High Barbary

Friday 30 December 2011, Exeter
This account is gradually being reconstructed back in Exeter. I’ve spent today in bed dosed up with cough mixture. It has been an opportunity to think again about our final days in Morocco. The dates and locations used below are those we actually spent there.

Publishing our travel reports was always a problem in Morocco as internet access was very patchy. We were though still writing them, editing then and generally preparing them for the next opportunity to use the internet. Thus we had five reports waiting for you by the time we’d returned to Spain and travelled several hundred miles along the Autovia Mediterrane as far as Valencia. Here though, Modestine was violated when thieves forced the window on the rear door and broke in, robbing us of both our computers and other valuables including our camera, binoculars and even our wine! Since then we have been preoccupied with coping with the resultant problems including changing passwords and pin numbers to safeguard our finances and internet access. Although we’d always been careful not to leave such details on our computers there is no knowing what may have accidentally been left there and we did not know whether the thieves were simply opportunists or whether our computers might end up in the hands of hackers.

Spain has an enormous unemployment problem, particularly with young people who bitterly claim to be members of the country’s most rapidly expanding industry. Some have inevitably turned to crime and we have since learned that British tourists, particularly those in camper vans, along the Mediterranean coast are regarded as easy targets for thieves. We are careful where we park but there really is little that can be done against determined thieves. Needless to say, our travel insurance, car insurance and household contents insurance companies have all managed to wriggle neatly out of covering our loss, leaving us about £1,000 the poorer and little the wiser as to what we could have done to prevent it.

We would like to thank everybody who contacted us to offer sympathy at a time when it really was appreciated. Although we were unable to answer anyone individually, when we could we did look briefly at the cascade of messages that flooded in and we have since had time to read them in more detail. We really are very fortunate to have so many supportive friends sharing our distress and in one instance actually offering to replace one of the computers!

With little but fading memories to go on I will now attempt to recall some of the events of the rest of our Moroccan trip and our homeward travel across Spain and France. Where we can we have used photos to illustrate our text, taken from Wikimedia Commons, a web-based photographic archive freely available for non-commercial use.

Our last Moroccan report on 12th October was from Kenitra, north of the capital Rabat on the Atlantic coast – the “Coast of High Barbary” as it was referred to in18th century folk songs when pirate raiders, known as Sallee Rovers, regularly attacked coasts as distant as Cornwall to seize captives as slaves.

Thursday 13th October 2011, Moulay Bousselham
Sleep during our last night on the unsavoury campsite at Kenitra was punctuated by the dawn call to prayer and by the intermittent barking of dogs unable to differentiate between late-night Moroccan revellers returning from a communal milk-drinking session and Sallee Rovers raiding the campsite for hostages. We were only too happy to make an early start next morning towards the coastal town of Moulay Bousselham.

Our route took us across the Gharb region, an area of importance for fruit growing and agriculture. The flat landscape however was dried out and parched. In the bleached, dusty fields the people were hacking at the ground with wooden tools while donkeys pulled hand ploughs. Along the roadside were stalls selling pomegranates. Rice is apparently grown in the area and what we assumed were salt works could have been dried up paddy fields. The small towns we passed through were crowded with cars, tractors and trucks packed with farm workers standing shoulder to shoulder in trailers being carried out to the fields to work. Several of the towns had street markets where vegetables and livestock were sold and the roads were crowded with women and children buying and selling chickens, goats, milk and more. As we squeezed through the town centres people closed around us, barring our way and asking us for money.

At one point, out in the open countryside away from habitation we were horrified to see beside the road several dead cattle lying at bizarre angles, their legs splayed upwards, soaked in blood with their heads missing. There were also a couple of slaughtered sheep, again soaked in blood with wild dogs tearing at their entrails. There was nobody around so why remains a mystery. The way animals are treated in Morocco has been something we have found very hard to accept. Sheep and goats are ritually, inhumanely slaughtered after submitting them to the stress of dragging them up staircases to the rooftop; cattle stand emaciated in the barren fields beneath the hot sun while oxen are used as tractors out in the fields. Donkeys have appalling lives, starved, thirsty, overburdened, dragged and beaten through towns and medinas, forced to run in 40 degrees of heat carrying a master with a stick, left standing for hours burdened with heavy sacks of cement and tied at the ankle by a metre long rope to a stake where they are then left out in the parched landscape without food or water. Here they walk round and round, tugging continuously to free themselves, their legs rubbed raw with the rope. Horses are likewise tethered but sometimes instead, their front legs are tied together to stop them straying. They are sometimes even expected to work like that! One at Moulay Bousselham was hopping around the campsite dragging a cart for transporting rubbish to the beach where it was dumped.

Moulay Bousselham is a small fishing resort and is named after a 10th century Egyptian saint. His shrine stands on the cliff edge above the lagoon. The resort is a popular destination for Moroccan tourists who flock to the coast during the summer months. Perhaps they arrive by another route than the one indicated on Ian’s map. Once we turned off from the main road to cut across to the coast the route rapidly degenerated into potholes and broken tarmac. We made very slow progress, dragging Modestine’s wheels out from one pothole only to disappear into another. We passed through low level settlements set amidst the sandy scrubland where hundreds of children were milling on the road outside the school. Everyone turned to stare and wave as we passed by. Further along a man appeared on the broken narrow road just beyond a particularly difficult pothole, to bang on Modestine’s bonnet, holding out his hand, asking us for money.

Arriving at the coast we were disappointed to find Moulay Bousselham anything but the picturesque seaside fishing village we’d been led to expect. Many of the buildings are unfinished or little more than shacks, while broken pavements had disappeared under piles of rubble. Properties are being bought up by Europeans who are starting to develop the resort. The location is lovely with spectacular views out across the lagoon and the area has the potential to be charming. We found our campsite down on the shore of the lagoon, separated from the Atlantic Ocean by sandbanks. The lagoon is famed as a nature reserve and wetlands development, home to wading birds and exotic wildfowl such as flamingoes. At the gates to the campsite we found our way blocked by a couple of youths employed by a rival campsite further along the beach demanding that we follow them there! It’s hard to exaggerate how persistent and aggressive they can be. Eventually though, we drove through them onto the campsite and parked beneath shady trees at the water’s edge. When we later emerged to walk up into the town we were again beset by the same touts determined to accompany us on a route decided by them rather than us! Eventually though, even their persistence failed and we explored the town in relative peace. Below us on the cliff edge were a couple of holy shrines, known as koubbas, and views to the sandbanks on the far side of the lagoon. At a bakery we purchased a couple of round flatbreads covered in flies and called off at a seafront bar offering wifi where we worked with a dreadfully slow connection to upload a couple more blogs before returning down the cliff path to the beach in the moonlight, for night falls very quickly here. Outside the campsite gates the touts were still lingering and pestering!

Next morning we were happy to move on. Nowhere is pleasant when you cannot be left in peace. In reality, if you are not a bird watching enthusiast or beach sun seeker there is little to do except dine in the many fish restaurants. If you are seen doing nothing you are considered fair game for the touts. Our attempt to look at the little harbour had touts converging on us from all sides eager to book us in for a personal boat trip around the lagoon.

Friday 14th October 2011, Assilah
Today we followed the road northwards to the coastal town of Assilah. Some years ago our daughter Kate landed for the first time in Morocco and escaped to Assilah from the oppressive atmosphere of Tangier, hoping to find something of the real Morocco. She’d liked the town and recommended it to us.

It is certainly a town with charm. Its old, whitewashed medina of narrow winding streets is clean – thanks to the policy of the mayor who lives in the medina – with walls decorated with various pieces of artwork painted there each year as part of the town’s summer arts festival.

Street in the medina, Assilah

Art on the walls of the medina, Assilah

Castle above the medina, Assilah

The medina stands beside the sea, protected from raiders by strong defensive walls constructed by the Portuguese during the 15th century when they occupied the town until it fell to the Spanish. The influence of Spain is therefore noticeable around the town, not least on many of the menus served. Nowadays many of the properties in the medina have been purchased either by wealthy Moroccans or by the Spanish, and Spanish tends to be heard almost as frequently on the streets as French. Generally the atmosphere of the town is pleasant and friendly, the walks along the top of the Portuguese walls with the sea surging below are exhilarating and the views back to the town across the walls are enchanting. It has developed a thriving arts culture in recent years with several galleries, dance festivals and street decorations throughout the season.

Portuguese fortifications and the medina, Assilah

Back from the medina stands the new town. This definitely shows a Spanish influence with pleasant wide shady squares and a large Franciscan church, one of very few Christian churches in Morocco permitted to ring its bell for Sunday service.

We left Modestine on a side street while we explored the town. It was Friday and the service in the mosque was just ending. As we watched hundreds of bearded men in their long robes and white skull caps poured out into the street, each barefoot and carrying their shoes. Some elderly and poor women beggars, presumably widows, came forward to plead for alms. Almost all were ignored. We were intrigued, why were there no women in the mosque? Still the men poured out through the door. Then we discovered another door round the corner where a far smaller trickle of women were exiting. Non-muslims are not permitted to enter mosques in Morocco but we surmise that men and women are segregated and many women do not attend. Eventually the menfolk dispersed, leaving behind a street slippery with spittle – unpleasant for us but considered as normal in Morocco.

Assilah was, even in the early 20th century, a stronghold for Barbary pirates, born and bred in the Riff mountains. In earlier times they took captives as slaves but as late as 1904 the bandit Mohammed er-Raissouli, working out of Assilah, captured and successfully demanded a ransom of US$70,000 for the Greek billionaire Ion Perdicaris.

Couscous is the traditional Friday meal in Morocco but strangely does not seem to be commonly eaten at other times. We’d obviously arrived at a very suitable time to try one out. We found a pleasant looking restaurant with a sheltered, shady table on the terrace and gave ourselves up to an enjoyable experience. Nearby there were other European couples accompanied by local guides, self appointed to show them the town. Their meals were paid for by the Europeans and overhearing the conversations we were very glad we’d resisted their attempts to accompany us. Why take a guide anyway when we have our excellent Lonely Planet guidebook and a sense of curiosity to read everything we see written up?

Well, there is one good reason I suppose. Those people were left in peace because they were accompanied. We though, were like seals on an ice floe with killer whales circling around waiting to attack. Naively we did not realize this as we enjoyed our delicious lamb couscous with its fragrant spices, looking across at the view of the sea and the Portuguese defensive walls. Several touts, including one in a long white nightshirt and bare feet sporting a thick bushy beard and mass of black curling hair circled the perimeter of the terrace holding up red coral necklaces, bangles and wrist watches for us to admire. We tried to ignore them and continued through to the coffee course. There is obviously an unwritten code between restaurateurs and touts that they will not enter onto the property until the plates are removed. No sooner was that done than they crowded around the table hassling us, thrusting necklaces into our faces and telling us tales of hardship at home and long hours spent crafting these items in their own workshops for us. Several others arrived with trays of sweetmeats - nuts, figs, sweets dripping in syrup – all wanting us to buy and refusing to leave until we did. It is not a pleasant experience particularly as in our culture it is natural to be polite, something that is exploited by Moroccan touts. The nightshirted coral necklace vendor was so persistently infuriating, thrusting it into my hand so that I finally snapped, swinging it back angrily into his face. It fell to the ground and he was obliged to stoop down in front of me to retrieve it. The look of dislike, anger and hatred on his face surpassed anything I was capable of producing and he finally hurried away. The rest followed leaving us abruptly on our own and ruining what had been a very pleasant meal.

Once our anger had calmed we strolled down to look at the golden sand fringing the Atlantic. Close to, it turned out to be full of decaying rubbish. The town may be kept refreshingly clean but the detritus has to be dumped somewhere.

Camels on the beach at Asillah

There were no campsites open in the area but north of the town, on the clifftop, we found a hotel that offered electric hook up and a very basic shower and toilet for campers in the grounds, but provided no shade. We were the only ones there.

Entrance to our clifftop hotel/camping ground. Asillah

Across the road a path ran steeply down to the beach. From up here it looked stunningly beautiful and a large sign announced that the king himself personally supported the biodiversity project to conserve the natural environment along this stretch of coastline. Such a laudable project would surely mean that at last we would find beaches as beautiful close up as they appear at a distance. Alas no! Here too the beach is no more than a rubbish dump, partially overgrown with weeds and bushes containing bottles, old toothbrushes, odd shoes, broken toys, clothing, cans and household rubbish. It was sickening. On a patch of grassless ground a frantic donkey was turning this way and that as he went around in a tight circle struggling to free his sore and bleeding leg from the short rope that tethered him to a spike. Returning up the cliff by a different path we were scratched and bleeding ourselves from the tough thistles. Such a beautiful paradise is just an illusion.

Atlantic coast north of Assilah

Saturday 15th October 2011, Martil
By now we were only some fifteen kilometers south of Tangier and our travels drawing to a close. We did not wish to visit the town itself but rather the northern coast with its cave formations, the massive rocky outcrop of Jebel Musa - the counterpart of Gibraltar across the straits and the second pillar of Hercules, and Cap Spartel, the most north-westerly point of Morocco.

Cap Spartel

The eleventh trial of Hercules was to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were, according to mythology, the daughters of Atlas, closely associated with the area that is today northern Morocco. The golden apples of legend may have been the sweet, juicy oranges found in northern Morocco and today called Tangerines (from Tangier). It is said that before beginning his labours Hercules slept in the coastal cave that today bears his name – Grotte d’Hercule.

As we searched this north-western corner of Morocco our Michelin road map became a complete work of fiction and Ian became apoplectic with irritation. Despite retracing our route several times we could not discover the road we needed and instead found ourselves funneled into the centre of Tangier. We were less persistent with our searching than was Hercules and gave up looking for his cave, deciding that in common with the rest of the coast it would probably be filled with rubbish and decaying matter if we did eventually find it. More of a crotte de cul than a grotte d’Hercule in fact. (Crude but clever pun for our own amusement.)

Despite my protestations we were swept right into the centre of Tangier before cutting across the peninsula to Tetouan. This too was a city far too large for comfort but we eventually found a parking place near the bus station. The town looked rather seedy and we were nervous leaving Modestine. Thankfully our fears proved groundless.


Church, Tetouan

The king has yet another palace in Tetouan near the entrance to the medina.

Outside the royal palace, Tetouan

The medina is on the Unesco World Heritage list. It is not so frequented by tourists as others we have visited. Here we were amongst very few tourists and were able to observe the everyday life of the people who live in the medina. The narrow streets were lined with hanuts and stalls selling foodstuffs, grains, meat, live animals, fish, tools and slippers. We were pestered far less than usual here though attempts were made to get us to follow people through alleys that we knew led away rather than towards our goal. At a fountain beneath an archway a woman was squeezing soapy water from a sheet and rinsing bucket loads of hand scrubbed laundry under the pump. Nearby a mattress maker was filling ticking with straw - not for the Moroccan people a Slumberland divan with springs and soft padding! We’d stopped in the town for a cheap lunch in a bar of suspect cleanliness. A plate of bread and olives with some kind of omlette and a coffee. With the heat and the unpleasant smell of blood, fish and sweat in the medina we both began to feel queasy. Discovering the local ethnography museum we disappeared inside to cool down and escape the noise outside. It was peaceful and interesting and we had the museum to ourselves. The galleries offered tableaux of traditional daily life, costumes, food, cooking and textiles.

In the medina,Tetouan

As we emerged we found ourselves at the beautiful gateway to the medina. Here an elderly man started to chat to us but within minutes he was offering to escort us to a restaurant and we had to back off from what we’d hoped was to be a friendly conversation. It seems nobody in Morocco will speak to us without an ulterior motive.

Gateway to the medina,Tetouan

As we made our way back through the streets a wild gypsy-looking lady in bright colours accosted us in Spanish. At first we were suspicious. She flung her arms around us, kissing me and shaking Ian’s hand enthusiastically. As far as our Spanish could understand she seemed to be thanking us for bothering to look at the town of Tetouan rather than heading straight to Marrakesh and the more major tourist resorts. She at least wanted nothing from us and quickly she melted away into the crowd.

We returned to Modestine and made our way out of the city to the coast. Here we found our last campsite in Morocco at the seaside town of Martil. The site was up to Morocco’s indifferent level of hospitality; it was dirty, sinks and bowls chipped, equipment antiquated and there was no hot water. After supper we walked down to the sea front and wandered along with the holidaying Moroccans. It could have been any seaside town really. It had a grubby, sandy beach, a concrete esplanade and lots of bars and seaside cafes. In high summer it would be packed. All around were modern blocks of holiday flats.

Seafront, Martil

Sunday 16th October 2011, Torrox Costa
During what proved to be our final night in Morocco it rained and we were regularly disturbed by the tannoyed call to prayer blasting out across the town. Perhaps some of the people do answer the call but we had the impression that even the muezzin had simply set a recorded message on a timer and was busy sleeping with his head under the pillow. Depressed with the unwelcome attitude of Morocco towards visitors where they seem to consider that poor standards of service and hygiene are sufficient hospitality for their non-Muslim visitors, we decided to cut and run, heading straight for Ceuta and back into Europe as soon as we could. It had been a fascinating journey and we are so glad to have been able to undertake it, but neither of us were particularly sorry at the time to be leaving.

Our journey up to Ceuta was straightforward and one we recognized from our arrival in Morocco a few weeks earlier. So many new experiences had crowded in since then that it seemed far longer.

Seafront near the port, Ceuta

Arriving at the port we ran the same gamut of wannabe officials eager to fill in our exit papers and remove us from any remaining dirhams we may still have. Having sorted ourselves out, had our exit papers stamped and Modestine checked to ensure she was indeed the same vehicle we’d arrived with, we moved on to the Moroccan customs. Here they decided to make more than a perfunctory search, opening coffers, lifting carpets and searching underneath, tapping at Modestine’s subframe with a hammer. My thoughts drifted back to the couscous I’d bought at the cooperative in Ribat. I’d not been sure of the name when told one of the packets had been laced with a plant extract. I thought it was oregano but what if it was cannabis, or as it’s called in Morocco, kif? Eventually we were through and heading across to Ceuta. Here the border guards really scared me by bringing out a sniffer dog and letting it loose in Modestine! Apart from the couscous I had no cause to feel guilty but it’s still a bit full-on and scary. As the dog sniffed the food coffer and moved on I was relieved to realise I’d been right after all and the couscous was indeed only enhanced with oregano.

We were back on the now familiar streets of Ceuta, the sun was shining and everywhere was clean, bright, green and affluent by contrast to the everyday lives of the people we’d left behind. Here there were green parks and leafy trees. Spanish mums took their children shopping, to meet friends on terraces for morning coffee or to play in the park. It all looked so normal! It’s far more elegant than the British enclave of Gibraltar across the straits and serves much the same purpose, providing Spain with a toehold in Africa just as Gibraltar gives us a strategic base in the Mediterranean.

We now realized we’d passed through a time shift. Ceuta keeps standard European time rather than Moroccan time. This meant we reached the ferry port for Algeciras in time to see our ferry pulling out of the port! While we waited for the next ferry we were checked over yet again by the Spanish border guards. The boss was a tall, imposing Spanish lass in uniform hung around with a gun, a truncheon, a pair of handcuffs and a mobile phone on her leather belt. Her male colleagues did as they were ordered. After weeks of observing the subservient manners of so many of the Moroccan women I wondered what the Moroccan men would make of such an Amazon. Did she, I wondered, ever cross the border and take a stroll through the mayhem on the other side, casually swinging her truncheon as she went? That’s the sort of figure Moroccan women need as a role model. Not for her running behind her husband with a basket of vegetables as he rides home from market on the family donkey!

Then she asked to see inside Modestine. She opened all the cupboards and coffers to peer inside before telling us she thought her really lovely. Suddenly she seemed rather less scary, more like an excited child with a dolls house.

Soon we were on the ferry, leaving Morocco behind, moving out across the Straits, looking back to Africa as it receded from us. There was the headland of Cap Spartel and the huge pillar of Hercules, Jebel Musa. We’d never visit them now. Turning our eyes in the opposite direction we watched as the Rock of Gibraltar loomed ever larger and we made our way back to the familiar continent of Europe…..

Jebel Musa, one of the pillars of Hercules

By now, many of the European campsites were closed for the season. The nearest one on any of our lists was right along the coast near Malaga. The autovia was fast and free and we made excellent progress, driving for the rest of the day with the sea to our right and ceaseless vistas of mountains rising brown and hostile to our left. The towns along the way though were well built, attractive and bright with shrubs and flowers. The contrast with the arid landscape and deprived way of life of the people just across the water made a powerful impression on us.

Around 6pm we reached the campsite at Torrox Costa, just a bus ride from Malaga. Here for 13 euros we found everything we’d missed in Morocco. The campsite was clean, friendly, with hot water, proper toilets and an excellent, cheap restaurant serving British Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and fresh vegetables! Okay, so what’s wrong with a British enclave from time to time? We gave ourselves up to the delights of roast beef and horseradish sauce served with a chilled beer. Alcohol is simply not served in Morocco.

Acknowledgement is made to Wikimedia Commons for the majority of photographs used in this report.