consumed. We awoke each morning to the tinkling of bells as the water seller, in his brightly coloured, traditional costume announced his progress around the village. (They have now become relics: hiring themselves to tourists for photo ‘opportunities’.) Another bell ringing, was that at the all important, traditional consummation of marriage. I had this explained to me by Lee, as a throng of family and guests gathered at a neighbour’s house. A string, attached to the bedpost in the ‘bridal suite’, led up, over and outside, to a bell rigged up to peal when the bed started rocking. The eagerly awaited ringing signalled joyous cheering and shouting from the anxious crowd. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to this approval should the bell fail to ring!
I arrived here after joining up with a young German I met when hitching south to Marrakech from Casablanca. He was wearing an old, full length fur coat. He looked neat, except that it wasn’t at all cold. He soon showed me, that under his coat he was wearing an outfit like the old life jackets. It was a purpose built smuggling jacket. He was on his way back from high in the mountains where marijuana is grown in vast commercial crops. He was loaded with 8 kilos of a light browny/green, powdery substance known locally as kiff. I was told that it was the pollen of the flowering heads. It was potent enough. He led me to Lee, where I was offered my floor space for 11 Dirhams a week. Every day started with a kiff pipe being passed around, and the subsequent days and nights went on like that.
I’d wander around the rabbit warren of the old city, revelling in its strangeness, the amazing souk and the Djemaa el Fna where, nightly, one could witness the strangest and most bizarre entertainment: tribal story tellers, mountain musicians, fakirs, soothsayers, snake-charmers, self-mutilators, beggars – many missing limbs and scooting around on trolleys, drummers, and much, much more. We would often have our own parties, usually on some roof top: hypnotic rhythms drummed out into the night to the accompaniment of flutes. Moroccans would often join us, as they were wont to do this themselves anyway.
Lee had had his leg broken by the brothers of a local girl he became too friendly with: a very traditional society, and I was very conscious of this when getting friendly with Melica, a young Moroccan girl who lived next door to us.
In their houses, built around small central courtyards, the flat roofs serve much as our back yards at home do, as the buildings all adjoin one another. She and I used to socialise up on the roof of our house, but out on the street, with her kaftan on, veiled, she sensibly ignored me and I could not break down that barrier. What was I thinking? There was no way this relationship was going to go anywhere. Once however, when I was looking down at her in her courtyard from up on her roof which adjoined ours, she cheekily bared her breasts to me. This, of course, did nothing to dim my youthful ardour.
Most of the occupants of Lee’s house, fed on a diet of drugs, were incapable of making good any plans to travel beyond Marrakech. I made the break, and further out, teemed up with a Sikh Indian from Delhi. We hitched north west into the fascinating countryside. At one point we were dropped off at a remote rural intersection, and it started to rain. Across the road, on top of the chimney of a ruined mud-brick house, a huge stork occupied its straggly nest. Nearby was another small mud-brick house, outside of which several chickens were feeding and a couple of goats were tethered. A donkey grazed nearby. An old man stooped under the low doorway and signalled us to come in out of the rain. We entered and he made us comfortable on a seat while he issued orders to his wife and daughter. We did our best to communicate our appreciation and to describe our travels. The house was mud floored, divided into a cooking section and a living area with bedding. There was a hand loom to one side, evincing the self sufficiency that is typical of rural Morocco. The bedding and their clothing was homespun. After a while, his wife, veiled in the presence of strangers, passed out several hard boiled eggs, bread, olives and mint tea for us. Such hospitality from total strangers is humbling, but is quite common here.
I was always wary when hitch hiking, as it is not without potential risk to life and property, and would err on the side of caution if a situation seemed suspicious to me. My Sikh friend and I hailed a bus in the country one day and found that a man on board had paid our fares. He refused to take payment and on arrival at our destination led us to the local brothel, introduced us to the madam and her ‘girls’ and left us to it. We spent no money there. He also paid for our room at a modest establishment, and in the morning, shouted us some delicious, deep fried Moroccan doughnuts. I was constantly looking for his angle, but there was no catch and I hoped that my suspicion at being treated so generously didn’t show!
Another time, in the middle of nowhere, with about one farm truck going past us every four hours, I was lying on the tarmac of the road trying to get some warmth as I had the cold shivers from a strange virus I had contracted, when a farmer came along with a mule and a young boy. He had obviously summed up our situation, taking in the late hour of the day, and indicated by gestures that we should accompany him. Sick as I was, with no hope of a further lift that day, we joined him on his journey. After a couple of kilometres we turned off the road onto a mule track and began climbing. I had put my heavy guitar case on the mules back, and walked in a feverish daze alongside it. The track climbed and climbed. We had no idea where we were going or what lay ahead, as we had only sign language between us.
After an hour or so of this strenuous walking, now in the dark, we came upon some buildings and it was apparent that this was our destination. They were military barracks, and our friendly guide, after saying something to someone in charge there, bid us adieu. Still not knowing what the hell was going on, but hey – we could have still been out in the open in the dark at the roadside – we soon found it was, once more, no strings attached generosity and hospitality. Inside, the soldiers fed us olives and bread, and showed us to a spot to lay our sleeping bags. It was on the concrete floor, but the soldiers conditions were also spartan and I slept like a baby. In the morning I felt good as gold, convinced to this day that I beat the sickness by being forced to physically exert myself beyond my willpower.
Rachel and I bus it to Essaouira, a fascinating and ancient working fishing port on the west coast, where I unfortunately come down with my strange Moroccan virus again. But not before we have eaten at a fantastic open air seafood restaurant right on the wharf. We find accommodation in an incredible, luxurious Moorish style hotel which, because it isn’t officially open and being off season, we can afford. Unfortunately, because of my illness, I spend a lot of the time alternately freezing and drenched in sweat, in bed. When I am able to stand, I nourish myself with bowls of Harira, a delicious Moroccan soup, at a small, local restaurant. The French have left their mark here, and there are even some French people still in business, for whatever reasons. I’m pleased we arrived off season. Although it is undoubtedly an interesting and ancient Moroccan city, with attractive, small offshore Islands, and has a long history of seafaring (as well as wood craftsmanship and marquetry), it is obviously plagued by tourists in high season. Essaouira is Morocco’s wind surfing capital.
Our arrival in Essaouira coincided with the rain arriving, to break a six year drought in the area. The bad weather followed us as we travelled up to Casablanca.
The ‘Paris’ of Morocco they call Casablanca. Well, yes. A big city – 6 million inhabitants. Very Francophone. Flash cafés loaded with delicious sweetmeats and pastries, and chic Moroccan ladies. Magnificent, wide, tree lined avenues, with generous, palm fringed promenades down the middle, criss cross the city in a well planned layout. They are reminiscent of grander, French colonial times gone by, but where we stayed, by the old Medina near the Port and market, it is very seedy. We couldn’t walk fifty metres without being offered anything we had ever wanted to try or buy in our lives – cheap! Anything!
On the afternoon we left Casa, running late to a pretty tight schedule as we had a train to catch, Rachel innocently asked me what time it was. Well, a lot of that morning was spent haggling over the price for the four Cartier watches I was carrying. Copies of course. Did I have the time? Hah!
It was surprisingly cold, as well as wet in Tangiers. It has been well written about, and has a very colourful history. Famous and infamous European and American writers, actors and would be celebrities have lived, and do live here: some simply for the accessibility of the local catamites. There’s not much you can’t get here.
There are views out to Spain, and we could see Gibraltar over there too. The Medina and souk are the usual maze of alleys with tiny, but chock-full, box like shops, workshops and eating places. It doesn’t pay to be squeamish when eating in these places, but if they are popular with the locals, you’ll find the food is good. Snails appear to be more popular here than in Spain. They are sold from carts at the road side – a big, simmering pot of cooked snails on one side and a big heap of live ones on t’other (They can’t run far).
Tangiers won’t be affected by our leaving after our three days here. We’ve haggled and bought a few things; given a little to beggar children; eaten local food; taken plenty of mint tea; rejected more drugs and other offers; given a few coins to a particularly persistent young ‘guide’ who absolutely refused to leave us alone – you’ve no idea just how persistent they can be – and come to quite like the place, even if it’s not considered ‘the real Morocco’. I’d been here 35 years ago, but probably because I was imbibing in the plentiful hashish at the time, I don’t remember the place too well. I do recall trying to get back to my Pension late one night, and arriving at a confusing five-way intersection. Not recognising any familiar landmarks, I gathered my befuddled wits and headed across to an opposite narrow street in the hope that I may recognise something there. I didn’t, so I rationalised that if I went back to the corner from where I’d crossed, I could cross to a different corner in the same hope, and so on, in a process of elimination, until I’d found a familiar street. The trouble was, I couldn’t now work out which corner it was I’d started from, so I crossed to where I thought it could have been, which didn’t look right when I got there, and so on. My tracks would have marked out a big Star of David. Anyway, with more luck than anything else, I eventually found my way. Tangiers was fun.
There are still plentiful drugs readily available here today, but neither of us are interested. We are both struck by the great divide between the haves and have-nots, and are saddened by the pathetic lives of so many un-schooled children already at work in various jobs: running all sorts of errands; using their slender hands to feed the threads to the hand sewers of fine garments in cramped work shops; in roadside mechanical repair stalls, covered in grease, no overalls supplied, or repairing tyres in most primitive and back breaking ways – these are small children; there are shoe shine boys by the hundreds , no education except the street life. No hope for an easier life. It’s grim. Victorian England perhaps was like this. Charles Dickens and all that. Having said that, on the whole, the people of Morocco are friendly, warm, helpful and good humoured, and it has been a great experience for us both.
For my birthday, the weather improved and we experienced a warm, sunny day for our return to Spain. Standing high on the upper deck at the stern, we gazed out at the ship’s broad wake stretching out to North Africa behind us as we finished our last Moroccan breakfast (a sweet semolina flat-bread with yoghurt). A lingering, distinctive, pungent smell of raw Moroccan olive oil was in the air. It was probably running down our chins, as the bread was saturated with it.
But what a wonderful sensory note to leave that vibrant and colourful country on!
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009