A Yankee on The Moorish Trail

A Yankee on The Moorish Trail

In October of 2010 I Flew from Boston to London to join the Ramblers Worldwide Holidays group for a trip termed The Moorish Trail; a train journey from Marrakech to Madrid.
Flying, the next day from Heathrow, our journey would take us to three towns in Morocco (Marrakech, Rabat, and Tangier), and another three in Spain (Ronda, Grenada, and Cordoba) as we followed the Moors, their culture, and architecture. At the very handsome Marrakech airport we were introduced to our veteran trip leader, Margaret Skinner, and to several Moroccans who would be our guides, drivers, and protectors for our stay in Africa. After a quick stop to deposit luggage at the hotel, our bus took us to the centre of Marrakech and I could tell at a glance that we were a long way from Kensington High Street, which I had left in early hours that morning! We had a fine Moroccan lunch on the top ?oor of restaurant just off the central square, a breezy, airy space where dining areas were partitioned like tents in a caravan.

The following day our young guide, who spoke excellent English, took us through several of the historic buildings in the city centre. We then descended into the famous souqs, the vast, sprawling network of narrow alleys, mostly covered, with hundreds upon hundreds of artisans and shops. I had never seen anything like it. The souqs are best visited in a group and with an experienced guide, because not only can one easily become lost in the vast honeycomb of passageways, but the aggressive sales tactics of the merchants is disconcerting, and one had to strike a delicate balance. I was curious to see the local craftsmen as they worked leather into shoes, metal into light fixtures, or wood into precious boxes, and yet the moment you showed an interest or made eye contact you would be approached by some overly eager salesmen.

And as haggling is an integral part of the process, my native New England reserve made me even more reluctant to attempt a purchase, and I think my fellow English travelers felt the same. The amount of goods on hand for sale is just staggering, undoubtedly one reason why the merchants are so willing to negotiate prices.
The next day we took a coach for over an hour into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, which seemed like the Alps of Africa and were beautiful on this clear day having received the first snowfall of the season the day before. We were deposited at the last village on the road and then headed out across rolling, stony land which was dotted here and there by remote villages.

Locals on donkeys passed us on our way, and in the fields we saw farmers tilling the land as it must have been in Christ’s time, with pairs of donkeys and primitive, wooden ploughs. On the hillsides we saw remote shepherds tending flocks of sheep, also as would have been done in Biblical times. Nowhere were any grazing animals left unattended, as in the English countryside, partly because the land had no fences or enclosures. Even along the highways there were many small flocks grazing the strip of land hard by the road, seemingly trained not to venture into the traffic, and always attended by some shepherd wielding a cane.

Around midday we approached a small cluster of modest houses in a sort of hamlet, and in one dwelling we were welcomed by the owner, a native Berber in traditional dress and, I believe, some sort of relative of our guide Mabarek. Passing through the entrance, we entered a small, open courtyard where we seated ourselves on various rugs on the ground. The owner, assisted by his shy wife who remained inside, then treated us to the local brew, delicious mint tea, or Moroccan whiskey as it’s often called. This tea is always served with a flourish, by raising the pot high into the air with the stream of water cascading neatly into the small glasses below.

The day before had been rolling hills, but this day we followed a narrow valley along a flowing river, also dotted with villages, through which we passed on our way. The river was clearly the centre of life, and women were at work washing their clothes with primitive scrub boards in the shallows. Other women were busy carrying loads of greenery on their backs, such as fig leaves, which they were taking to their simple homes to dry for winter fodder. Midway in the walk, the group ascended high on a hill where we perched for our lunch and enjoyed fine views of the valley below.

 

Our guide this day was Mabarek’s brother Mohammed, who has been helping with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays tours for over 25 years. After lunch some cautiously took the low road back by the river, while other more intrepid hikers followed guide Mohammed (see photo above) up high along a narrow goat track that beetled precipitously over the valley.

From Marrakech we travelled by train to Rabat on the coast, the capital of Morocco. There we spent an afternoon viewing the tomb of the former king and exploring the Medina. Whether because of the royal presence or for other reasons, the tone of the Rabat souqs was in total contrast to those of Marrakech; there was the same variety of goods on display, and also in large quantities, but there was no pressure from eager shop owners to hawk their wares. Encouraged by the absence of a hard sell, I was emboldened to make a few purchases of quality items for a very reasonable price.

It was a Saturday night and the souqs were over?owing with natives, who wandered through the markets with family and friends, clearly the highlight of the evening.

Our final day in Africa was at Tangier. The city has a seedy reputation dating from the 1950s when some of the leaders of the Beat Generation took up residence and pursued an unrestricted life of drugs and sexual indulgence. To my mind the place hasn’t changed much; the souqs are shabby and filled with overly aggressive salesmen, although there were also places of interest, such as the cafe where a group of us stopped for coffee and tea and where the American writer Tennessee Williams was a regular.

The following day a ferry took us across the channel, where we boarded the train for Ronda and our first stop in Andalusia – the region where the Moors had lived and developed their culture to an extremely high standard for eight centuries before being driven back into Africa in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella.

 

Ronda occupies a stunning location high on two hills, which are divided by an enormous, breathtaking, deep gorge. Our excellent hotel was perched on the edge of the gorge, and we all had spectacular views from our windows.

We explored the town with its three bridges dating from Roman, Moorish, and more modern times, and we enjoyed a hike through the neighbouring countryside with dramatic views back to the town.

 

My favourite haunt was a small, modest bar not far from the hotel, which seemed to be patronized mostly by locals. It was a wonderful place to enjoy a few glasses of draught beer while the watching the jovial publican discussing town gossip with the regulars who congregated at the small bar that overlooked the street. At slower times, after the regulars had wended their way home, I ordered various tapas from a faded menu, ranging in prices from one to two Euros, and the bartender would disappear into the adjoining kitchen and rattle some pans over a stove, appearing some minutes later with some of the most delicious food I had on the entire trip.

We had a wonderful feast at the hotel one night, and our efficient leader Margaret had even emailed our menu selections a day before when we were still in Africa – some dishes, such as the wonderful paella, needing advance notice to prepare.

After two nights in Ronda we were on the train again, this time to Grenada, a much larger town and one with an incredibly rich Moorish and Christian history.

Our fine hotel was up on a hill, away from the town and only a short walk to the Alhambra. We had to be up early the following day to begin our tour of the old Moorish palace with tickets timed at 9am.
The marvellous courtyards and royal halls, so intricately decorated in the style of the arabesque, are largely preserved today, I’m proud to say, due to the literary efforts of a fellow countryman – Washington Irving, who lived in the derelict complex for some months in the early part of the nineteen century while writing his Tales of the Alhambra; work which is credited for sparking an awareness of the ancient site and its rich history.

 

The Alhambra has three main areas to visit (the old Moorish palace, the fortress overlooking the town, and the amazing complex of gardens), however as the tickets are timed one must visit all three areas before the mid-afternoon.

My recommendation for the remainder of the day is to descend into the town and then explore the hill across from the Alhambra, the Albaycin or old Moorish district. This area is interlaced with small alleys, and around every corner there is some surprise, often a terraced restaurant with stunning views back to the Alhambra (see photo), or a quiet little square set with tables and where locals and tourists enjoy a long afternoon meal.
I suggest having a late lunch in one of the many enchanting small restaurants scattered around the Albaycin, taking your time to enjoy the meal and stunning views of one of the greatest complex of buildings in the world.

The two nights in Grenada went very quickly, and the following day we travelled to Cordoba, through wonderful countryside with grove after grove of ancient olives. Although Cordoba today seems a relatively small city in contrast to Grenada and Madrid, it was during the heyday of Islam the largest city in Europe and home to some of the great Arab intellectuals.

The city is dominated by the giant mosque, and although the sprawling complex was long ago transformed into a Christian cathedral it still maintains its Moorish columns and other details of its Islamic past.
One veteran Rambler said it was her favourite building in the world, surpassing the Taj Mahal and all the other great monuments of the world.

After spending a good part of the day in Cordoba and its charming old streets in the adjoining Jewish quarter, we were back on a train, a very fast one, which took us to Madrid for the last two nights of the holiday. We dined the first night in the excellent hotel, centrally located on the Via Gran, and the final night — after a day sightseeing at the Prado and elsewhere — we all dined in the heart of the old city where we enjoyed a fine Spanish meal, all seventeen of us seated at one long table.