Morocco 2017: A GPS Fail – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me through Italy, Turkey and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a guided trip to Morocco. Today was varied in content, and left me with a great story to tell…

We depart Ouarzazate for Taroudant.  We reach the downtown district but are unable to locate our hotel.  Mohamed and Doug both roll down their windows and start asking for directions from pedestrians on street corners, but everyone they ask are tourists, just like we are.  A phone call to the hotel, provides direction to the medina.  

We find the outer wall of the medina and venture in. The streets become progressively more narrow until they become alleys rather than streets. Mohamed and Doug fold in the side mirrors on the van and I wonder how much paint we are going to lose. Doug keeps looking at his GPS but it’s not matching the layout of the streets. We stop and call the hotel again. “We’ll send someone to guide you.”

A few moments later, our guide arrives, a dark haired 40’ish year old, wearing a black jacket and jeans and riding a bike.  He rides in front of us and gets too far ahead a couple of times but Mohamed is able to catch up. Usually. We continue to drive down this alley, up that alley, and around a corner …

…and into a plaza where there must be at least 20 dark-haired guys in dark jackets and jeans, on bikes…

“Oh NO!”  We can’t pick our guy out from the crowd, and have no idea where we are. I break out in uncontrollable laughter which I’m pretty sure isn’t helping our situation at all…

After what felt like an hour but was really only a few minutes, our guide figures out that he has lost us, and circles back.  In a short time he brings us to another wall in the medina.  Doug starts laughing because his GPS was trying to give us directions “to a location that cannot be driven to.” We’re still laughing when another guy arrives with a donkey cart that we’ve seen used to transport produce and alfalfa, and motions that it is for our luggage. We have arrived at the Riad Dar Dzahra.

Another wonderful riad! The oldest section is 300 years old and houses the family, with the guest rooms situated in the newer parts of the building. I am directed to a second floor room labeled “Caid-7”  I unlock the door to find a spacious room which includes a sitting area with couches and gorgeous cabinetry covered in metal repousse, and a bathroom with another one of those cool sinks and mosaic tile showers.

Back downstairs, dinner in the riad restaurant is a fishball and carrot tagine, which tastes remarkably like any other kefte tagine we have had to date, with a tasty lemon parfait for desert.  Then its off to bed for the long day tomorrow.

The next morning, breakfast is another of those ‘all bread’ affairs, about 5 different types including something that I think is a honeycomb pancake – soft and spongy without much taste to it, and the Moroccan pancakes I have become fond of, except here they are served cold which makes them less palatable.  There’s almond butter in addition to the jams and honey, but no olives, cheeses or eggs.  I leave the table feeling a little protein deprived.

After breakfast I walk around the courtyard. The manager also points up to a stunning window grill in the family quarter, and explains that there are no nails – it’s all peg construction. “Nails wear the wood out so we try not to use them.”

I discover the courtyard is surrounded by a specimen garden. I look up to find a poinsettia intertwining with a banana tree.  There’s a cotton plant in the corner, the first one I’ve ever seen, as well as an agave, a prickly pear, a papyrus, a yellow rose, and a towering wall of bouganvillea (as pointed out to me by Catherine).

We visit the Aladin Treasure antique shop, situated in what looks like an old caravansari.   In case they still don’t have a website, you should look for this shop at Souk Municipal bloc B N31 in Taraoudant, Morocco 83000.

I start taking photos which in retrospect was pretty rude of me. The shopkeeper starts to follow me around the store so I let him show me a few things. I find two brass locks, one in the shape of  a camel and the other a lion, and a china plate with metal overlay studded with what looks like carnelians.  “This piece represents two cultures,” the shopkeeper says. “The painted porcelain is Arabic, the silver overlay is Berber.”  We try to find a teacup to match but ultimately I decide that the teacup is too fragile to survive the trip home.  

Our next stop is a souk – in contrast to the souks we’ve seen elsewhere, this one is clean and orderly, set up on a grid, and filled with items catering to residents rather than tourists, which provides insight into the common objects that people use day-to-day.  

I watch a furniture maker as he applies metal sheeting to a table.  He motions “no” when I take out my camera, but after walking the rest of the souk, I return and watch the craftsmen some more.  The shop steward initiates conversation in limited English, and although I still cannot take photos, I notice that the workmen are more deliberate in their movements, and seem somewhat amused as I make a sketch of one of the tools they have laid out on their workbench. They are working on a pine table, which they brush adhesive onto, and then lay the thin metal sheet, burnishing it to the pine with the handle of their tin snip.  I was fascinated at the absence of nails and brads, and although they did not do any repousse work while I was there, I assume that the pine is soft enough to accept the hammered designs that I saw on the cabinet in my room.  There were several Berber pieces here, including a fountain with a deer head spitter that I really wanted to take home.

Back on the road, I note fences separating the farm plots, here a brick wall with a crenelated top, next to a fence made up of burlap and brambles.  I start to see road signs in Arabic, Berber and French.  There are beehives here, and orange groves, and a couple of peacocks wandering around. We’re on our way to visit a grain storage system that was not totally destroyed in a recent earthquake. 

We turn off the road and head up a hill, the road becoming more dirt-path the further we go.  We stop when Doug points out an argan grove – a nut that only grows in Morocco, and which is processed into an oil for cooking and medicines, and more famously, toiletries and cosmetics.  Mohamed shows us how to smash the green nuts between two rocks in order to expose the inner kernel, which is white, about the size of a pumpkin seed, crunchy and a little bitter but with no other discernible flavor. Learn more about argan, and the health benefits here.

We are now driving through fields of wheat and rock, and I mention that the wheat would have to be harvested by hand with a scythe because the stone outcrops would limit more mechanical harvesting.  Further and further up the steep incline, the path continues to narrow until we arrive at the ruins of a granary. The family that owns this land lives in a riad right next door, but gives us permission to look around (for a very moderate sum of dirham). 

We find the spot Doug is looking for, and spend the next little while walking through the remains of an old grainery.

We wander around for awhile, passing the families’ chickens and a lone (and unexpected) tortoise. On our way back down the hill, we stop again so Mark can take some shots of another argan grove – this one with goats in the tops of the trees, which if you read the previous link, you will discover is one of the ways that argan is harvested … I even found a “Goats in Trees” calendar which graced my home office in 2021!

Then it’s on to Agadir, where we lose an hour when we pass through another time zone. Agadir was a centuries old fishing town and market center before it was largely destroyed by an earthquake on February 29, 1960, which killed 15,000 and destroyed 3,600 buildings including its historic medina which was the epicenter of the quake.  The city was entirely rebuilt from scratch and has developed into one of Morocco’s most important ports and tourist destination cities.  It’s population is principally Berber, and claims to be the largest sardine fishing port in the world.  

There are a few historic and cultural sites that we did not have time to visit, including a 16th century kasbah, and the Media d’Agadir, a reconstructed Berber village housing a collection of traditional craft workshops, and a Museum of Berber Art. Dinner this evening was in a modern restaurant that became more night-club like in the later hours, and I left the table before desert in order to seek some quiet time in the cool night air.

We check in to the Palais des Roses, where we are welcomed at the concierge desk with glasses of tea.  Their brochure states that it was patterned after a Berber ksar, though it feels very French Protectorate, with around 800 rooms on 5 floors, and a sweeping view of the pool and water gardens from the restaurant terrace.  The water garden was nice, in spite of not being allowed on this terra cotta path. I see a butterfly here, and a Eurasian magpie. I can’t find my way down to the beach, but enjoy a brief stroll around the pool and gardens before returning to my room.

Photo by Mark Charteris

There’s WIFI in the lobbies but none in the rooms, so there’s a bit of walking involved to get online.  It’s a nice enough hotel if you are into resorts, but by this point I’m so spoiled by the more intimate and culturally immersive riads, that I am happy we are only here for one night.  

Next stop … Marrakech.

2 thoughts on “Morocco 2017: A GPS Fail – The Director’s Cut

  1. How beautiful!
    Recently for a play, I repainted a sink from stainless steel to the appearance of porcelain, and it got me musing about whether I should repaint the sinks in my house, and what colors I would choose. But now that I’ve seen that cool sink in the bathroom, I’m jazzed about the challenge of painting something like that. It would never be allowed to remain dirty. .


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