Authentic Morocco

In February Cyril and I had the fortune to travel to Morocco with our friend Chédid. He acted as our guide, and did an awesome job welcoming us and giving us an authentic taste of his home country. We stayed with him and his aunt, first in their home in Agadir, and then in the mountain village where his family is from.

Cyril went to Morocco once before with his family, thirteen years ago. However, they didn’t venture very far from their beach-side resort. This was my first experience on the African continent and in a predominantly Muslim country.

Day 1

When we arrived, Chédid took us straight away to one of the largest walled markets in Morocco. The Souk El Had (Sunday Market) is an impressive maze of 6,000 stands overflowing with fresh produce, spices, tableware, rugs, furniture, and tailor-made clothes. It is possible to buy almost anything here.

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In France, as long as I don’t dress like an American tourist, they can’t tell that I am a foreigner until they hear my accent. However, they would describe me as ‘blonde’ even though by Minnesota standards I am far from being one. In Morocco, you could spot me from a mile away. Cyril has a Mediterranean complexion so he didn’t stand out as much as I did. Cyril and Chédid gave me a lot of flack for being so pale. Chédid began referring to us as the ‘white man and the transparent woman’.

For lunch that day Chédid’s aunt, Tahra, prepared couscous for us. We ate our dessert outside in the sun while Chédid and Tahra tried to teach us a bit of Berber and Arabic. I struggled; it took me a full day before I could remember how to say hello and thank you. The words went in one ear and out the other.
Cyril was much better than me. When Chédid spoke with his aunt, Cyril would pick out random words and ask, ‘What does that mean?’ He was pretty good at remembering words that Chédid explained, but often forgot their meanings, so he would whip them out at random times and use them out of context.

Chédid speaks four languages fluently, which is humbling. He can switch easily between French, English, Arabic, and Berber. Berber and Arabic are about as different as Arabic and English. Berber is Chédid’s first language because he is a Berber, an ethnic minority from the south of Morocco with its own culture and language.

Tahra only speaks Berber, but we were able to communicate just fine. She is such a cute lady, with an infectious laugh and a great sense of humor. It was hilarious because occasionally she would embarrass Chédid with her jokes and he would just shake his head and refuse to translate them.

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I think this picture captures Tahra and Chédid perfectly

That afternoon we explored the Crocopark, a cool botanic garden/crocodile zoo fusion. It was a delightful park with a design that cleverly integrated its two aspects while making it seem much larger than it was.

It offered several opportunities to get up close and personal with crocs, as well as croc-themed playgrounds, a laboratory to see the babies, and an ecologically-themed art exhibit.
I had pushed the guys to go because I had really wanted to visit a botanic garden, but in the end they enjoyed it as much as I did.

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As we were driving through Agadir on the way home we passed a verdant green, gated estate. Chédid pointed it out as the king’s palace. I said, ‘Ooh! Can we visit it!?’ Chédid laughed at me, ‘You are so cute and so American! That is definitely off limits unless you are invited!’

That evening after dinner Tahra prepared tea for us.
Moroccan tea has no equal and Chédid’s aunt makes the best:) She prepared numerous pots of tea for us during our stay- to accompany every snack and to help digest after every meal. Even the way they serve it is elegant; I would fly back to Morocco just for her tea!

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Day 2

We started off the morning with a stroll along the beachfront and visit to the little city zoo.

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It was the perfect time to see the Bougainvilleas in bloom!

The most striking feature of the city is a hill to the north on which is written God, Country, King. It is even lit up at night, Hollywood style.

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The afternoon was chill- we ate a late lunch at a sumptuous restaurant that specializes in tajine, stew slow-cooked in a special earthenware pot, followed by a nap on the beach.

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Quite a lovely restaurant

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Chédid took us to a resort golf course on the way home so that we could watch the sunset. This was the only place of the trip where alcohol was on the menu. It was a bit strange to be on vacation and not drink alcohol, but we survived just fine.

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Enjoying the sunset
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Quel beau gosse!!

For dinner we met Jalal and Soufiane at a kebab place.  They are long-time friends of Chédid’s that Cyril got to know at grad school. With all of the time we spent with friends it was a homey vacation! The place was great too; there was a butcher counter in the restaurant where we could pick out the kebabs and the meat we wanted, and then they grilled it up at the restaurant.

When we left the restaurant we had to pay for our parking. Even at restaurants like this one with their own parking lots and at the beach far from the city, there was always a parking attendant hanging around that would ask Chédid for money as we left. Sometimes they looked semi-official with a badge or a neon vest, but other times it seemed like the attendant was just some random guy that had camped out for the day at the parking lot and claimed the territory as his own.
Once we asked Chédid if a particularly-suspicious looking parking attendant was legit and he shrugged, ‘I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter anyways, besides I would rather have someone here watching over the car.’ In any case, it was a fixed rate that was never more than 50 cents.

After dinner we went up to the top of ‘Hollywood’ hill to get a good view of the city at night. On top there are the ruins of Agadir’s old walled city, its medina. It has been abandoned since it was flattened by a terrible earthquake in 1960. Agadir was completely rebuilt after that so it doesn’t have an old fashioned city center.

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Day 3

Off to the mountains! All four of us piled into Chédid’s car for the three hour drive to his family’s home in the mountains. We took a pit stop in Tiznit to check out its medina and have lunch.
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Another souk

As we drove to Chédid’s village the land became progressively more arid and we steadily gained altitude.

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On the way Chédid pointed out several ‘saints’ shrines. Technically saints aren’t allowed in Islam, but the Berbers have bent the rules a bit. They kinda do their own thing, the Berbers…

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This made us laugh- “Ici on fait le crédit berbére” It means, “We take Berber credit here.” aka cash only

According to Chédid, Berbers are very rooted to the land and to their families. Even though many have moved to other parts of Morocco and abroad, everyone maintains a connection to their village and their roots. People are very loath to sell their land, even after moving away. In the mountains we saw almost no beggars because people there take really good care of relatives, no matter what. In contrast, there were an abundance of beggars in Adagir, even by Parisian standards.

After settling into the house and checking out their orchard we took a hike around the area just before sunset. Chédid showed us the argan trees that this region is famous for. They dominate the vegetation here, but grow nowhere else in the world.

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Chédid’s family’s orchard
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Mostly olive trees- Cyril and I took some of their homemade olive oil home with us!
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They had a few almond trees mixed into the orchard. We came at the perfect time to see them in bloom! Their scent is heavenly. If we had come two weeks later, we could have partaken in the region’s almond tree festival.
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An argan tree- its seeds are used to make a high value culinary and cosmetic oil
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The argan tree seed shells were striking
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We crossed paths with some shepherds bringing in their flock for the night
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Chédid’s village (photo taken the next morning in better lighting)

His little village was picturesque, with its own mosque, just like the other little villages in the mountains. Religion was more present here than in Agadir. The call of prayer echoed off of the mountains 5 times a day. We even heard it at the top of the Jebel el Kest mountain.
Cyril, Chédid, and I drove to the small capital of the region to eat dinner. We met with Chédid’s cousin and one of his best friends, Amina and Hicham, who are married (what a matchmaker Chédid is!).

After dinner we walked around the village and I couldn’t help noticing an abundance of cats!
In Morocco, stray cats, some scruffy but most regal, were omnipresent. They seemed like the Moroccan equivalent of squirrels. Homeowners and market vendors put out scraps for them but people don’t keep them as pets.
There had been a cat hanging around Chédid’s family home earlier that day, so I had asked him, ‘Is that actually your cat?’ ‘No it is more like the village cat; it makes the rounds to all of the houses, as it pleases.’

That night before going to bed, we headed outside to stargaze. I have never seen stars that bright before. In the mountains, far away from blaring lights, the milky way shows its splendor and all of the little stars that make the up the backbones of the constellations are visible. It was incredible!

Day 4

My favorite day of the trip! We took a scenic hike up to the top of the second-highest mountain in the range. It merited a separate blog post.

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Before hitting the road to go back to Agadir, we stopped by Amina and Hicham’s house for a snack and to say goodbye.

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We could have spent more time in Morocco, especially in the mountains where the company and scenery was excellent. We said our goodbyes and promised return!

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Hiking in Morocco

My favorite day of our trip to Morocco was the one which we spent hiking up Jebel el Kest, the second-highest mountain of the anti-atlas mountains. This mountain range is in Berber country, deep in the south.

We drove the car a third of the way up on a winding one-lane to a scenic village called Tagdicht. We met our guide there and set off on foot.

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Tagdicht

Our guide was a wizened, surefooted old man that kept up a constant stream of chatter in Berber. Our friend Chédid translated occasionally when it was pertinent.

‘This plant is used for tea.’

‘Do you see the entrance to a cave up there? Apparently it’s huge; they don’t know how deep it goes.’
‘This path leads to a village on the other side of the mountains.’
‘Those are gazelle droppings.’

The rest of the six hour hike the guide went on about his life, told tourist stories, and gossiped about so-and-so in such-and-such village.  Chédid was a good sport, showing interest in the right places with the Berber equivalents of hmm-mm’s and yeahs. I would not have been capable of following a conversation; I spent my time admiring the plants and landscape, taking pictures, and trying not to sprain my ankles on the loose rocks.

Chédid translated one tourist story about a woman that went hiking without a guide and got her leg crushed by a rock. They had to take her all the way to Agadir, three hours away, for proper medical care. ‘So what is the moral of the story?’ Cyril joked, ‘That we shouldn’t go out without a guide or that we should tip extra well so that the same thing doesn’t happen to us?’

In any case we wouldn’t have found our way without him. The path was not always clear, its only marking an occasional cairn.

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It was quite steep in some places
The colors were magnificent. The ochre-red soil contrasted beautifully with the vegetation and the abundant yellow and purple flowers.

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A pool under an almond tree

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Taking a break at a mountain stream
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Still a ways to go!
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What colors!
The inhabitants of the village used to cultivate lentils on the terraced mountain slopes up to an hour’s hike up from the village. Now those fields are mostly abandoned, and wildflowers have taken over.  I wasn’t expecting to see so many this early in the season; the variety was delightful.
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I had trouble identifying many of the plants- so let me know if you have any suggestions!

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Rumex simpliciflorus Murb.

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Asphodelus fistulosus L.
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Fumaria
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Erodium cicutarium (L.)
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These daffodils dominated at the top of the mountain.
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Narcissus romieuxii

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Androcymbium punctatum Baker
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Adenocarpus bacquei Batt. & Pitard
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Aizoon canariense L.
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Dipcadi serotinum
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What awesome spines!

After a solid three and a half hours, we reached the summit!

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2375 m (7792 ft)

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Cyril, Chédid,  and I

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Back to civilization! We didn’t cross a soul the entire hike.
Stay tuned for more about Morocco!

Mountain wild flower mania

Cyril and I spent last weekend with Cyril’s lovely aunt and uncle in Die, France (pronounced Dee). We spent a day hiking from the Col de Rousset ski resort to the Parc naturel regional de Vercours.  It was a lovely, long hike, with decent elevation changes, even though we were on a plateau.

The view driving up to the plateau in the morning was a bit ominous with the fog spilling over the cliffs.

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Luckily the fog cleared up after an hour or two. On the way back it was fun to see the view we had missed on the way there.

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At times, it was so pastoral on the top of the plateau as to be ridiculous, with the baaing of sheep, mooing of cows, and ringing of cow bells. We also encountered some herding dogs along the trail. They rendered the scene a little bit less idyllic when they came up aggressively barking and snarling in order to protect their flock. We had to slowly back away and take a little detour to avoid them.

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Not as cuddly as he looks…
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Almost there!

 

After three hours we made it to our goal, the Plaine de la Queyrie, a high prairie (Altitude 1800 m, 6,000 ft) with a single majestic tree.  We were thrilled when we saw the tree because we weren’t sure if it was still going to be there. Cyril’s uncle had heard that it had been cut down. The prairie was impressive because I have never seen such an immense, green space without any sign of humans or human development.

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A very huggable tree
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The view from the other side.

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Gophers were the real kings of the area. We spotted several, and more often heard their sharp barks echoing through the mountains.

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Gopher!!

My favorite part was the wildflowers! The diversity, especially on the Plaine de la Queyrie, was astounding.

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I would have spent a lot more time taking photos of the flowers, but we had a train to catch back to Paris that evening and we couldn’t dawdle.

If you know the names of any of the unlabeled plants let me know. Also, feel free to correct me if I mislabeled something; sometimes the species are difficult to tell apart! 🙂

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Hoary Plantain Plantago media L., medicinal plant
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Fairy’s thimble Campanula cochlearifolia
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A thistle obviously… but I have no idea what kind!
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Brown Knapweed Centaurea jacea
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The closely related Perennial cornflower Centaurea montana, medicinal
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Fringed pink Dianthus monspessulanus: With the deeply fringed petals I didn’t recognize it as a dianthus at first!
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All-heal Prunella vulgaris, medicinal, flowers used for brewing tea, leaves used for salads
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Mouse-ear hawkweed Hieracium pilosella, medicinal and allelopathic (secretes chemicals into soil to keep other plants from growing around it)
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Alpine aster Aster alpinus
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Hyssop-leaved mountain ironwort Sideritis hyssopifolia, medicinal and used for tea
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Cheese rennet Galium verum Dried plants used to be used to stuff mattresses, in cheese production, as a dye, and for making a Danish spirit
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?? Rock thyme Acinos alpinus ?? medicinal, and used to brew tea
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Edelweiss Leontopodium alpinium: Edelweiss is one of the most beloved, unique flowers of the alps!
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Common yarrow Achillea millefolium, traditionally medicinal
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Probably the most common flower I saw up there, it loved the spaces inbetween rocks. Alpine lady’s mantle Alchemilla alpina
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These lovely seed heads remain a mystery to me!
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????
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I have these in my garden at my parents’ house: Pincushion flower Scabiosa sp?
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Mountain St. John’s wort Hypericum montanum
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??? but even its dried-up flowers are beautiful!
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Creeping baby’s breath Gypsophila repens
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The grass was gorgeous too, it lent a reddish hue to the tops of the gentle hills in the valley
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Our last stop before the car, at the highest slope of the ski resort

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