Elephants Galore!

Today I had another al fresco breakfast and then explored one last set of ruins – the Southern Island Group – that were just next to my hotel.  This group gets very few visitors, and apart from some staff from the Archaeological Society and some cows, I was completely alone.  These ruins are free to visit, and are less well preserved than in the main site, but make up for this with the peaceful lakeside location.  My favourite was the king’s audience chamber, with its throne in the form of a lion.

The King’s Audience Chamber

Now it was time to leave Polonnaruwa to make the short drive to Sigiriya.  On the way we passed some semi-wild giant monitor lizards. An enterprising local feeds them fish and up to twelve giant lizards are attracted out of the jungle to get their free food; he then gets money from passing tourists if they stop to take photos – as I did.

I didn’t want to get too close. About 1 metre long…..excluding the tongue.

In Sigiriya, I had booked a simple guest house, which turned out to be hidden in the jungle. It was the sort of place whose owners have suffered badly during recent years – first Covid, and now the economic and fuel crisis meant that for three years very few tourists have visited Sri Lanka. In the midday sun it was pleasant relaxing outside, and I felt good about supporting a small local business.

In the day, a good place to chill for dogs, humans and teddies…

Soon though I was on my way again. I had booked a safari in nearby Kaudallah national park.  Lots of wild elephants live in the surrounding jungle, but in dry season (which this was supposed to be….although it had rained heavily every day) they are attracted to a large lake as other sources of water dry up – an event known as “the Gathering”.  A jeep came to fetch me with a new guide – a safari specialist.  After the park entrance, we drove for about a kilometre along a track through thick jungle, which eventually opened out onto the lake.  Sure enough, we soon saw a family of elephants……..and five other jeeps. Fortunately for us, the drop in tourist numbers meant that we did not have too much human company and each jeep’s group could enjoy filming elephants more or less undisturbed by the others. I took lots of pictures and videos, especially of this family, which had a cute week-old baby elephant.

A few of the hundreds of photos and videos I took, starring a cute baby elephant.

The herds consist only of females and children; male elephants leave the group and live alone once they reach adolescence.  We enjoyed watching elephants spraying dirt on to their skin, elephants wading into the lake to drink….and this couple doing something strange to the grass with their feet and trunks.

Strange Elephant behaviour

We also saw lots of different types of birds – too hard to photograph with the zoom of my phone camera though.  We continued our drive around the lake, and met up with a much bigger group of around 25 elephants.

A large herd of about 25 elephants….and a darkening sky

As you can see from the photograph, the sky was now getting very dark. Sure enough, heavy tropical rain began to fall and my guide rushed to secure the waterproof flaps on the jeep’s roof and sides.  We drove back in another tropical thunderstorm, and arrived in the early evening to find our hotel bathed in darkness – the electricity had been cut due to the fuel shortages. Most places in Sri Lanka have two power cuts per day, each lasting roughly two hours. There is a web site that can be used to check when the outages should happen, but I did not find it to be very accurate.  Top end hotels have back up generators, and use them, so the power cuts are not problem there. Mid-range hotels like the one I had booked in Nilaveli have generators too but some choose to use them only in the evening, when light is needed; fuel is too expensive to justify using for the afternoon. Cheaper hotels either have no generator or no fuel to run one with. The basic amenities of our simple guesthouse seemed very pleasant during the light of day, with power available to charge our phones and computers. As night fell, sitting in the dark in the jungle listening to the incessant rain was much less appealing.  The hotel owner gave me a lift to a nearby restaurant (with generator) and I spent the rest of the evening there. I took my time over dinner (another curry feast) – there was nothing else to do.

When all else fails…food!

A Bodyguard for my Breakfast

I arrived late in the afternoon in Polonnaruwa, where I had booked a room at the Ekho Lake hotel, an establishment dating from British colonial times where Queen Elisabeth II once stayed.  The hotel staff let me have a sneak preview of her suite, complete with its golden bathtub. The hotel is located on a beautiful, perfectly still lake and I enjoyed watching many different birds (kingfishers, eagles, herons) trying to catch fish.

The view from the hotel

I had a curry dinner, which in true Sri Lankan style was accompanied by a dazzling array of vegetable side dishes. Next morning, I continued my observation of the lake and glimpsed an Indian otter. I asked for breakfast to be set up outside my room, which the staff did with enthusiasm (there were a lot of staff and not many guests).  Sri Lankan breakfast closely resembled dinner – chicken curry, rice, and a big selection of side dishes.  The array of food attracted the attention of a local monkey, and I got the services of a dedicated waiter with a gun to stand nearby to scare him off (the waiter explained that the gun was empty and just meant to scare the monkey).

A “light” breakfast al fresco
Guarding our breakfast against monkeys…the service in the hotel was excellent

It took me so long to eat the huge volume of food that I set off to explore Polonnaruwa a bit later than I had planned. Immediately after I had left the sanctuary of the hotel, I was approached by all sorts of people offering to sell me souvenirs, be my guide, or give me a tuk-tuk ride. Some of them were very persistent and followed me all the way to the Archaeological Museum, an obligatory stop to buy tickets to the famous Polonnaruwa ruins. This was the first time I had encountered such persistent sales pressure in Sri Lanka, and after many days of only meeting helpful and friendly people, came as a shock.

From the museum I hired a bicycle and set off to explore and leave my unwelcome pursuers far behind.  Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka from 1070 until around 1200 and over the years successive kings added more temples and palaces to a huge site located near the city’s lake. This civilisation reached its peak under King Parakramabahu in 1153-86 (not easy to say after a few drinks) after which it went into rapid decline and the site was abandoned.

I started my visit by cycling to the very northernmost end of the complex, about 3km away from the main entrance.  There I found a lonely building housing a huge headless Buddha figure – and a solitary guardian from the Archaeological office who gratefully showed us around. Even in normal times, very few tourists make it this far away from the main gate.

The “Image House” – a remote ruin

From there I retraced my route to one of the park’s highlights – the carved stone Buddhas of Gal Vihara. When I arrived, there were a few cars and even a minibus in the nearby car park, so I ordered a cold drink from one of the small drinks stalls and waited for everyone to go – I have become used to visiting Sri Lanka’s treasures all by myself!  The three large Buddhas, carved out of a single huge granite rock, did not disappoint. They represent the high point of Sri Lankan art at this period and conveyed a sense of calm and peace. They had sat there silently for 900 hundred years, and I could easily imagine them continuing their meditation for many millennia.

The peaceful Buddhas of Gal Vihara

From Gal Vihara, I walked to the next highlight – the shrine of Lankatidaka, whose layout was a bit like a western cathedral, with a long aisle leading to another huge Buddha statue.

Lankatidaka – probably my favourite ruin

I reclaimed my bike from the drinks stall and headed to Rankot Vihara, a huge central stupa…….

Rankot Vihara

And then to the “Quadrangle”, a collection of ruins crammed into a small square area.

Atmospheric ruins in the Quadrangle

It was very hot (partly due to my late start) and I had developed a small routine for visiting each ruin – have a drink at the nearest drinks stall and leave my bike with the shopkeepers for safe keeping. My final visit of the day was to the Archaeological Museum – listed as a highlight by my guidebook, but actually rather disappointing compared to what you can see cycling around the archaeological park.

Soaked in sweat, I returned my bicycle and headed back to my hotel for a shower. Shortly after I arrived, the usual Sri Lankan thunderstorm broke, and I spent the next couple of hours enjoying my room before heading off to dinner.  This time I chose to eat in a local guest house whose owner gave cooking lessons and was treated to another curry feast.

Guest houses are much less formal than hotels, and a good place to meet and share news with fellow travellers – like here

I had enjoyed Polonnaruwa a lot. The ruins are better preserved than Anuradhapura (as you would expect, being 1000 years younger) and very impressive – but I think out of the two exceptional sites, I preferred the latter because it remains an active centre of worship.

Three in One

In today’s blog I will cover three days of my trip.  The first day started with me having breakfast and then waiting for my driver to show up. I had sent him a text earlier in the morning to check all arrangements were still in place but was met by a long silence. After an hour, he replied that all was good except that there would be a different driver and vehicle. I was rather annoyed by this but decided to wait to see who and what turned up.

In the event a van arrived similar to the one I had booked, but with two people rather than one – a driver and a guide – and an almost empty fuel tank. I checked the vehicle and accepted it on condition that they install seat belts in the rear seats where I would be sitting.

We set off to a resort on the East Coast of Sri Lanka, but first I deepened my experience of the Sri Lankan ritual of “looking for fuel”.  I learnt that there were three types of petrol stations.  The first (the most common) were completely deserted – no fuel and no hope of any fuel showing up.  The second type were where fuel was expected to arrive in the next few days, and were easily spotted because of the huge queues of vehicles – petrol vehicles on one side of the road, diesel on the other. These queues would often cause traffic jams that blocked main roads for the few vehicles which could move.  The third type of station, which was very rare, was one which had received fuel and which was now selling it.  These could be spotted by the even larger queues and crowds, but also the presence of police.

The driver spent an hour driving around Anuradhapura looking for a station of the third type.  When he finally succeeded, my guide got out and introduced himself to the station owner and the most senior police officer.  There is an understanding in Sri Lanka that tourist vehicles get priority and can jump the queue.  The station owner asked the guide to open the van door to prove that he was transporting tourists……and got a shock when he saw a teddy bear rather than a human tourist. He scratched his head, but decided that foreign bears also counted as tourists. He asked me to get out of the van to prove to the waiting crowd that priority was indeed being given to a tourist, and not just one of his friends.

Someone unsuccessfully trying to jump the queue at a petrol station

It was a rather uncomfortable experience standing waiting for our vehicle to be filled. I felt sorry for the Sri Lankans who had been queuing for days, and also slightly worried that the large crowd could get angry seeing me being served first. But we got our diesel without any incidents and were soon on our way with a full tank.

We arrived at a place called Nilaveli on the East Coast, where I had booked a hotel.  It was a lovely place, and I spent a day and half lazing by the pool, swimming in the warm sea, or strolling up and down the beach.

A small fishing village near to my hotel

I also enjoyed sitting on my balcony, admiring the view and watching the fishing boats pass.  Directly in front of my chair was a crow’s nest. The two owners initially made a lot of noise to try to scare me off, but when they had understood I was not a threat, they left me alone to concentrate on chasing off marauding monkeys. 

The view from my balcony and my crow friends’ nest

As was to be expected, the restaurant served excellent sea food. On my first night I had a big bowl of sea crabs and on the second I had this fine big fish, straight from the sea.

All for me!

After a day and a half of relaxation, my driver and guide turned up after breakfast on my third day at Nilaveli. The guide told me that the driver had been unable to find seat belts in the area around Nilaveli, so had gone all the way to Colombo, a five hour drive away, to find them. I look nervously at the van’s fuel gauge, but saw that it was still nearly full. The driver had made the trip by bus – he must have spent nearly the entire time travelling whilst I was enjoying the beach.

We set off to see the small east coast city of Trincomalee. It has a huge and strategic harbour, which meant that it had been fought over many times in its history, and occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. On a long peninsula leading from the main town, there is an old fort, built by the Portuguese in 1622, and now a base for the Sri Lankan marines. At the very top of the peninsula is the Hindu temple Sri Thirukoneswaram Kovil, which was my first stop for the day.

The exuberant exterior of the Sri Thirukoneswaram Kovil temple

I was lucky, because I arrived just in time for “Puja” or prayers – a colourful and noisy celebration of life accompanied by drums, bells and some sort of loud wind instrument. Photography was not allowed inside the temple, so unfortunately, I cannot share this experience with you, but instead I wandered around the outside taking pictures and admiring the view of the Indian Ocean.  After the visit, I enjoyed some excellent fresh fruit juice in a shop with a view overlooking Trinco’s harbour.

Passion fruit juice with a view of Trincomalee harbour

My other stop in Trinco was another Hindu temple – Kali Kovil, which is noted for its extravagant and bizarre internal carvings. At first, I thought someone had slipped some psychedelic drugs into my fruit juice – there were all kinds of animals and gods, a large squid eating a slightly smaller fish, and strange women (goddesses? demons? witches?) with an extra set of huge lips protruding from their bellies.

Am I dreaming? – the inside of the Kali Kovil temple

After the surreal experience of the temple, we set off again. My guide and driver again set off in pursuit of diesel, even though the tank was ¾ full. The only place supplying fuel was the government bus depot, but this time having a foreigner in the car was not enough – my guide was lacking a special fuel permit issued by the government to tourist drivers.  My intended route involved a long detour down the east coast, passing some interesting looking settlements, but my guide begged me instead to go directly to Polonnaruwa, my next destination. He said that the whole area was desperately short of diesel, and that he was afraid of running out. I was annoyed at yet another change of plans. I thought that we had enough fuel for several days, and that guide should have got his government permit before we started the trip. What’s more my detour only added 60km – if we had to be this careful about distances, the whole trip was going to be continually stressful.  Still, I didn’t want to run out of fuel either and reluctantly agreed to take the short route, telling my guide that first thing Monday he needed to apply for the government fuel permit.

The direct route – one of the main highways crossing Sri Lanka – turned out to be interesting, passing a huge reservoir where elephants often gather and several times I saw elephant footprints or dung at the side of the road.

Sri Lanka’s roads have unusual hazards

The road went close to the site of a ruined temple complex, and I insisted on a smaller detour (only 30km) to visit it.  I was lucky – the site was amazing, with ruins dating from the 7th century and no one there except me, my guide and my driver. I spent over an hour wandering around and filming before setting off on the final short stretch of road to Polonnaruwa, an ancient capital of Sri Lanka and one of the country’s highlights.

The highlight of the day – all alone at a deserted temple

Arriving in the town, the driver insisted on hunting for diesel, and this time we were lucky – we found a station selling fuel almost immediately, and this time having a tourist teddy bear as passenger was enough to get some.  I reached my hotel in the early evening, very satisfied with my day – lots of interesting sites and ending up a full tank of diesel. What more could you want?

A tale of two trees

I got up early again – it is so much nicer cycling in the cool of the morning – and set off to see the remaining sites that I had not had time for yesterday.  First up was the Sri Maha Bodhi, the world’s oldest documented tree. It sits in the geometric centre of Anuradhapura and is surrounded by very large parking area to accommodate crowds of pilgrims at festivals. Today it was quiet, the car parks were empty, and I could leave my bike very close to the entrance. I stopped to admire a beautiful lake with lilies and many birds, with a brilliant white stupa reflecting off the water.

A little piece of heaven in Sri Lanka

The Sri Maha Bodhi is a bo (or bodhi, or sacred fig) tree grown from a cutting brought from India, possibly by the daughter of Emperor Asoka in the third century BCE; some legends say that it was derived from the very tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment.  Whatever the truth, written records of the tree being tended stretch back over 2000 years.

Sri Maha Bodhi
The world’s oldest documented tree

The usual routine was needed to enter an inner courtyard housing the tree with its shrine – shoes and hat off, and security check (the shrine was the site of a bloody terrorist attack by Tamil separatists during the Sri Lankan civil war). The tree itself was a normal looking fig tree with its branches supported by golden scaffolding, but the surrounding shrine had a very special feeling to it. Pilgrims streamed in, bringing offerings of flowers or rice.  Someone gave me some flowers to make my own offering, and like the other visitors I placed them to make an appealing pattern.

Making offerings at the shrine…..
…and a temple thief taking offerings….

Other pilgrims and local worshipers sat on the ground, praying with beautiful chants, which were half-way between singing and talking. The combination of the cool morning air, the chanting, and the strong smell of flowers gave a deep feeling of peace, and I sat down and closed my eyes to enjoy it.

Eventually it was time to move on, and my next stop was the huge Sandahiru Seya stupa, which can be seen from almost anywhere around Anuradaphura. It was started in 2010 and construction was only just finishing, so it was not yet recommended in any of the guidebooks. I found its perfect shape and brilliant white colour very beautiful and watched the workers completing the final bits of work.

Finishing the construction of Anuradhapura’s latest stupa

From there I headed to another less-visited site – the former royal gardens, that are over 2000 years old. They were poorly signposted, but I eventually found them at a the bottom of a steep slope leading down from the embankment of an artificial lake. I found some carved stone structures in an advanced state of decay that were once water basins. There were no signs at the site and little text about the site in Lonely Planet, but I had the luck to overhear the explanation of the guide escorting a group of western tourists (the first I had seen that day).  I learnt that a system of channels led from the lake above to irrigate the garden and also produce an artificial waterfall over carefully placed huge-boulders. With the added explanation the site came to life, and I could imagine the royal family bathing in luxury all those years ago.

The Royal Gardens. 2000 years ago, water cascaded over the boulder to the left into a pool where I am standing.

Next stop was Vessagiriya, a little-visited cave monastery that was founded over 2000 years ago, possibly by the Indian prince who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka.  The guardian of the site attached himself to us – the only visitors – and gave an excellent guided tour. He pointed out the huge boulders that had been brought here and raised onto small supporting stones to form some of the caves – how this was done remains a mystery. He also showed us a line of small holes in a rock, and explained that builders would fill these holes with burning oil, and then suddenly cool the rock with water to make the boulder splinter along the line.  

Our guide, and one of the mysterious boulders balancing on smaller stones

My final destination was the rock temple of Isurumuniya, set beside a particularly beautiful pond with lotus flowers. This temple is also ancient, originally dating from around 300BCE. 

Next to it stood a museum of ancient carvings, including one called “the Lovers” showing a prince who gave up his right to be king in order to marry a girl from a humble background.

Ancient Lovers

The top of the temple gave a nice view over the area, with the stupa of Sandahiru Seya prominent as usual, and of the pretty elephant carvings in the stone by the pool.

Carved Elephants

It was now midday and the sun made the walk around this temple with bare paws particularly hard (I had forgotten to pack socks again).  I concluded it was time to retreat to home to cool off in my guest house’s air conditioning.

After a couple of hours, I set off and had a short picnic lunch of bananas in one of the rice fields.

Lunch in the rice fields

A tuk-tuk driver spotted me and offered me a ride to see a “special tree”. Intrigued, I accepted his offer and after a short drive he showed me probably the biggest tree I have ever seen – a sprawling banyan with a huge mother tree and several almost equally impressive daughter trees sprouting from massive aerial roots.

Part of the giant banyan tree (I could not fit all of it into the photo)

Next, I had intended to return to the Sri Maha Bodhi to soak up more of the special atmosphere there, but dark clouds had gathered, and I could hear thunder in the distance. I retreated to my guest house just in time to avoid this……

You can only find rain like this in the tropics

It was supposed to be the dry season in Anuradhapura, but I was unlucky. I stayed at the guest house for the rest of the afternoon and worked on my blog. You never know in Sri Lanka when you will have electricity and an internet connection.

Sri Lanka – into the unknown

For this trip I decided to use my post-Covid freedom to go somewhere a bit more exotic than my previous few trips, and a bit further from my home in the UK. Somewhere where the temperatures are more predictable and where I can learn some lessons about energy rationing (might be useful in the winter back home in London…).  Despite the advice of friends and family urging me to cancel, I went to SRI LANKA. As you already know, Sri Lanka is an island south of India, and which is been beset by economic problems and social unrest. Its biggest problem is a shortage of foreign exchange to import essential things like fuel and medicine. But on checking the internet and travel blogs carefully, it seemed that tourist travel is still very possible, and that the rare tourists are welcomed warmly.

I flew to Colombo, arriving in the early morning, spent a morning in a hotel near the airport to recover before beginning my trip in earnest. After much thought and some advice from local people I knew, I opted to hire a car with driver to get around rather than rely on public buses and trains (working, but very crowded I was told). My driver arrived as promised and we set off to Anuradhapura, an ancient capital about four hours from the airport. The route was pretty but unremarkable, except for the long queues of cars waiting outside petrol stations. Supposedly tourist vehicles have priority for fuel. My driver tried to get some in a couple of places along the way but was unsuccessful.  Fortunately, he easily had enough to make it to my destination, where he dropped me and disappeared.  We are supposed to meet again in two days’ time.  I hope he will be there with a full tank; it might be my paranoia, but I thought I detected signs of worry on his face when he was being rejected for fuel.

Fuel queues can stretch for a kilometer…

My first lodging was a guest house called “Heaven upon Rice Fields”. I had a nice dinner of the local classic dish – curry rice – before getting a very early night. I woke up early as planned next morning to a view of the sun rising over the paddy fields under my balcony, with a couple of wild peacocks strutting through the rice plants.

Sunrise from the balcony of my room

After a breakfast I headed off to explore the many ancient ruins of the city by bicycle.  Anuradaphura was the first important capital of Sri Lanka, and the home of its first Buddhist kings. Traffic on the roads was light – I suppose many vehicles were sitting in queues for petrol.

Bicycle – the best way to hunt for temples

First stop was the Jetavanarama Dagoba (a dome shaped shrine containing relics), a massive construction daring from the 3rd century CE. It was originally about 120m high (the very top part has fallen off) and when built, would have been the third tallest building in the world (after two of the Giza Pyramids).  The dagoba stand amidst the ruins of a huge religious complex that would have housed 3000 monks but whose remains now host peacocks, chipmunks and lots of monkeys.  At my first shrine, I was introduced to a routine that I would repeat several more times in the day – to visit any holy site in Sri Lanka, you have to take off your shoes and hat.  In the early morning, walking barepaw was quite pleasant, but by the end of the day, walking over the hot exposed stones of the shrines became an endurance test that only the toughest bears could pass. I made a mental note to bring some socks with me tomorrow.

Jetavanarama Dagoba – once the third tallest building in the world

Next, I headed to Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba, a short bike ride away. This was originally built even earlier, in 140BCE, but was repaired and enhanced many times over the coming century.  It remains an active centre of worship, with many pilgrims coming to offer flowers or food to images of Buddha. I took this selfie………..

Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba, surrounded by 350 carved elephants

…..before I saw this sign………

oops!

I wasn’t sure whether the rule about not turning your back to the temple applied to  bears, but I thought it best not to wait to find out, so I hurried on to Thuparama, possibly the oldest dagoba in the world. It was originally built in the third century BC but was restored (or as Srilankans complain, crudely modified) by the British in 1862.

My final destination was the dagoba of Abharayagiri, the centre of a huge monastery in the first century BCE. Around the dagoba, the ruins of the buildings that held the monks sprawl over a huge area and it was fun to explore them – almost entirely on my own.

The rides between these different ancient ruins went along small lanes weaving between paddy fields and past small houses. There were also many lakes, some natural and some constructed by long -dead emperors to water their gardens. Water lilies and lotus flowers grew in profusions, and kingfishers, herons, egrets and ibises hunted small fish.

In the early morning it was very pleasant exploring the ruins, but as midday approached, the sun began to beat down. I stopped for a refreshing drink of coconut water at one of the few roadside shops – I was surprised by how few places there were to get anything to eat and drink, and by the absence of souvenir shops.  I was less surprised by the absence of tourists – the most foreign tourists I ever saw at one place was six, and quite often I had these wonderful sites all to myself (plus any local visitors and pilgrims).  As I rode around, people at the roadside – or even people in cars and trucks overtaking – would call out a greeting and ask me where I was from.  The few tourists that make it to Sri Lanka are very welcome and travelling bears are even more of a curiosity.

I returned to the hotel at around 15.30, very hot and tired but also very happy with my day’s bicycle exploration.  After enjoying my room’s air con for an hour, I set off again in a tuk-tuk this time to a place called Mihintale.   This is a sacred spot, where in the third century BCE Sri Lanka’s king was converted to Buddhism by a prince sent by the great Indian emperor Asoka. The place where this is supposed to have happened is located on top of a steep mountain, accessible by a steep climb.  In the afternoon heat my little legs were feeling more and more tired. Halfway up there was a ticket office to pay the obligatory entrance fee. Near the office was yet another example of exotic srilankan wildlife – the giant squirrel – which from a teddy bear’s perspective is frighteningly large.

The world’s largest squirrel species – about the size of a well-fed cat- scary if you are small like me

I hurried up to the top and saw that I had yet more climbing to do.  The main ancient temple was on a little plateau, whilst on different pinnacles surrounding it there are yet another dagoba (a modern one), a large statue of Buddha, and a viewpoint with telescope.

The main temple at Mihintale

Being a diligent blogger/travelling bear I climbed up to each of the different viewpoints, my fur soaked in sweat and my naked paws burning on the hot rocks.  I finally reached the large modern dagoba, and enjoyed the view and -finally – a cool evening breeze.

The view – Worth the climb (and burning my paws)

I hoped to see the sunset……but the sun dipped behind thickening clouds on the horizon. I returned to my transport and got home just before the heavy tropical rain started, to find my hotel suffering from one of Sri Lanka’s frequent power cuts.  My hotel owner explained that although he had a back up generator, he had not petrol to put in it, and that the outage would last an hour and a half. I started my dinner by candlelight before the power came back on, exactly at the time predicted by my host.  

Curry and Rice by candlelight

My first impressions of Sri Lanka were very positive, and talking to the rare tourists I met today, it seems to be not too difficult to get around. Maybe it is not such a big problem if my driver doesn’t show up.

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.

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