Last Day in Morocco – Tangier

Today I had a whole day to discover Tangier. I started with the various museums in the medina, some of which had been recently created as part of the city’s rejuvenation. The first was a museum devoted to Ibn Battouta who, in three long trips in the first half of the 14th century, visited West Africa (as far as the empire of Mali), Mecca and the Middle East, East Africa, Central Asia, India, Burma and China – easily out-travelling Marco Polo. The museum was housed in a nice old building, but suffered from a lack of objects to display, relying instead on large panels displaying Ibn Battouta’s travels. A great story, but not enough to base a museum on – although I did learn that the 14th Century Emperor of Mali might have been the richest man of all time (correcting for inflation). A bit later in the day, I stumbled on Ibn Battouta’s tomb, hidden down one of the medina alleyways. I wondered if the great traveller would have wanted to be buried in an obscure corner of his hometown, or whether he perhaps had hoped for a more exotic resting place.

Tomb of the great voyager Ibn Battouta

The combined museum of the Kasbah and contemporary art had the same problem – a beautiful old building but not much interesting art or many artefacts of old Kasbah life. Each room had its own security guard wearing a bullet proof vest, who would greet me, wait for me to quickly scan the exhibits, and direct me along a passageway or up stairs to the next room in a bizarrely convoluted route through the museum. The guards smiled broadly, as if they thought that my procession was as comic as I did.  I at least snapped this striking installation of coloured tea glasses…….

The tea glasses reminded me that I needed coffee – which is always nearby in Morocco. I headed to the roof of the Café Bleu, from where there was a great view over Tangier.

I also managed to alarm these two seagulls who had built a nest there, and who squawked at me in a warning not to come any closer.

Two scary seagulls

After coffee, my medina exploration became more successful. I found more pretty little alleyways and squares……

A shady square in the medina

……….and a beautiful old synagogue…..

In the synagogue

…and then the Place Petit Socco, which used to be a centre for drug dealing and prostitution, but now is a good place to drink even more mint tea and watch the comings and goings of people visiting the nearby market.  From there I found one of Tangier’s most interesting buildings – the American Legation.  Morocco was the first country to recognise the independence of the USA, and the first to give it a property to serve as a diplomatic mission.  To this day it is the only foreign property on the US’ list of important historical American buildings. It was a lovely old house, decorated in 1950s style and with a pleasant Andalusian patio and fountain.

In the American Legation

From there I walked through the market, where I bought a few dates for a mid-afternoon snack…

Mmmm……dates

…and then headed on to the “new town” for a coffee in the Grand CafĂ© de Paris, opposite the French Embassy, before checking out the view of the sea from the wonderfully named “Terrace des Paresseux” (Terrace of Lazy People). 

Being lazy on the Terrace des Paresseux

Feeling lazy myself, I headed back to the medina for an aperitif on the roof terrace of one of the hotels. My beer represented my first alcohol in six days – another plus for Tangier over other Moroccan cities is that alcohol is more widely available.

View from the bar of the Dar Nour hotel

Back at my hotel, I climbed all the way to the roof to try to get a first view of Europe from Africa….and after a day of hazy weather that had hidden the European coast, I was finally rewarded with success. It was a nice way to end my second visit to Morocco.

View from my hotel’s roof – the faint strip of land on the horizon to the left is Europe

I had intended to stay longer and return to Marrakesh, but for personal reasons had to cut my trip short.  This will certainly be for a future trip, and I’d also like to explore more of Morocco’s magnificent countryside than I managed this time.

On the Road to Tangier

The start of this morning was uncomfortable, with frequent trips to the toilet. I sat on the terrace of my room, enjoying the view, and planning the day. As check out time approached, my tummy felt better, and I decided I could risk a longer scenic drive to get to Tangier. First, I drove to Ceuta, one of a few small pieces of Spanish territory in Morocco. I didn’t have time for the lengthy formalities to enter but got a good view of the city from the road which skirted around it. For the first time since I arrived in Morocco, the weather was cloudy, and with a strong breeze blowing it was quite cold.

The Spanish colony of Ceuta

From Ceuta, the road rose steeply into the mountains, and gave a great view of Jebel Musa, one of the ancient pillars of Hercules, which features in Roman mythology.

Jebel Musa, a pillar of Herculues

…..and then descended back to the coast to Tanger Med, Africa’s biggest port. It was a huge facility and still being expanded, but it proved hard to take photographs that give a true impression of its massive size.

A not-so-good photo of Africa’s biggest port

The road continued along the coast passing some pretty beaches and rolling hills before I arrived in Tanger and returned my hire car.  I was very pleased to have successfully made it without hitting any cars/people/donkeys/goats/dogs and adding more dents and scratches to the large collection my car already had.

I immediately liked Tangier. The stretch I had driven along to reach the centre was very modern, whilst the area around my Riad was typical of old Moroccan city centres. My riad was run by a French lady, and like most of the other places I had stayed, excellent. It was conveniently located right next to the main gate to the Kasbah, itself housed within Tangier’s medina.

Tangier has a long and turbulent history due to its strategic location on the Straits of The Gibraltar (the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea). It was first settled by Greeks and Phoenicians, then became capital of a Roman province, then changed hands between Vandals, Berbers, Arabs, the Portuguese, the British and then returning to Moroccan Arabs. In the 19th Century the colonial powers retook Tangier and in 1912 created the International Zone, sharing the strategic city between nine western countries. Between this date and Moroccan independence many expatriates came to live in Tangier, including artists, adventurers and exiles.  After independence, Tangier went into decline and gained a reputation for drug dealing and other criminality. However, Tangier was recently given a huge facelift by the government, which included lots of new buildings and relocating the port 40km to the east and is now a very pleasant city.

I was a bit tired after my restless night and the long drive, so I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the medina.  This had received a successful makeover and lots of new paint as part of Tangier’s overall renovation, and since donkeys no longer provide the transport here, it is very clean. Whilst Fes’ medina is dark and mysterious, Chefchaouen’s is blue, and Moulay Idriss’ is poor and dirty, Tangier’s medina recalls Matisse’s painting from his time living here – bright white walls, with house doors and windows providing splashes of bright blue, green or yellow.

Typical passage in Tangier’s medina

I stumbled upon a strange tea house where people were playing live music. Signs announced them as the “Fils du Détroit” (the “Sons of the Strait [of Gibraltar]” ) who played Arabo-Andalusian music.  I sat happily in the courtyard outside, drinking mint tea, before venturing in to meet the musicians…….

Jamming in Tangier

……and a new friend.

One of the semi-stray cats walked into the tea house and befriended me

For dinner I chose a vegetable tagine in one of the popular restaurants at the medina entrance. It was a good choice, and I enjoyed a good night’s sleep without tummy problems.

The Blue City of Chefchaouen

Today I had breakfast, said goodbye to my hosts and headed off to Chefchauoen in the Rif mountains in the north of Morocco.  It was an uneventful drive of about three and half hours. The road started on small country roads, where I had to dodge potholes, goats, donkeys and people – before I reached the main National 13. This was wider, but I still had to dodge potholes, donkeys and people – fewer goats though. The road first went along rolling, plains – despite the landscape looking very dry, there seemed to be a lot of agriculture. Although I had yet to see a cloud in Morocco, I suppose it must rain here sometimes.

The dry plains of central Morocco

The road then climbed into the pretty Rif mountains and became greener. I stopped at a roadside service station and found that the coffee served there was just as good as in the cafes in big cities. Soon my destination, the blue city of Chefchaouen, came into sight, nestling amongst some impressive mountains.  

The approach to Chefchaouen

I found my hotel easily, but my room was not yet ready, so I chilled by the pool with some mint tea.  The hotel owners kindly upgraded me to a suite. Maybe they have been following my blog, recognised me (easy to spot a travelling bear in Morocco!) and wanted me to mention them. Whatever the case I can confirm that the Dar Erchauoen is a great address as my photos confirm:

The entrance to my hotel
Chilling by the pool with mint tea and biscuits
The view from my room

I enjoyed my suite, waiting for the intense heat of the early afternoon to pass and then set off in the slightly-less-intense heat of the late afternoon armed with a bottle of water and a hat. Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 as a base for Berber tribes to attack European settlements on the coast.  It then became a refuge for Muslim and Jewish refugees fleeing Spain after the fall of Granada; the new settlers built their houses in the Andalusian style. At some point, the residents starting painting their houses blue rather than the traditional white – no one knows why. The town was closed to non-Muslims until occupied by the Spanish in 1920, who stayed (with one interruption) until Morocco’s independence in 1956.  Chefchaouen retains a very Spanish appearance, and most of the road names are shown in both Arabic and Spanish.  

Today Chefchaouen is a very popular tourist destination for foreigners and Moroccans alike – maybe too popular in the summer and at weekends.  My hotel was on a hill at the edge of the town, and it was a pleasant stroll downhill to reach a small, fast-flowing river that provides one of the centres of activity for the area. Children bathed, and many stalls sold souvenirs to tourists. There were many orange juice sellers – one of whom had found an ingenious way to keep his oranges cool.

An ingenious way to keep oranges cool

One souvenir that all the shops were selling was paintings of blue houses – compared to the remarkable craftsmanship I had seen elsewhere in Morocco, these paintings were of surprisingly poor quality. Much better to take photos, which was my main occupation as I wondered through the shady small streets of the medina…..

Matches my sailor’s outfit!
They let me play football with them
More blue streets
Sometimes I thought I was in an ice cave inside a glacier…

After wandering through the blue medina, I reached the main square and Kasbah, which provided brown relief from all that blue………

Finally some brown…

Then I headed to Café Clock, a local institution, with a terrace which gives excellent views of the town.

A selfie at the Café Clock

Dinner was in a smart and busy restaurant. Usually, busy places are safe to eat in, but during the night I was struck by the dreaded “Morocco belly”. I passed an uncomfortable night and woke up the next morning wondering how I would manage the 2 hour drive to Tangier if I needed to run to the toilet every ten minutes.

Moroccan Medley

Now it was time to leave Fes.  The only part I had not seen yet was the new city, which I planned to visit briefly when I picked up my hire car in the morning. As it turned out, I saw more of the new city than I expected. On arrival at the office of Europcar, I found cables and wires everywhere and an apologetic manager, who promised that their IT system would be fixed in ten minutes.

Oops…

So I went for a stroll; the new city was a complete change to the Medina, with modern buildings and a broad main avenue lined with palm trees.

Fes new city

On my return to Europcar, I was asked to wait another ten minutes, so I went and had coffee in the café next door.  Drinking coffee and watching the world go by is a Moroccan pastime, and the coffee is extremely good. Twenty minutes later Europcar had still not solved their problem; I waited a bit more in their office and then suggested they provide a car from their airport branch. More waiting, for someone to come to pick me up, and then a surprisingly long drive to get to the airport. I finally got my car over an hour after I had arrived in their downtown office.

I drove down an empty motorway as far as Meknes, then along smaller country roads to the small town of Moulay Idriss, where I had booked a room in a family-run guesthouse. The hosts were hospitable, as everywhere in Morocco, and it was interesting to see how they lived. I was the only guest and so they let me choose my room. Covid had hit the Moroccan tourism industry hard – most hotels were closed for two years, and people who had worked in the tourist industry received only 200€ support from the government for the entire period.

My main reason for coming to Moulay Idriss was to visit the famous Roman ruins of Volubilis, but the town itself is listed in Lonely Planet as one of the highlights of the region. On first sight, there was little of interest, and even my host expressed some surprise when I said I planned to explore.  It was a typical small Moroccan town, with one road running through it, a large square lined with a market and cafĂ©s, and a medina with windy lanes, where donkeys still provide the transport. It was a little run down, with donkey droppings everywhere, but at least there very few other tourists and no souvenir shops.

The key attraction of the town is the shrine of Moulay Idriss, which is a key pilgrimage site for Moroccans. He was a grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who fled Mecca in the 8th Century, arrived in Morocco, converted the local population to Islam, and founded the first major dynasty of Moroccan kings. The tomb and its surrounding mosque cannot be visited by non-Muslims, but instead you can clamber up a steep hill to reach a terrace from where you can see the complex from above. I refused the services of the many guides who were hanging around and found my own way up in the baking heat of the mid-afternoon.

The tomb of Moulay Idriss, from above

I arrived back at my guest house soaked in sweat and had a rest and a shower before setting off on the very short drive to Volubilis. The site was occupied by the Berbers from the 3rd century BC but became a Roman town in the 1st century AD, and most of the ruins that can be seen today date from the 2nd century. I arrived at six, and it was still 32C with a blazing sun. This site had little cover, so I made my way slowly, stopping often in the shade of cypress trees or ruined Roman columns. It was a nice place, but not quite as impressive as I had expected for somewhere that is ranked alongside Fes as one of Morocco’s top attractions.

Volubilis

As the afternoon wore on though, Volubilis grew on me. The ruins lie in a grassy field amidst rolling, fertile countryside, with a view of the bright white buildings of Moulay Idriss in the background.  As the evening came and the temperature dropped, I began to enjoy wandering around to see what I could find – quickly realising that buildings whose entrances were roped off usually housed pretty mosaics. The sun was slowly sinking to the horizon, and a pleasant breeze started. I could now sit comfortably on a small hill and enjoy the sight of the ruins from a distance, amidst fields of long grass waving in the wind.

Chilling at Volubilis in the late afternoon sun

I drove back to my guesthouse and enjoyed watching the sunset from my terrace on the top floor. For dinner, my hosts had prepared a huge tagine of vegetables and chicken.  I managed to eat it all and climbed the four floors back to my room with some difficulty before collapsing into bed and falling fast asleep. 

Yes, I ate it all!

More Fes

Studying my guidebook over breakfast, I realised that there were some highlights in the Medina that I had missed. So I set off early again, with a better sense of a direction, and a clearer plan. At nine o’clock even the main tourist circuit of the Medina was quiet, and nearly all the shops were shut.

Early morning in the Medina

I had the pleasant surprise of having the usually popular Medersa Saffarine all to myself and took some great photos. 

The Saffarine Medersa all to myself

Next, I found the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, the founder of Fes. It was still early, and it was closed – but I would not have been enter anyway since in Morocco, mosques and Islamic shrines are closed to non-Muslims (except for the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca). This strange law is actually not Moroccan at all, but a relic of French colonial rule, which the locals have never bothered to cancel. The tomb is housed in a prettily decorated building, lined with the deserted stalls of candle and sweet sellers. Bees buzzed around in the still morning air, looking for crystals of sugar left over from yesterday’s sweet sales.

A candle seller opening his stall near the shrine….
…..but the sweet sellers start later and leave their trolleys to the bees

The shops were now beginning to open, and in the tailor’s district, this shop-owner let me photograph him filling up his water bottle for his day’s work. Public water fountains – for drinking, or for washing before prayers – are found all over the Medina. This plumbing seems to work very well for a water system that is over a thousand years old.

Filling a water bottle for the days work

Returning to the main thoroughfare of Talaa Kebira, I noticed the spectacularly ornate interior of a restaurant through a half-closed door. I went in, and found the owners setting tables and sweeping the floor. They were not yet open, but I persuaded them to serve me a bottle of water, and I sat relaxing and admiring the elaborately decorated room and wonderful ceiling.

From there I found the Place of the Nejjarines, the centre for production of carved wooden goods. It has a huge museum housed in a tall building with a roof terrace. I braved the fierce sun – already very strong, even at 11 o’clock – to take some photos of the Medina’s rooftops.

The entrance to the Museum of the Nejjarines….
….and the view from the roof.

I had now ticked off all the Medina attractions listed in Lonely Planet, so I decided to explore off the beaten track in the northern part of the Medina, ducking through narrow alley ways to see what I could find.  Sometimes there was a dead end, with the route blocked by an intriguing looking door……

…….sometimes there were little glimpses of street life, like this child watching two tiny chicks. Why one was pink rather than the usual yellow is a mystery, as is how they could survive in a city where there are almost as many stray cats as people.

I was getting a little better at navigating, and manged to find the Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate) at the main entrance to the Medina without much trouble.  From there, I headed to the Jnan Sbil  gardens to enjoy a pleasant stroll in the shade amongst tropical plants. I was sweating – it was 35C, with 38C forecast for tomorrow and maybe 40C the day after.

From the gardens I reached Fez el Jdid or “New Fez” – founded in the 13th century by a sultan that wanted to live far away from his subjects in the main Fez Medina. The area is still home to a functioning royal palace to this day, but it is closed for visitors and the main attraction is the Mellah, or former Jewish quarter, which dates from the 15th century.  I visited two synagogues, both originally built in the 17th century and recently refurbished.

It was now one o’clock, and I was hot and tired. I took a taxi back to the hotel, and snoozed and wrote through the afternoon. I moved from the pool to the terrace to hear the six o’clock call to prayers. It was still hot, but there was a pleasant breeze, so I decided to make one last excursion to visit the 14th century ruins of the Merinid tombs that I could see from the terrace, high up on the skyline on the edge of the city.  It was a complicated taxi ride, involving a long trip, the driving waiting at the ruins and then a trip back. The usual tactic of insisting the driver use the meter would not work, so I asked the hotel porter to negotiate the fare for me. This proved to be a mistake – since the negotiation took place in Arabic, it allowed the driver to claim a different fare and different waiting time to what the porter told me had been agreed. I brushed off the driver’s protests and enjoyed a new perspective of Fes from high up in the hills to the north of the city, enhanced by the light of the setting sun. 

A couple of views of the ruined Merinid tombs

On the way back, I got the driver to drop me at Bab Bou Jeloud so I could enjoy one last stroll through the Medina before a very good dinner of lemon chicken tagine in the restaurant near my hotel. A good way to say goodbye to Fes!

A couple of last views of the Medina – first a mosque….
….and the sweet sellers, who were now serving their last customers.

Fes

At Fes train station I had to try several different taxis before I could find one willing to use the meter on the trip to my hotel (most asked for a price five times higher!). When I got there though, I was very happy. One of the joys of travelling in Morocco is the opportunity to stay in Riads – private homes converted to guest houses. My Riad had a comfortable room……

My room in the Riad

And nice roof terrace with a view over Fes, although in the late afternoon, it was uncomfortably hot.

A view from the roof terrace

In the evening I took it easy, taking dinner in a nearby restaurant in another Riad before getting some well-earned sleep after a hectic day.

The evening’s restaurant

I got up at eight, intent on setting off early before the heat struck the city in the afternoon. The hotel’s breakfast was……..very generous – enough to last me through to dinner without lunch.

A “light” breakfast

I then set off to explore. The Medina, the old original city, is the main attraction. It was founded in 787 AD and became a centre of learning and craftsmanship – traditions that remain to the current time. The Medina is a city within a city, enclosed by thick walls with occasional gates (something that can make getting out difficult!).  It covers an area of 220 hectares making it the largest urban area without motor vehicles in the world. In this space live some 200,00 people, resulting in a population density double that of Manhattan. The Medina is a bustling anthill, containing people’s homes and all the shops required to meet their everyday needs. In addition, it is a centre of production of leather, metalwork, carved wooden items and even honey for the rest of Morocco.  And finally, in keeping with its status as a centre of learning and religion, there are many mosques, shrines of famous saints, and medersas (schools where Islam is taught). The structure of the Medina, with its covered markets and twisted lanes, has hardly changed in a thousand years, but the introduction of electricity, the internet, mobile phones and satellite TV means that life there now is fairly modern (if you can accept the ancient water plumbing, something that has not changed).

I set off into the Medina armed with the map offered by my hotel and was soon lost in the huge labyrinth of tiny passages. Getting lost is an integral part of the Medina experience, and something that every tourist should do, to explore areas that the crowds don’t reach and be treated to little sights like this donkey, which was fulfilling the role of a garbage truck for the dustmen collecting household rubbish in the morning….

Garbage collection Fes-style

Eventually I ended up on a road with cars, so knew I must be near one of the exits. I studied the map hard, found where I was and headed to Tala Akbira, one of the two main routes leading through the Medina.

The main entrance to the Medina

I was now on the standard tourist circuit, and visited the tanneries (interesting but very smelly – they offer you a sprig of mint to hold to your nose whilst you visit)…….

The tanneries

And the ancient medersas (schools where the Koran is taught) dating from the 13th and 14th centuries…….

The Medersa Bou Inania

I got tired of following the crowds and dropped off into the side streets again. The real joy of the Medina though is not the standard tourist sights but the uncharted passages with little surprises like pretty mosques…..

Detail from the outside of a mosque

… and local workshops, making anything from honey to metal goods.

Beating metal

My exploration was rewarded with a great discovery – Kassr Annojoum, a palace built in the 1800s (modern by Medina standards) and now housing an association promoting Italian-Moroccan cultural exchange. It was not listed in my guidebook or shown on my map. It had a beautiful courtyard, where I lingered over an orange juice……….

A great place for orange juice…

…….before I lingered some more over mint tea at the “Ruined Garden”, now a restaurant.

….and a great place for mint tea.

I got back to the hotel and chilled out in the small plunge pool before writing my blog, before heading off for an evening in the two places I had discovered earlier in the day – a guitar concert in the Kassr Annoujoum and dinner in the Ruined Garden. Getting home proved something of a challenge. The narrow paths looked different in the dark. I followed my hotel’s advice to always take the path going down, in order to end up at the river where there were several exits from the Medina……but I simply could not find any of the gates I recognised. After much walking I finally discovered a way out but then found myself at the north side of the Medina. It was a long way away from where I needed to be, and I had to take a taxi home.

Back on the Road – to Morocco!

The Bear is Back!

It’s been a while since I was last on the road. No, I was not hibernating over the winter like other bears, but was very busy with various projects in London. Finally, it is time to travel again, and this time my destination is Morocco.  I was already here once, over twenty years ago, when I visited Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains.  This time I am going to visit most of the things I missed first time round.

I flew into Casablanca, the biggest city and economic hub of the country, arriving in the early evening. My flight was on time, and almost empty, and getting through the airport on arrival took me only 20 minutes (which included investing in a Moroccan Sim card).  I checked into my hotel and headed straight off to dinner at Rick’s CafĂ©, one of the city’s most famous nightspots.  My first impressions of Casablanca during the walk there were not so positive – much of the city appears to be falling down or being rebuilt. A few sleek new buildings stood out from the debris of the rest of the city.  Rick’s turned out to be worth the walk – it is a cafĂ© designed in the style of the film set of “Casablanca” and served excellent food and drinks to the sounds of live jazz.

Jazz at Rick’s in Casablanca

I headed back to my hotel and fell asleep quickly, aided by the glass of rather good Moroccan wine I had tried at Rick’s.

Next morning, the noise of the city woke me early. I decided to get up and explore, since I had only reserved half a day in Casablanca.  First, I strolled around the centre, admiring some crumbling but interesting buildings from the 20th century…….

In the daylight, Casablanca looked much nicer than at night, especially in the smaller side streets where there was less traffic. I then took a taxi to Casablanca’s main (only?) tourist attraction – the Hassan II Mosque. It is the seventh biggest in the world and cost about 600Million Euros to build in 1986-9

Hassan II Mosque, the seventh biggest in the world

The results were truly impressive – I’ve seen lots of other mosques around the world, some more extravagant than this one, but Casablanca’s stands out for its style and elegance.  It was big enough to swallow the different tour groups that had visited, allowing me to admire the marble and richly carved marble and mahogany almost on my own. 

Inside the mosque

A particularly beautiful part of the mosque is the room where people wash themselves before prayers……..

The washing room

From the mosque I headed to the nearby Corniche, where there is a good view of the sweeping bay of Casablanca. I posed for a selfie on some railings…………

Before the fall…

…..and then disaster struck. A gust of wind lifted me off my paws and blew me into the Atlantic Ocean. As you can imagine, teddy bears are not good swimmers – we have little arms and legs, and our fur quickly gets waterlogged.  Fortunately, a passing Moroccan waded into the water to pull me out, and after thanking him I lay on the beach, trying to dry out a bit.

Recovering and drying out

After this near-death experience, I decided to take it easy and walked back to my hotel through the maze of small streets that make up the medina. I am told that Casablanca’s medina does not compare to the ones in Fes or Marrakesh, but it still made for a pleasant stroll, with many glimpses of local life.

In Casablanca’s medina

I had enjoyed a very full morning, and now it was time to continue my travels to the city of Fes. Morocco has a very advanced train network, and you can even buy electronic tickets online. Outside the station I stopped to enjoy a glass of fresh orange juice in a shady cafĂ©…

Sipping tea or orange juice on a terrace is the national pastime in Morocco

…. before heading to the platform to await my train.  Whilst waiting, I spotted one of Morocco’s al-Bouraq trains that run along the east coast up to Tangier and reach speeds of 230km/h. 

Africa’s bullet train

My own train was not quite as modern, but was still fast, comfortable, and punctual. I arrived in the late afternoon in Fes, one of Morocco’s most ancient cities. Since it has already been a very eventful day, I write about Fes in my next post.

Farewell to Iceland

Today was my last full day in Iceland. I had saved it for a circuit of the “Golden Ring”, a circuit that includes three famous attractions near Reykjavik. Every visitor to Iceland “does” the Golden Ring, even those that arrive from cruise ships for just a day in the country. I left at 8am to try to avoid the tour groups and my first stop was at the Thingvellir National Park, a place strongly associated with Iceland’s identity. It was here that the Alpingi met – an assembly of all the early Viking settlers that took place once a year to agree new laws, resolve disputes and administer justice. The Alpingi dates from 930AD and gives Iceland a claim to have been the birthplace of the world’s first democracy.  Fittingly, Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944 was also celebrated here.

Thingvellir Park

The site of the ancient Alpingi also has great geological interest – it is one of the places where the rift, where the American and European tectonic plates are separating, is clearly visible. The rate of separation is only 1-2 cm per year, but it is still enough to cause noticeable changes in the scenery over time. I tried to imagine the scale of the force that could push two continents apart……and failed.

Where continents part. On the left – the American tectonic plate. On the right – Europe.

From Thingvellir park I followed the standard tourist circuit to Geysir – a place that gave its name to geysers across the world. The original Geysir is now dormant………

Geysir, an ex-geyser, now little more than a pool of hot water

……….instead, there is a different geyser called Strokkur to see. It spouts every 5 to 10 minutes with a jet which is about 15m high, but to be honest I have seen more spectacular geysers on my travels elsewhere.

Strokkur geyser

From Geysir I headed to Gullfoss, or the Golden Falls.  These were my last waterfall on the trip and they did not disappoint – vying with Dynjandi for the title of the most impressive in Iceland.

Gullfoss up close….
….and from a distance

From Gullfoss I left the tourist coaches behind, driving south to Iceland’s newest tourist attraction, the volcano of Geldingadalir, which started erupting in May of this year.  The day before I had found a website explaining how to visit the area. It showed the different possible paths to the volcano and advised not to stand on the cooling, apparently solid lava flow – what looks to be solid rock might only be a thin crust covering 1000C lava. The site also advises every day whether poisonous volcanic gases might be a risk for visitors. The eruptions are sporadic, and you have to be lucky to see flowing lava.  In my case I missed the last eruption by a few days and saw a big valley filled with steaming, cooling rock that had been molten lava a couple of days ago.  Contrary to the advice they had been given, lots of people ventured up onto the rock for selfies, but nobody fell through.

Steaming, cooling lava at Geldingadalir, Iceland’s newest volcano
This view from the hill gives an idea of the scale of the eruption

There was a path leading up a steep hill to the place where you can see into the crater.  The top of the hill was lost in fog, and the people coming down told me that you couldn’t see anything from the top, so I contented myself with admiring the view of the lava-filled valley from halfway up.  My dream of seeing an active volcanic eruption remains on my “bucket list” but I was still pleased by my visit to Geldingadalir.

From there, it was back to Reykjavik (in about an hour).  For my last night I treated myself to dinner in one of the city’s best venues – Fishmarkt – and had a blowout dinner with their exotic tasting menu. After two weeks of cooking for myself it was nice to visit a restaurant for a change; I finally discovered where all the interesting fish that live around off Iceland’s shores end up – in Reykjavik’s restaurants or exported.  Sadly, they don’t make it to the rest of Iceland for purchase in local shops for self-catering tourists. The meal had around seven courses, and I struggled back up the hill to my hotel with some difficulty and slept really well. 

Phew! Made it to the desert course.

Well, that’s it for this trip.  Iceland was a great place to visit, even if it didn’t quite make it into my all time top ten. If I come back, it will probably be in winter to try to catch the northern lights and to try to explore some glacier caves. For now, it’s back to London to enjoy autumn in a city that exists on a rather different scale to little Reykjavik.

Waiting for my plane back to London in one’s of the world’s best airline lounges….

Iceland in miniature

Today I explored the Snaefellsnes peninsula, a 50km long strip of land, which juts out into the North Atlantic Ocean just north of Reykjavik.  It is reputed to represent a condensed sample of everything Iceland has to offer – mountains, a glacier, strange lava fields.  And so it proved to be.

The day started bright and sunny, and I immediately after breakfast I left the hotel on foot to admire the pretty small town of Stykkisholmur.  I had arrived here at night, so had missed the colorful houses and view of thousands of islands from the town’s lighthouse.

The port of Stykkisholmur and my ferry (again)
View of the town from the lighthouse
Hundreds of islands in the bay at Stykkisholmur

My road led west along the north side of the peninsula.  There was brilliant sunshine – a rarity on this trip – and I stopped repeatedly to take photos

Strange lava fields….
Beautiful mountains….
Waterfalls….yes this is Iceland in miniature!

………including lots of shots of the distinctive triangular mountain of Kirkjufell, reputedly Iceland’s most photographed mountain.

Endlessly photogenic Kirkjufell

I continued west in the hope that the good weather would continue and I would see the massive Snaefellsjokull glacier that covers the western end of the peninsula, but cloud blew in from the sea, and I found myself driving through mist. I abandoned my plan to drive to the very tip of Snaefellsness, to a spot where you can apparently see whales in the sea – I wouldn’t see more than 100 metres. Instead I made a few small stops, one at Malariff by the sea, where there are more strange lava formations………..

Lava columns – supposed to be two petrified trolls

……….then for coffee with sea view at Hellnar……….

Hellnar – good coffee, an interesting cave (pic), seals and diving birds

……….and finally at Raudflesgja, where a stream emerges from a strange cleft in the mountain. I walked in as far I dared; if you are willing to get your feet wet, it is possible to walk into the cleft for quite a distance.

How far dare you go?

I passed the side road that led up to the glacier, but after some hesitation decided to drive on.  I could already see the upper stretch of this road disappearing into cloud, and I didn’t think I would see anything.  Its true that the Snaefellsnes peninsula is a microcosm of island – not just the scenery, but also the weather.  I had experienced sun, mist and the usual overcast weather all in the same day.

The remaining two-hour drive back to Reykjavik was very boring – along a straight, flat featureless road with low clouds hanging overhead. I then spent another 30 minutes driving through endless suburbs – for a city with a small population, Reykjavik is surprisingly spread out – and reached my hotel in the centre around 6pm. Time for my usual ritual – buy food, cook, and write my blog!

Farewell to the Westfjords

Today I woke up to a pleasant surprise. It was slightly sunny, and it was now possible to view the magnificent Patreksfjordur from my living room.  I hurried to pack and set off whilst the good weather lasted, since the weather forecast was from cloud (meaning rain).  My destination was Laftrabjarg, the far westernmost tip of Iceland, located 46km down a track off the main road. As often happens here, the road was initially good, and then turned into an unsurfaced track.

On the way to Laftrabjarg

Halfway to my destination, I stumbled across a museum of regional history and the wreckage of an American military plane – there was no explanation of how the latter got there.

You find bizarre stuff by the side of country roads in Iceland

I didn’t have time to visit the museum and continued my route. The road got rougher and rougher, but after a bumpy ride I finally rolled into the car park at the end of the track, and the very end of Iceland – and of Europe. Across the sea, somewhere, there was Greenland.

The cliffs at Laftrabjarg

Laftrabjarg is famous for its cliffs, where in summer millions of sea birds, including puffins, nest in safety away from arctic foxes. It was the end of August, and the birds had gone, but the cliffs were still impressive.  A path led up from the car park along the cliff, and a I went for a walk. It continues for at least 14km, but I only had time for a short one-hour hike.  It was a strange walk – the views were better, and the wind was stronger, at the bottom.  Further up, the wind was gone, but the cliffs lay hidden from view for those like me that didn’t dare go too close to the edge.  I turned back regained my car and retraced my journey.  The way back seemed even more scenic than the way out, and I took lots of pictures.

On the way back – looking over the Patreksfjord to the wall of rock of the Pingeyri peninsula

My next destination was on the same picturesque peninsula.  A side road led steeply up the mountain and descended equally steeply on the other side to the sweeping bay called Raudasandur.  The place is named after its beach’s red sand (which looked orange to me) and was one of the most scenic spots I had visited so far in Iceland. The weather was still partially sunny, and the sun would occasionally light up the brilliant colours of the sand, the sea, or the mountains surrounding the bay. I strolled aimlessly through the grass and along the beach, enjoying the sensation of walking on soft grass or wet sand rather than hard volcanic rock.

Shots of the scenery at Raudasandur

Too soon, it was time to go.  I was booked on the ferry to take me from the Westfjords back to the Icelandic mainland, a shortcut that would save me several hours difficult driving around lonely Icelandic roads.  The ferry marked an important point in my trip – a return to the beaten track of the main tourist circuit, the beginning of my trip back home, and a return to certainty – I would no longer need to worry that my struggling car might break down on a steep mountain road and leave me stranded in the middle of nowhere.  The lonely Westfjords had been one of the highlights of my Iceland trip, maybe because they are so remote – only 6% of tourists coming to Iceland visit them.

The Baldur ferry

The ferry sailed for three hours, navigating its way through a calm sea sprinkled with hundreds of small islands to reach the town of Stykkisholmur in the dark at 9pm.  I just had time for a drink and to write up my blog before bed.

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