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We always want to visit World Heritage sites , and our road trip through Morocco was no exception. Archaeology, ancient ruins, historic towns and villages, and colonial influence all feature there – as they do in many of the world’s recognised cultural heritage sites. Morocco has 9 World Heritage sites listed by UNESCO.

Discover Morocco’s interesting history & culture, from the Volubilis Roman ruins to the modern city of Rabat, by exploring its UNESCO World Heritage sites. (World Heritage site, Ksar Ait-Ben-Haddou in this photo.)

World Heritage Sites of Morocco we Visited

During our overland roadtrip in Morocco, we didn’t manage to visit all of them, but we came past 6 of the UNESCO listed sites. Maybe next time.

1. Portuguese City of Mazagan (El Jadida)

The 16th century fortified Portuguese city of Mazagan is now part of El Jadida, a coastal city just south of Casablanca. Unusually, we were not drawn to visit because of its world heritage status, but because we had read about it in our Morocco guide book . We were fascinated by an old Citerne Portugaise (Portuguese Cistern) inside the city. It had originally been built as an arsenal, then utilised as an armoury, before being put to use as a cistern – to store water. The full-page photo immediately put it on our must-see list of what to do in Morocco!

We had some difficulty pinpointing the exact location of the cistern. We knew it was inside ramparts, but not where. So, we parked outside the walls, entered the closest gate, and asked the first person who spoke to us. You don’t have to wait long for someone to speak to you in Morocco, especially if you are at a tourist site, and you look like a tourist. A local shop owner, who spoke good English, asked us to look in his shop. We politely declined and said we were looking for the Portuguese Cistern. He happily directed us to it, knowing we would pass by again on our way out. It was located, quite conveniently, just down the street.

The Citerne Portugaise, found in the Portuguese City of Mazagan (El Jadida), is an important part of this World Heritage site – and you can see why.

The Citerne Portugaise was a worthy sight for our first historical site in Morocco. The cistern is every bit as impressive as the photo had promised. Barely lit, but for a hole in the roof, the reflections of the supporting columns in the water give it a mystical feeling. UNESCO describes it as, “an outstanding example of this type of structure”, and we agree – not that we’d seen any others at that time.

Coming out into the daylight was a bit of an anti-climax, but we walked on and explored the old walled city. From the colourful port to the narrow lanes to the views from the ramparts, El Jadida was a very pleasant introduction to the important historical sites in store for us in Morocco.

Climbing the ramparts of the old city in El Jadida gives a perfect view of the rooftops and the ocean.

2. Medina of Marrakesh

With almost 1000 years of continuous history, the Medina of Marrakesh is worthy of its recognition by UNESCO, as a place of Outstanding Universal Value. The Medina is surrounded by its original ramparts, which also demarcate the World Heritage site. Although everything inside these walls is part of the listing, there are some truly standout places. We didn’t see them all, but here is a taste of those we did visit:

Jamaâ El Fna Square is the centre of the old city. On his first visit to Morocco , 30+ years ago, Juergen drove right into this square. You can’t do that today, and nor would you want to. It is constantly bustling with activity, day and night. When exploring the souks of Marrakesh, it is a place you will return to – often. In the evening the square is alive with all types of activity and entertainment, including the famous snake charmers. Its significance as the nerve centre of Marrakesh was recognised is 2008 when it was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, by UNESCO . So it is listed twice!

Our highly recommended guidebook for people who are looking for valuable information about Morocco: the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Morocco [new edition: 2019]! This book is for travellers who are more interested in the sights than recommendations for restaurants or hotels.

Find this guidebook on Amazon.

 
 

While the Jamaâ El Fna Square is the heart of the Medina of Marrakesh, the Koutoubia Mosque is probably its best known symbol; or indeed of the whole city, both old and new. Its spectacular minaret is a beautiful example of Islamic architecture. With a height of 77m, this unique landmark is usually in view wherever you are.

The WHC listing makes specific mention of The Kasbah. If you enter the Kasbah through Bab Agnaou, one of the city’s beautiful gates, you will immediately arrive at the Kasbah Mosque. It’s not possible for non-Muslims to enter the mosque, but you can see quite a lot of the structure through open doorways. Although it’s difficult, try not to stare with your mouth open!

The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque is truly the icon of the World Heritage listed Medina of Marrakech.

You can get an idea of the beauty of the Kasbah Mosque of Marrakech by peeking through the open horseshoe doors along this entrance passage.

 

Next door are the incredible Saâdian Tombs. There was quite a line when we went to visit them because the view of the Hall of the 12 Columns, the main mausoleum, is limited to 2-4 people at a time – but the wait was worth it (large photo in the row of 4 below).

The King’s Palace and gardens are also found in the Kasbah. You can wander around in the outside gardens and see the walls and gates that enclose the palace, but there is no access to the inside. And don’t take photos of any guard post – unless you ask first!

A highlight of our visit to the Medina of Marrakesh was the Dar Si Said Palace – now housing the National Museum of Weaving and Carpets. The architecture and decoration of this building must be seen to be believed. The carpets are quite interesting too – but the building is the real sight to see.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

3. Medina of Essaouira

The harbour of Essaouira (or formerly Mogador) is protected by the Island of Mogador. This has long since earned it the reputation of being one of the safest places for ships to anchor along the Moroccan coast. Hence, it has been populated from prehistoric times through Phoenicians, Romans, Berbers, Portuguese, French, and Arabs. At one time, it was called the Port of Timbuktu, because the goods coming by caravan through the Sahara, were shipped from here to Europe.

Around 1760, Mohammed III decided to build a port and a city on the site. He brought in Théodore Cornut, a French military architect. This fortified city and port is the World Heritage site you can visit today.

Part of the ramparts of the Medina of Essaouira, protecting the city from the ocean side.

A familiar street scene in the Souk of Essaouira. These are typical doorways with carved stone surrounds and blue doors. The local spice shop is also selling medicinal herbs.

 

While other, older medinas in Morocco are veritable rabbit warrens, the Medina of Essaouira is planned. It has several main streets, which map out a grid pattern, with the smaller alleys that branch-off still forming a bit of a labyrinth, often culminating in dead-end streets. Other than the limited possibility of losing yourself, it has all the same characteristics of other medinas we’ve visited: the decorative aspects of the architecture, the colourful displays in the shops of its souk, and the bustle of the locals going about their business.

Our suggestions:

  • wander the narrow streets, which make up the souk
  • climb up the ramparts for a great view of both the medina and the port
  • visit the port for the activity and colour, and take advantage of the fresh fish stalls

A quieter part of the Medina of Essaouira. You can sit here and enjoy lunch, or a coffee, before heading back to the busier parts.

If you have more time in the area, find your way to the small village of Diabet to the south. It is the town where Jimi Hendrix famously spent some time. Nearby you will find Dar Soltane Mahdounia, the ruins of a palace, partly covered with sand. Some say it was the inspiration for the Hendrix song: Castles in the Sand.

4. Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou

Do we want to visit a site just because it has been used as a set for movies or TV series? Not usually.

But after diligently seeking out the Berber Granaries of Morocco , which we think should be listed by UNESCO, we couldn’t miss this world heritage site that is so closely related to them. Aït Benhaddou is a ksar (Arabic) or ighrem (Berber) – a fortified village of adobe houses.

This structure of mud and rock needs fairly constant attention to survive. Unlike many of the granaries, which have fallen into ruin, this site survives because of its world heritage status, with a clear management plan , and also because of its fame from appearing in so many movies.

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Today I want to give you two more top travel tips for Alentejo in Portugal: visit Vila Viçosa and Estremoz! Both are real little gems – an overused expression that I usually try to avoid. Have you heard of either? Probably not, because these towns are not yet on the international tourist radar. This might change soon since Vila Viçosa was added (in 2017) to the ‘tentative list’ for its inclusion among the global World Heritage Sites.

Our travel tip: Vila Viçosa and Estremoz, two intriguing small towns in the east of Alentejo. Both have important roles in Portugal’s history and economy.

The Sights of Vila Viçosa

We are sure it will not take long for Vila Viçosa to be added to the approved list of World Heritage Sites, as their appraisal sounds really good. It also confirms what we ‘found on the ground’ when we visited.

Vila Viçosa is a rare example of a town where we can still appreciate, in all its authenticity, a singular town-planning project that reconciles a Renaissance model of the urbe with a pre-existing medieval urban core, generated around the alcáçova palace. The authenticity of Vila Viçosa and the values currently associated with it are not restricted to that historical moment. They go beyond it to include all stages of the town’s growth, as well as the close surrounding geographic environment.
There is more praise for Vila Viçosa elsewhere in the World Heritage Assessment (worth a read!)

A view, through the castle gate, up the main street of Vila Viçosa.

 

Located a little over 40 kilometres from Elvas, the quiet World Heritage Town with its incredible fortifications , Vila Viçosa is a lovely, fairly laid-back, little town with friendly people – so typical of Alentejo. When I say little town, I really mean it; currently it has less than 9,000 inhabitants. No wonder it feels like such a pleasant place to visit.

Our choice guidebook [instead of the popular Lonely Planet ] for people who are looking for valuable information about Portugal: the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Portugal [new 2019 edition] ! This book is for travellers who are more interested in the sights than recommendations for restaurants or hotels.

Find this guidebook on Amazon.

 
Vila Viçosa and Marble

Vila Viçosa sits in the heart of Portugal’s major marble quarrying region, and it shows. Everywhere you go you will find marble. From door frames and window sills, to footpath cobbles and kerb stones, to the white lines inserted into the (granite) road paving – everything is made from marble. What an indulgence!

The town is surrounded by marble quarries, easily recognised by the number of large marble blocks, piled up high. Portugal is famous for its high quality marble, and is the world’s second biggest exporter after Italy. 80% of it comes from this region alone. Although, this material is usually named after Estremoz (see below); that’s less than 20 kilometres away.

Marble everywhere! The main street in Vila Viçosa, looking towards the castle entrance. No simple white line markings on the paving here – NO! The stop line, the pedestrian crossing, the parking bays, and the turn arrows are all inlaid with marble paving stones. The kerb stones and the footpath paving are also all made from marble.

One of the many marble quarries between Estremoz and Elvas. The large white blocks lying in the landscape are marble of lesser quality, which is used for paving stones, retaining walls, and sometimes ground up for decorative gravel.

 
It’s not the marble quarries local tourists come for, but rather the Ducal Palace of Viçosa. And yes, you might have guessed already, there’s a lot of marble there too. The Ducal Palace of Viçosa

The construction of this palace was initiated by Fernando I of Braganza in 1501, after he had returned from exile. Until that year, the Dukes of Braganza had resided in the castle of Viçosa. His father had been executed for alleged treason by order of King John II of Portugal, and hence Fernando refused to move back into the soiled castle.

Numerous renovations and extensions of the palace followed over the next centuries. The successor of Fernando I, Teodósio I (5th Duke of Braganza), already upgraded the palace substantially for his royal wedding. The present classical facade was added from 1583 onwards, and took 30 years or so to be completed because a third floor was added to the palace at the same time. It’s all covered in the famous Estremoz pink marble (which isn’t all pink).

The impressive marble facade of the Ducal Palace of Viçosa in Italian inspired style. Note that the paving, the pedestal of the statue, and even the lamp posts are all made from marble!

In 1640 João II, 8th Duke of Braganza, was declared king of Portugal as John IV, and moved to Lisbon. The palace in Viçosa lost its significance, although all of the royals liked to spend their leisure time here. The following centuries of royal history are dominated by many ups-and-downs.

Events like the invasion by Napoleon, when the whole royal family fled to Brazil in 1807, rather than submit to the French. And finally, the last monarch of Portugal, King Manuel II, fled to England in 1908 [link to history background on Wikipedia], where he died in exile in 1932. You can read more about the palace’s history in this Wikipedia entry .

Manuel II had entrusted his family seat, the Ducal Palace of Viçosa, to a foundation, which led to the formation of the DGEMN (Direcção Geral dos Edifícios e Monumentos Nacionais, General Directorate for Buildings and National Monuments), who now care for the buildings.

And they needed a lot of care, because they had been neglected for decades. But the most interesting aspect is that all of the buildings were entrusted to the new foundation complete with the royal furniture and personal possessions of the time. So today, a visitor can walk through an historic house full of truly authentic pieces!

The sleeping quarters, for example, really look like the king and his wife just left the rooms to go out for the day. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted on the guided tours (although generously overlooked in some cases). It’s only possible to visit the inside of the palace on a guided tour. This ensures that none of the treasures are damaged or nicked.

For more Information about opening times of the palace, please visit the official website [which is unfortunately mostly in Portuguese].

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

One thing we missed seeing at the Ducal Palace was the adjoining Coach Museum, located in the old stables. At the time, we weren’t aware of its importance and thought “ah well, a few old horse carriages…”. It is actually a branch of Portugal’s “Museu Nacional dos Coches” , apparently one of the world’s most impressive collections of historic coaches. So, if you’re interested, ask to visit: there’s a counter to buy tickets for a visit right near the exit from the guided palace tour.

We only spent a little over half a day in Vila Viçosa, a fact we somehow regretted later on. There’s more to see in this small town than we expected. Before arriving we only knew about the palace. So allow for extra time to walk around the town before or after visiting the Ducal Palace!

The Castle of Vila Viçosa

Right at the end of the main street, the old castle of Vila Viçosa sits on a hill! This used to be the family seat of the Braganza family until they moved into the Ducal Palace. The fortified compound of the citadel, with its outer walls, is rather large compared with the main castle building. The castle now houses the Museum of Archaeology and the Museum of Hunting and Game.

We visited during lunchtime when the museums were closed, but (as vegetarians) probably would not have shown much interest in the latter. Although, Vila Viçosa’s tentative UNESCO listing mentions specifically the “hunting reserve known as Tapada Real”, so hunting is obviously an important historical activity of this region.

The walls of the old castle in Vila Viçosa are surrounded by lovely gardens. The streets are lined with fragrant orange trees.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Conception

This small church is located within the confines of the citadel of the town, not far from the castle. It was founded by the “Order of the Immaculate Conception of Vila Viçosa” headed by the Dukes of Braganza.

When we arrived there, the first guests for a booked wedding had started to arrive, so we had very little time to take in the beauty of this intimate little church. I would certainly add it to the top of my list of places to visit. If you are interested, you might have a look around the adjoining small cemetery. It’s one more proof of the prevalence of exquisite marble craft in Alentejo.

The inside of the Church of Our Lady of Conception, which stands inside the castle compound of Vila Viçosa. It’s beautifully decorated with hand-painted Azulejo tiles, which are so typical of Portugal. Note all the marble..

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Imagine a historic small town, where you can stroll at your own pace along narrow cobbled streets! Imagine not being pushed along by hurrying tourists, looking for the ultimate selfie shot. Imagine a town where you might have to search for a souvenir shop, but where you will discover something worthwhile seeing around every other corner. Welcome to Elvas, a worthy World Heritage Listed Town without the crowds, located in the east of Alentejo, Portugal!

Elvas is a worthy World Heritage destination in the east of Portugal. Its impressive fortifications are the largest in the world. And Elvas is not crowded!

History of Elvas as a Garrison Border Town

The World Heritage listed Elvas has been a border town with Spain for most of its existence. When I hear “border town” it quickly evokes a mental picture of a slightly grubby place, full of somewhat shady characters, chaotic traffic, and cheap discount shops – a transient place of no real attraction except for some bargain merchandise. We found nothing of that in Elvas! Its World Heritage status was earned exactly for its exposed position on the border and the main trade route, from Madrid to Lisbon.

As a border town, Elvas has long been fortified. A Celtic settlement was recorded here first, followed by the Romans. For them, Elvas was an important post along their major trading routes. Thus, the oldest remnants of the town date back to Roman times. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths took over, only to be expelled in the 8th century by the Moors. Finally, in the 13th century, Elvas was recognised as part of the Kingdom of Portugal, and received city rights in the 16th century.

An aerial photo, shows the bulwarked dry-ditch fortifications surrounding the old city of Elvas nicely. In the far background you can the Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort on the next hill. [photo credit ]

The largest Bulwarked Dry-Ditch Fortification in the World

Each empire enlarged the city’s boundaries with more fortifications, making Elvas the largest fortified city of Europe today! These outstanding fortifications are the main focus of the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

The site, extensively fortified from the 17th to 19th centuries, represents the largest bulwarked dry-ditch system in the world. Within its walls, the town contains barracks and other military buildings as well as churches and monasteries.
from “Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications” WHC Listing

Today, only the highest section of the fortified town centre, where the small castle stands, dates back to Moorish times. It was the Portuguese who established today’s ramparts and out-lying forts. Within its town walls, the city has preserved a typical layout of narrow medieval streets, with many of the historic buildings preserved. Walking along the cobbled side streets can feel like stepping back in time.

Even though it’s an impressive city to visit, Elvas doesn’t seem to be overrun by tourists. This might very well be due to its fairly remote border location. The downside of this is that it can be a challenge to get to see all its sights within a day or two.

The main plaza of Elvas, Praça da Republica, seen from the entrance of the former cathedral. In the background the former townhall, now home of the tourist information. The Sunday flea market doesn’t attract many buyers.

We found that many churches, which were of interest to us, were closed. Upon enquiry at the tourist information, we were told that they are opened by volunteers – thus nobody knew if or when they would really open. We revisited a couple in the afternoon when they would ‘surely’ be open – only to find locked doors.

The second challenge to a successful visit is “typical Portugal”: although the Portuguese don’t have a long siesta like the Spaniards, they take their lunch break very seriously. Everywhere in Portugal we found that almost all major sights close for a lunch break – usually up to 2 hours, starting at either 12:30 or 1pm. Also, the out-lying forts, which are an important part of the fortifications of Elvas, are closed every Monday (like most museums).

Don’t let this discourage you from visiting Elvas. We were there in late April, which is pretty much an off-season period. We would expect more to be open during the peak summer holiday period. Anyway, there’s enough to see despite some locked doors!

Our choice guidebook [instead of the popular Lonely Planet ] for people who are looking for valuable information about Portugal: the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Portugal [new 2019 edition] ! This book is for travellers who are more interested in the sights than recommendations for restaurants or hotels.

Find this guidebook on Amazon.

 
Places to See in Elvas

I will mention the places to see in the order we visited these sights. Because we entered the town early in the morning, we decided to tackle it from the top downwards – because we didn’t want to climb too much in the warmer afternoon.

The enormous Amoreira Aqueduct, whose construction began in the 15th century, was inspired by Roman designs. It supplied water to the city, well into the 19th century. Today, the aqueduct is still a very impressive sight. We were fortunate to be able to stay in our motorhome right next to it.

Part of the long Amoreira Aqueduct in Elvas, photographed at sunrise (me! early riser.).

We roughly followed the aqueduct uphill until we reached the drawbridge, which we crossed to get though the Corner Gates inside the fortified walls. Careful, these gateways are narrow and curved (hence their name) with cars passing through quite frequently, and fairly fast!

You enter the upper section of Elvas through these corner gates. Photo taken through the arch of the outer gate towards the decorated inner gate.

Next, you will walk past the Chapel of Our Lady of Conception and a small powder magazine on the left (we missed both because we didn’t have a map of Elvas’ sights at the time). Directly next are the old Trem Barracks on the left, now a high school.

When we visited, the road and some buildings were under renovation, so at the former Pontoon Storage Warehouse we turned left to follow the wall. From there you get an excellent view of the Conde de Lippe Fort, commonly referred to as the Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort. All forts around Elvas are closed on Mondays, the day we had planned to leave, so this was the closest we came to it.

This is as close as we got to the Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort. Viewed from Elvas’ castle hill. The next day, Monday, it was closed and we wanted to move on.

Finally, you will reach the small Elvas Castle on the top of the hill. It’s not much of a castle compared with so many others we have seen, so we almost overlooked it (and due to the messy roadworks didn’t take many photos either). Here is another good vantage point to photograph the Conde de Lippe Fort on the next hill, and the town’s fortifications and barracks in the other direction.

The best view of the Elvas castle we photographed. All roads around it were torn up for roadworks. Notice the hideous mobile phone tower next to it; it has earned Elvas harsh criticism from the UNESCO World Heritage Council.

Then we zig-zagged towards the Church of Our Lady of Consolation, often named Church of the Dominicas. We knew from our guidebook that it is decorated inside with beautifully detailed Portuguese Azulejos tiles. Unfortunately, the doors were locked (and remained so; Yasha checked again in the afternoon). I found a Spanish blog post with a few reasonably good photos of the inside – to give you an idea what we were looking for.

The small plaza next to this church can be entered under the Arch of Dr. Santa Clara, a small room built across two lanes. The triangular plaza is dominated by the Pillory of Elvas, a rather nicely crafted post with a haunting past (it is a flogging post).

A narrow road leads through the Arch of Dr. Santa Clara. Behind it you can see a little of the church of Our Lady of Consolation.

The Pillory in Elvas stands in a triangular space between the Church Our Lady of Consolation and the Arch of Dr. Santa Clara.

 

From there it’s not far down the steep, narrow, cobbled road to reach the Church of Our Lady of Assumption, which was once Elvas’ cathedral. It overlooks the Praça da Republica, the main square of the old town. Here you will find some lovely outdoor restaurants, the Tourist Information (in the old townhall), and one rather ugly new bank building… We were greeted by a Sunday flea market, which was a bit too quiet for good business.

The Praça da Republica, Elvas’ main square. Behind the “Love Elvas” sign you can see stalls of a Sunday flea market, with the former cathedral in the background.

After some refreshments, we walked further downhill to get to the old barracks and the Monastery of St. Domingos – unfortunately also closed on this Sunday. Along the way we passed the enormous Fountain of Saint Lawrence. It’s an impressive structure, covering the end walls of two adjoining houses. I have no idea when it was first built, only that it underwent a major refurbishment in 2005 (as a plaque said).

Inside the church of Our Lady of Assumption, Elvas’ former cathedral.

The Fonte de São Lourenço in Elvas. On the right, down the street, you can see the church of São Lourenço (Saint Lawrence).

 

Part of the barracks behind the monastery has been converted into a Military Museum – fittingly for a town whose history is so strongly connected with Portugal’s defences. We went there for the excellent vistas from the top of the fortifications, towards the south of the old town.

From the monastery we walked east, again coming up to thick fortifications, because we wanted to try our luck at the Church of St.Peter and the Church of the 3rd Order of St.Francisco. Needless to say, both were also locked. But this brought us almost up to the castle again. :-( Did I mention we didn’t wanted to climb much in the afternoon?

This photo shows the width of the fortifications well. And of course all the tourists crowding the streets of Elvas ;) On top of the hill you can see the old castle (with a hideous mobile antenna right next to it).

So we walked past the Pillory back to the main square and then turned west, towards the main entry into the fortified old town of Elvas. We didn’t have much energy left for sight-seeing, but took a couple of photos along the way. One of the Torre Fernandina, a medieval tower that is all that’s left of the second town wall, which enclosed a much smaller part of Elvas.

Before we walked out of the fortified town, I was attracted by the Fountain of Mercy. I found out later that this intricate little structure dates from the early 17th century. Quite lovely how it sits in a minuscule little park! We didn’t even think of trying to enter any other churches – to avoid further disappointment. But the next morning we visited an interesting, or should I say ‘a little obscure’, church on the outskirts of Evora.

The medieval tower, Torre Fernandina on the left, is all that remains of the second oldest town fortifications of Elvas.

Near one of the entry roads into Elvas stands this marble Fountain of Mercy. In the background the Church of our Lady of Pains.

 
Tip: if you like your religious buildings just a little ‘unusual’

If you have a car (or bicycle) it’s easy to get to the Santuário do Senhor Jesus da Piedade (Lord of Mercy). It’s on a street with the same name. Even on foot, it’s not far from the main section of the Amoreira Aqueduct; my guess would be 15 to 20 minutes, heading west.

 

This beautiful small baroque church was built by a local man, who was seriously injured, and didn’t have the strength to return home. He collapsed at the foot of a cross, which previously..

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We spent 3 months visiting Morocco on a road trip during winter – and didn’t see all of the country. For Yasha it was her first time in Morocco, or any Arab country. I was visiting Morocco for the second time; my first time was sometime in the mid-80s. Yes, that’s well over 30 years ago, and many things have changed dramatically; but others, not much at all.

Recently I visited Morocco as a tourist for the second time in 30+ years. Here are my observations of the changes in this beautiful North-African nation.

In the mid-80s (I wish I could remember the exact year my then girlfriend reminded me: it was in February and March 1982, so even longer ago!), I also travelled through Morocco in a converted van-shaped truck camper, very similar to our Bertita: a Mercedes 608D. So my experiences are easy to compare because they were both road trips.

An old Mercedes T2 508D van. This is very similar to mine: same colour, I used to have a second side door with window, only mine was a 6-ton 608D and a little newer.

Our current truck Bertita driving through an old gate in the middle of the Moroccan country side.

 

Some things have changed for the better but, as a second time visitor, I also missed quite a few of the sights and encounters I had loved so much during my previous visit. Our time in Morocco was cut short, due to a vehicle accident , and we didn’t get to visit all of the places on our list.

It was Yasha’s first time in Morocco and she often commented that it felt really ‘foreign’ compared to anywhere in Europe.

So, do we want to return to Morocco?
You’ll find our answer at the end of the post
. Morocco is much more crowded now

This was my first impression, once we left the port of Tanger Med and drove southwards. I didn’t remember Morocco being so densely populated. In the North of the country it is even more obvious, because this area receives more rain and is more fertile. But a quick check on the Internet confirmed the fact: whereas Morocco had a population of just over 22 million in 1985, it has now grown to over 36 million people.

New houses everywhere in Morocco – and they are very different

What stands out to me is that all major towns and cities have grown exponentially. This is not a real surprise if you look at the population figures. But I also noticed changes in building style.

First of all: today, every town of any size is surrounded by apartment buildings. Apartment living is not the traditional Arab style of housing. Old towns were often built almost on top of each other, with only narrow laneways between the buildings. Each extended family would occupy their own group of dwellings.

Not an unusual sight in the north of Morocco: in the foreground a slum-like settlement of economic migrants, in the background the urban sprawl of newly built apartment houses – most not quite finished.

An old mud house village (a kasbah) north of Zagora in the far east of Morocco.

 

And, of course, the windows: on modern buildings they face outwards! Traditional Moroccan houses were built around a courtyard (or several courtyards), with most windows facing this private family yard. That may have had something to do with traditional role of women in a Muslim society; that they were hidden away inside the house. Or, perhaps with the fact that such dwellings were more secure.

In town centres, you can still find some traditional buildings amongst the new construction. Otherwise, you should visit one of the old Kasbahs, to get an idea about the inward facing style of buildings, with few openings to the outside.

Some old houses in Essaouira, where the blue painted render slowly crumbles off.

That’s where traditional houses seem to survive: in paintings, here on a wall in front of modern apartment buildings.

 

The building boom is accentuated by a wave of new houses. These are built by Moroccans, who work in foreign countries, mostly in the EU, and send money home to have their “Arabic Dream Palace” constructed. They always stand out by their very elaborate decorations. And none of them are any smaller than at least three storeys. During our road trip, we constantly commented on these, and photographed a few – here are 2 examples:

A richly decorated new house near Tafraoute, Morocco. Often these are built for people who work in Europe and send money home for their “dream home”.

Another richly decorated new house in Morocco. Often these are built for people who work in Europe. If you look closely they often aren’t finished either, with window glass and interior fit-out still missing.

 
Traffic in Morocco has also increased exponentially

I guess this fact applies in any country around the world, but in some developing countries we have visited, it really stands out: people become wealthier and therefore buy more cars. Currently, traffic in cities in Morocco is rather chaotic, with long traffic jams, lack of parking, and all the other typical negative effects of increased private vehicle ownership.

This was our first real traffic jam in Morocco, just outside Casablanca. Note: the road is two lanes only but everybody tries to squeeze past on the dirt edge – until a deep pothole comes. Then they expect the vehicle next to them to let them in line…

In the 1980s, I drove through Casablanca and there was hardly a private car on the road – now the traffic is bumper to bumper. I also drove right into Essaouira and Marrakesh. In Essaouira I parked really close to the old port, and our van was basically the only private vehicle around. I took friends to their guesthouse in Marrakesh, and I drove right into the Jemaa el-Fnaa square to park in front of their accommodation. Today that square is closed to all but delivery vehicles, a rule that is strongly policed.

But, out in the countryside it’s a different story, especially in the South of Morocco. Sometimes we wouldn’t see a single vehicle for hours. I also commented frequently on the lack of semi-trailers in the south; come north and you share the road with plenty of them (though less than in South America).

Photographed from a 2nd floor coffee house: The busy Jemaa-el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh. At night this is full of stalls.

A typical road hazard in some regions of Morocco: a large horse drawn cart, loaded with a cow, a donkey (look closely), some sheep, and steel bars tied to the roof, returns home from a market.

 
The vehicles on Moroccan roads

Well, it hasn’t changed that much since the mid 1980s. You still see plenty of old cars – but nothing as run-down as some of the cars in rural Argentina or Bolivia. Old Mercedes remain a favourite, especially the old ‘Bremer’ vans in all states of (dis-)repair. These serve, day in day out, as public transport in most regions. You hardly see any more recent Sprinter vans taking their place, and we wondered why. If at all, then old Ford Transit vans are the only alternative being used.

That’s not to say that you don’t meet new cars on the road – but moreso in the cities. Morocco now assembles quite a number of French models. Mini-vans are the preferred option of the locals. Cars like the Peugeot Partner, Citroen Berlingo, Renault Kangoo and of course the Dacia Lodgy, which is very popular as a taxi. Most trucks are now Japanese, with the odd small Chinese delivery truck to be seen.

One thing that hasn’t changed much, is vehicles often loaded up to way beyond their capacity. You’ll see them coming off the ferry, where every Moroccan visiting from his workplace in Europe, seems to bring home everything – including the kitchen sink (or two or three). But from small delivery vans to hay trucks, all vehicles in Morocco are usually stacked really high.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

The road network has been significantly improved

Yes, you still find some rough, dusty, dirt roads in Morocco, but not that..

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Why not take a slow, scenic roadtrip, and visit some of the beautiful White Villages and Towns of southern Spain? The Pueblos Blancos in Andalucía are an important historic tourist attraction of Spain. If you are travelling to the World heritage sites of Seville or Córdoba from the Mediterranean Coast, don’t take the highway. If possible, drive yourself.

Andalucía is the most southerly, and the most populous, Autonomous Community in Spain. (Note: Andalucía is the Spanish spelling; in English we call it Andalusia.) Historically, these white towns were built as hilltop fortifications, for the protection of their citizens.

The beautiful Andalucía White Villages are spread across the mountains, above the Mediterranean coast. Why not explore them on a scenic roadtrip, like ours. [image credit ]

From local archaeology, we know that some of the castles’ origins date to Roman times, but most retain characteristics of the era when the Moors and the Christians fought for control of Spain. The outstanding features of the Spanish pueblos blancos are the white-washed walls and brown tiled roofs of their houses. The villages are spread across the northern parts of Cádiz and Málaga provinces of Andalucía.

What to see between Algeciras & Ronda, on a Scenic Roadtrip of Andalucía White Towns

Our roadtrip started in Algeciras and finished in Córdoba. On the way, we explored villages on foot, and saw others from the road. Some of them are difficult to enter with Bertita, our self-built camper, but if you were driving a rental car, there would be no limitation to the Pueblos Blancos you could enjoy in Andalucía – except perhaps the time you have. The viewpoints on the A369 are really worth stopping for.

Our highly recommended guidebook for people who are looking for valuable information about Seville and Andalucía: the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Seville & Andalucía ! This book is for travellers who are more interested in the sights than recommendations for restaurants or hotels.

Find this guidebook on Amazon.

 
1. Castellar de la Frontera, Cádiz

When we left Algeciras on the A405, we made our first stop at Castellar Nuevo de la Frontera (the new Castellar de la Frontera). It’s less than 20Km from the city. At the time, we were looking for a quiet place to stay for a couple of days before starting our White Villages roadtrip. This small town was just about perfect. Unfortunately, because we didn’t know about it, we completely missed the original Castellar de la Frontera – one of the Pueblos Blancos. It’s 7Km away and, by all accounts, worth seeking out.

Castellar de la Frontiera: such a pity we missed this white village. These are some of its typical white-washed houses, and the village is contained, with the castle, inside the fortification wall. [image credit ]

2. Jimena de la Frontera, Cádiz

We were quite excited, driving into the first of the white towns that we came to. It was visible from a distance; you could see the castle and fortifications on the highest point, with the village crawling up the hill toward it.

It was relatively easy to park Bertita, and we set off to wander. The first thing that surprised us was the amount of English being spoken in the streets – by people, who looked like they lived there. A little research told us that 1 out of 9 people living in Jimena de la Frontera are immigrants, and most of them are British. The attraction is its proximity to Gibraltar. Some work there, and others like to go there to shop.

We spent some time wandering the narrow streets between the white-washed houses of Jimena de la Frontera. You can also climb up to explore the castle. As is sometimes necessary, we settled for the view from Plaza de la Constitución, where you will also find outdoor restaurants. The bell tower there, is all that remains of the Santa Maria la Coronado Church.

Plaza de la Constitución in Jimena de la Frontera: amazing view of the castle, outdoor restaurant in the sun, and the bell tower of the Santa Maria la Coronado Church.

There are cave paintings to be found nearby; the most important, at La Cueva de la Laja Alta (High Stone Slab Cave), are only 7Km from Jimena. Interestingly, the caves have a view towards Algeciras and Gibraltar, and many of the paintings are of boats; they are thought to be from the beginning of the 1st Millennium BC, although some archaeological research places them much earlier. These caves are definitely a sign of the long history of the area surrounding Jimena.

The heritage of the present town is linked to a settlement once occupied by the Phoenicians, then the Romans. Later came the Moors, and it was finally conquered by the Christians in the 15th Century. The Castle dates back to the 7th century.

Los Alcornocales Natural Park: a typical landscape as you take a roadtrip through the white villages of Andalusia.

Jimena de la Frontera is in the Los Alcornocales Natural Park and, as well as the cave paintings, there are plenty of good hiking, cycling or horse-riding trails to explore.

3. Gaucín, Málaga

We had this planned as our second white village for the day. As we came close to the entrance, we noticed that it looked too narrow for Bertita , so we drove past to the Mirador de Gaucín. The population is around 2000 people, so definitely one to visit if your vehicle is small enough to navigate the streets.

Gaucín is the gateway from the south to Serranía de Ronda (Ronda Mountain Range), which is a region of Málaga with Ronda as its main city.

A beautiful night shot of Gaucin and its guardian castle. [image credit ]

We were now driving the A369, since shortly before Gaucín. This stretch of road has many miradors. We didn’t stop at all of them.

Mirador de Gaucín

In less than a kilometre, we arrived at the mirador. Gaucín looks beautiful, nestled below a rocky crag, with a castle perched on top. The Castillo del Aguila (Eagle’s Castle) is of Roman origin, but the Moors adapted it for their own use.

In the parking lot of this viewpoint, I saw my first ever Cork Oak. I was fascinated that the bark truly looked like cork, just as it was. There are forests of these in this part of Spain, and stretching right through Portugal.

View of Gaucin from the nearby viewpoint. A very typical white town, with the Castillo del Aguila (Eagle’s Castle) perched on a rocky mountaintop above.

4. Mirador el Asalto del Cura

Just 1.5Km further on, is the Mirador el Asalto del Cura (the assault of the priest). From there you get a clear view to the Mediterranean Coast – or you would on a clear day. It was a bit hazy when we were there, but it was still possible to pick out the Rock of Gibraltar. Also, we could just make out the mountains of the Rif, across the Mediterranean, in Morocco.

From the Mirador el Asalto del Cura, you can see Morocco – on a clear day. Even through this haze, it’s possible to make out the mountains of the Rif, as well as the Rock of Gibraltar.

All miradors have informative signs, often made of painted tiles, detailing what is in your view. Sometimes they also elaborate on the history of the place, and the flora and fauna you may see. Most, but not all, are in Spanish and English.

5. Algatocín, Málaga

With less than 1000 inhabitants, this must be one of the smaller Pueblos Blancos. The tourist information website of Andalucía recommends that you leave your car by the road and walk in.

Algatocín: just one of the many pueblos blancos you can see from Mirador del Genal, with its 360 degree view.

Algatocín has no castle, or even the remains of one. It is generally believed that the Parish Church of Nuestra Senora del Rosario, from the 16th century, may occupy the site of a Moorish castle, but there doesn’t seem to be any proof to date – except that the church does occupy the high point of the pueblo, where you would expect to see a castle.

Mirador del Genal

5Km beyond the Mirador el Asalto del Cura you will reach this lookout, which provides a beautiful 360˚ view of the mountains from its top. El Rio Genal is responsible for the deep gorge you look out over to the mountains. The White Villages stand out, both in the distance and up close. The closest white town to the mirador is Algatocín.

There is a ramp access to the top of the viewpoint, as well as stairs.

Across the road is a forest of cork oaks, which had been harvested for their cork recently. There is a strangely neat appearance about them, with their trunks stripped of the cork bark.

Mirador del Genal is surrounded by forest and some of it is made up of cork oaks. Here’s one, recently harvested for its precious bark of cork.

6. Benadalid, Málaga

The Mirador de los Castañares (chestnuts) is situated just before Benadalid. We didn’t stop because we were now trying to reach Ronda. There is so much to see on this route, and the day was getting old. But we caught sight of the village just after we passed the viewpoint. The castle immediately caught our eyes. The ruins of Castillo de Benadalid now houses an above ground cemetery. It seems that its origins are debated by historians – Roman or Arab?

Benadalid, from Mirador de los Castañares: one of the smallest white villages we saw. Notice the remains of its Moorish castle that now houses an above ground cemetery.

It’s a small town, much smaller than Algatocín – its inhabitants count in the low 100s! But, if you have the time, stop and take a wander. Part of it is the windy, narrow streets of Moorish origin. The other part, around the main square, is more modern and clearly laid out. Benadalid is only 25Km from Ronda, and right on the A369 we had been driving since Gaucín.

7. Ronda, Málaga

We arrived in Ronda in the late afternoon of the first day of our roadtrip, visiting the Andalucía White Villages. It was around the end of the Spanish siesta, so perfect timing to see the city wake up for the evening.

Ronda, the largest White Town of Andalusia, perches atop the escarpments of El Tajo Gorge. It’s a good place to base yourself for visiting the Pueblos Blancos. [image credit ]

Ronda is the largest and most visited of the Andalucía Pueblos Blancos; with a population of over 30 000, it could be called a city. Probably, the most common pictures of Ronda are of it perched atop the famous escarpments of El Tajo Gorge that divides the town in two. And they are usually taken from the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge). Don’t be fooled by the name of this bridge; it was completed in 1793! There are actually 3 bridges that span the gorge; the others are Puente Viejo, which is a pedestrian only bridge, and Puente San Miguel, the smallest and oldest – built by the Moors.

The old town dates from Moorish times. It was one of the last in Spain to fall to the Christians. The best way to see the historic town centre of Ronda is to wander the narrow winding streets and see what you find.

We found the Iglesia de Santa María de la Encarnación la Mayor. It is the largest church in Ronda. It’s on Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, where you can also see the Town Hall, a converted military prison from the 18th century. The church of Saint Mary was built on the site of the ruins of a mosque. Some say you can still see evidence of the Moorish architecture in the bell tower, which is thought to be the former minaret. Other than the bell tower, the exterior of the church is quite modest in appearance. But, once you enter, all modesty is gone…

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

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Visit Barcelona for its visual attractions! The inspiring architecture by Gaudi, and 3 world-class art museums of 3 famous artists: Picasso, Dali & Miro.

A trip to Barcelona will always include visiting many of its interesting architectural sights. After all, this is where you find most of the famous buildings by the architect Antoni Gaudí. Everybody should see the inspiring interior of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral once…

On the other hand, the vibe of the city has attracted a number of now world famous artists, like Picasso, Dalí, and Miró. To celebrate this, the city of Barcelona and the surrounding province of Catalonia present several very impressive collections of their art, in dedicated museums, in and around Barcelona.

We were short of time, and possibly stamina too. Therefore, we limited our sightseeing to the architecture and a bit of the art – our main interests in any city the size of Barcelona.

How Modernisme Evolved, the Spanish ‘Art Nouveau’

Allow me to begin with a brief history. Modernisme (important: the Spanish style is spelled with an ‘e’ at the end!) and its opulence can be found in several art forms, not only architecture. In French speaking countries it was referred to as ‘Art Nouveau’. Modernista is a distinct style of Spanish architecture, thanks to Neo-Mudéjar influences, a fancy word for Moorish inspired buildings.

Nowadays, Gaudí is the most famous representative of this building style, but there are countless beautiful examples by less famous architects throughout the inner city and the precinct of Eixample.

So don’t rush from one sight to the next! Let your eyes wander up and down the facades of buildings that you pass along the way! You might be surprised by what you see. Wikipedia has a helpful list of the most outstanding Modernista Buildings in Barcelona Download it and keep it on your phone.

One of the many Modernista facades in Barcelona. There’s so much outstanding architecture, which wasn’t designed by Antoni Gaudí. This building stands on the Passeig de Gracia, further up the road from Casa Milà.

Several factors in the late 1800s contributed to the incredible density of these architectural gems throughout Barcelona.

  • The old city was ‘bursting at its seams’ and urgently needed to expand. Finally officials decided to demolish the old citadel and town wall, which previously formed the inland boundary of the city.
  • The new suburb of Eixample (Catalan for ‘expansion’) was planned, to the north of the Rambla. It’s grid pattern of streets and boulevards, which are of generous proportions, with the typical chamfered corners, is credited to the visionary design by Ildefons Cerdà.
  • At the time, Barcelona was a flourishing city thanks to a new bourgeois class, who had made money in the new Americas and from the evolving Spanish textile industry. These ‘new rich’ had a desire to outperform each other, showing off their wealth with their opulently decorated new houses.
  • The final spark, which started the fresh boom, was the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition [World Exhibition]. For this, the site of the just demolished citadel was transformed into an exhibition park, now the Ciutadella Park at the end of the Rambla. Most Catalan architects of any standing provided designs for this international showcase of Barcelona. This in turn inspired the new bourgeois to employ these masters afterwards, to design their own houses. A real building boom followed the end of the successful Barcelona Universal Exposition.

A beautiful Art Nouveau facade along the Rambla of Barcelona. The Patisserie Escriba is actually worth a visit!

Just one of the many splendid entrances in Barcelona. I photographed this because it shows how closely the Modernista architecture is related to Art Nouveau (and because I liked it).

 
Foremost Barcelona is Famous for its Gaudi Buildings

From the outset, it was clear to us that Gaudi’s architecture was the main thing to see in Barcelona. So that’s what we concentrated on for our visit. But apart from reading a couple of articles beforehand, and seeing many photos of Gaudi buildings, we had little knowledge about his specific style or his significance in 20th century architecture. The only other fact we were aware of is that UNESCO included the architecture of Gaudí in Barcelona in its World Heritage List. The World Heritage list is always an additional guide for our travels.

Gaudí’s work exhibits an important interchange of values, closely associated with the cultural and artistic currents of his time, as represented in el Modernisme of Catalonia. It anticipated and influenced many of the forms and techniques that were relevant to the development of modern construction in the 20th century. – from the UNESCO World Heritage Listing “Gaudi in Barcelona”

If you’re in a similar situation (that you don’t know much about Gaudi’s style of work), we highly recommend that you start your Gaudi tour of Barcelona at one of his later buildings, as we did. Why? Because there you will find an interesting exhibition of some of the materials and ideas, which inspired him throughout his life, and gave him clues on how to execute his complex designs. Just enough to understand his work, not too much to suffer ‘information overload’. If possible, we recommend spending at least 2-3 hours at our first stop:

Casa Milà or “La Pedrera”

Casa Milà was the last residential house designed by Gaudí, before he dedicated the rest of his life to the construction of the cathedral of Sagrada Familia. Everything he had learned up to then, flowed into this design.

The organic facade of Gaudi’s Casa Milà in the sunlight of an early Winter afternoon.

The entire structure is held up by a number of large support pillars, a full eight stories high. This gave him the freedom to forego any straight walls in the entire building, as none were required for structural support.

On your visit, the first location the audio guide will take you is the roof, with its twisted and tiled chimney structures. Not all of these are chimneys; some are ventilation shafts, others the top of stairwells.

From there the tour continues down into the attic – and that’s the place you should allow some time for! The attic structure itself is already rather interesting, as the complete roof support is made from a fishbone like pattern of bricked arches – not wooden beams!

But the displays in this attic are what really makes it worthwhile spending time here. Many of them explain very clearly where Gaudí found his inspiration, like the structure of feathers of birds, or veins in plants.

One particular display looks very simple but can be a real eye-opener, if you study it closely and read the attached signage! It’s a group of chains hanging from the ceiling with a mirror below. Gaudí used the same set-up to find the correct angles for his amazing curved roof structures. The chains will always hang in the way that natural gravity force guides them. The mirror then provides the upright view of the resulting structure. He designed the entire column placement of the cathedral using a complex chain model. This is called a ‘Catenary Model’ [link to explanation].

The Catenary Model used by Gaudi to work out the angle of his support columns – like those in the Sagrada Familia cathedral. There’s a mirror below which provides the an upright view of the hanging chains. [photo credit ]

After you have seen all of the attic, you will be guided to one of the apartments, still partly furnished with period pieces. It’s extremely interesting to see the flow of rooms, their very sensible arrangement and exposure to natural light. This was achieved by Gaudi’s plan to forego straight walls, and the resulting rectangular floorplan.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

During peak season we highly recommend booking your tickets in advance to avoid waiting in line at Casa Milà! You can also use this site to pre-order ‘Skip the Line’ tickets for Casa Mila , which include the interesting audio guide.

Address of Casa Milà: Passeig de Gràcia 92 in the suburb of Eixample

 

A visit to Casa Milà should certainly leave you with a better understanding of Gaudi’s sense of space, his drive to find unconventional solutions, and his genius in achieving beautiful and inspiring environments, which function well, day in, day out.

Now follow us to some of Gaudi’s other architectural masterpieces in Barcelona!

The Cathedral Sagrada Familia

Once he was approved to continue the building of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Gaudí basically removed himself from all other work and dedicated the rest..

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Ask any overlander: what is your worst nightmare? Many would tell you that it’s having an accident in a foreign country with your own vehicle. In most cases your overlanding vehicle is not just transport, it’s your home. When we had a vehicle accident in Morocco, which wasn’t our fault, but damaged our own vehicle, it really did become a living nightmare for the following 10 days.

Bertita’s backside: Some tips for you in the story of our overlanding nightmare in Morocco, after a vehicle accident (not our fault) damaged our transport and our home.

I want to tell you the story, in all its detail, of what happened and what didn’t happen; how we were told to wait and the waiting didn’t help; how we struggled with the language barrier and our ignorance of local process; and how we finally resolved the situation.

If you don’t have time for the details, you can jump here and read our tips for you, if you unluckily find yourself in an accident with your own vehicle in a foreign country – in particular, Morocco.

Table of Contents for Quick Navigation

Day 1 – Wednesday 20 March – Overlanding nightmare

With just 8 days left of our allowed 90 days in Morocco, we arrived early at the gas plant outside Meknes to have our German cylinders filled. Our plan for the day was to go from there to a supermarket to stock up for our last week; then on to the World Heritage historic centre of Meknes and spend the afternoon exploring.

Our cylinders were taken inside and we sat quietly in our truck, waiting for them to be filled. Suddenly there was a loud bang and the truck shook. We looked at each other – we’ve been hit. A gas truck full of empty bottles had reversed into the back of us, tearing the bottom aluminium sheet with its frame.

We stood horrified. Then we got upset.

After our vehicle accident in Morocco, you can clearly see the distress on Yasha’s face.

People gathered around, but nobody was very much help. Juergen yelled at the young truck driver a bit, and I just got hysterical. Our plans for the day, and also for our last week in Morocco were in shreds – much like Bertita’s backside.

Juergen went to the office and asked them to call the police. The truck driver wandered around looking shell-shocked – as he should. There is no way he could have missed seeing us, if he’d only looked in his rear-view mirror.

People came and went. The language barrier was a big problem. In Morocco it’s Arabic or French, and we speak neither. One guy spoke some English and helped out a bit, although he had disappeared, just when we needed him, several times. A black car arrived with a young man driving. He seemed to be talking to everyone – except us. Later we found out that he was representing his father’s company, which owned the truck. He didn’t look old enough for the responsibility. His name was Salim.

The truck that caused the accident, which damaged our overlanding vehicle. You might ask: how could the driver not have seen us in his mirror?

Finally the police arrived – in a battered little hatchback, but impressive uniforms. Juergen had asked for an English speaking officer, but neither of them spoke any. They collected documents from both parties, and took photos of the scene. And then we should follow them, and Salim, to the police station in Boufekrane, which was in the opposite direction to Meknes.

At this point, the main question seemed to be what we wanted. At least, we thought that was what they were asking. There was an uninvolved police officer, who spoke quite good English but, for whatever reason, nobody asked him to translate. So we were constantly in the dark about what was happening. People involved were having long conversations, but nobody was available to tell us what they were saying. We wanted our camper repaired, back the way it was before it was hit.

In the course of the afternoon they brought a Spanish speaking guy, who couldn’t understand us and we couldn’t understand; then an English speaking young woman, who was somehow related to Salim. She was very friendly, and tried to be helpful, but she seemed a bit reticent about directly translating what was going on.

We were taken to a workshop, where they wanted to patch the hole with a compound, and paint over it. Salim would pay. At this point he had disappeared (to his job, we think) and we were dealing with another man. Juergen had his doubts that it would stick to the aluminium. There was a long call between Juergen and the workshop owner’s brother in Germany, who knew about the compound. That person agreed that it wouldn’t work with aluminium.

After our vehicle accident we were taken to a local workshop, where they offered to patch with a compound, and paint. It would be finished that afternoon and the owner of the truck that hit us would pay. But, it wouldn’t work.

So we were led back to the police station, where we must wait for Salim. It was late afternoon. We were frustrated, exhausted and still quite angry. When Salim arrived, he brought his boss. This suited bank manager proceeded to address us in German and English. Finally someone we could understand, and who understood us. They took us inside. This time we were taken directly into the commander’s office instead of out the back of the station. We were offered coffee. We were assured that help was at hand.

Ibrahim, the bank manager, would call our insurance company and organise everything. He explained that we should have contacted the insurance company ourselves, after the vehicle accident. But nobody told us that this was the way to do things and we didn’t know how to contact them. By this time, nobody was answering the phone at the insurance company, so we had to give up for the day. Nothing was achieved, except that we had a hole in our camper and it looked like rain was threatening. If the exposed insulation got wet, we would have a much bigger problem.

But first, we had to complete accident forms for the police and the insurance company. These were produced, and Juergen and Salim completed them and signed. After that, we were finally handed back our papers (drivers license, registration, etc).

Then our most pressing problem was where to sleep: the commander suggested in front of the police station and couldn’t understand why the steeply sloping street wouldn’t work. Salim offered to lead us to a service station he had connections with, and we could park there. So, we followed him up the highway towards Meknes. When we arrived, it didn’t really look like a place we would normally stay, but it was getting late and we were totally worn out from the frustrating day. Ibrahim was still with him, and explained that Salim wanted to arrange for us to have dinner and breakfast at the station’s restaurant – and he would pay. We accepted. Ibrahim promised to call us in the morning after he had spoken to the insurance company. We ate well and slept ok – considering the circumstances.

Day 2 – Thursday 21 March – The ‘expert’ comes and goes

As promised, Ibraham called us the next morning. The insurance company would be sending an ‘expert’ to assess the damage to our vehicle. We were relieved that finally something was happening. The expert called, and then came to us at the service station. After taking photos, he told us we should hear from him soon – maybe before lunch, maybe in the afternoon. We had the impression that he would contact us with an address of a garage to have the damage repaired. We decided not to wait around where we were, but to carry on with our plans from the previous day, and go shopping in Meknes.

The day after our vehicle accident in Morocco, the ‘expert’ came to assess the damage. We hoped to be sent to a workshop for repairs later that day. A vain hope that turned out to be.

By 3.00 we had finished all the shopping we needed to do, and had heard nothing from anyone. We tried calling the ‘expert’, 4 times in the space of an hour. He didn’t answer our calls. Eventually we called Ibrahim, who said he would call the insurance for us. When he called back, he told us we would have to wait until tomorrow.

2 days now with little to show, except an ‘expert’, who is unreachable!

Day 3 – Friday 22 March – Where have all our helpers gone?

And now it was Friday. We should leave Morocco next Thursday and nothing seemed to be happening towards getting our truck repaired.

We called Ibrahim and he told us he would call the insurance. He called back telling us we would have to wait a couple more hours – back to waiting again. The most frustrating part was not being able to do any of this ourselves, and relying on the information and help from others.

We decided to drive into the old city and take a look at it. We were still hoping for a call that would send us to a workshop, but thought we could easily see something of this historic site while waiting.

We wandered through the medina, which was mostly closed up for Friday prayers. When we came to the Bou Inanaia Madrasa (Koran school), we found it open to visitors, and spent some time there. It was truly an awesome example of intricate Islamic architecture.

We managed to visit the World Heritage listed Historic Centre of Meknes, whilst waiting for something to happen after our accident. This is the very impressive Bou Inanaia Madrasa – Koran School.

But, when we returned to the world outside the medina and stopped for a coffee, the reality of waiting was still there. It was now after 4 in the afternoon. We messaged Ibrahim saying we had heard nothing and he replied saying he would call the insurance – then we heard nothing more. We tried the ‘expert’ and received no answer, yet again. It seemed that all the offered help had dried up – for reasons completely unknown to us.

Juergen approached the café owner or manager, who spoke some English. He offered his help. He brought in an English-speaking tourist guide, who offered her help. She took Juergen to the ‘tourist police’, who offered his help. All tried to make contact with the insurance company. The result of their efforts was the advice that Juergen would have to call the insurance company himself on Saturday morning.

3 days now, with the weekend looming, and still no progress!

Day 4 – Saturday 23 March – Defeated by voice recognition

Juergen attempted to call the insurance company, and discovered that language was a complete barrier to getting through. It was totally automated: first in Arabic, then an option to choose French. Juergen has a little French from long ago, but when he stated his business in his broken French, the voice recognition technology spat out a polite thank you for your call and disconnected.

We tried Ibrahim again – no answer. He was definitely ‘in the wind’.

Someone Juergen had spoken to on Friday had suggested going to any insurance agency office and asking them what to do. We found one, where a young woman tried to be helpful. Although, I had the impression that she would have preferred to send us on our way, but she was too polite. She called the insurance company and told us we would have to wait until Monday morning for a solution.

We grudgingly admitted defeat. We then had to think about what we could do between midday Saturday and Monday morning. The UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Site of Volubilis was not far out of town, so we drove out and played tourist for the afternoon. It was a good distraction from our vehicle accident in Morocco, and the total lack of progress since.

The Archaeological Site of Volubilis: we spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon, walking around this World Heritage site, after our very frustrating week.

Day 5 – Sunday 24 March – Rest day after 4 days of waiting

After a long afternoon of walking around the roman ruins on Saturday, we found an abandoned quarry to park for the night. It was so quiet and peaceful that we decided to spend Sunday there as well, and drive back to Meknes on Monday morning.

Day 6 – Monday 25 March – The long drive to…

We arrived back at the insurance agency and the nice young woman had already been in touch with the insurance company. That seemed like good news.

  • But her next question was: “Do you have a bank account in Morocco?”
    We gaped and said, “NO!”
    “Do you have any Moroccan friends who have a bank account you could use?”
    “We’re tourists here – NO!!! Why?”
    “The insurance company wants to give you some money.”
    “How much money?”
    “That’s up to the expert.”
    “But we don’t want money. We want it repaired. And anyway, the expert doesn’t answer his phone.”
    We called him from the office just to show her that it was true.

In between, I tried phoning the Australian consular assistance. I got a nice woman, who couldn’t really do anything and suggested we needed to contact the insurance company. I explained what we’d done, and that language was our biggest problem. She gave me her private number and said we should call her if we needed a translator to get something done. I appreciated the gesture.

Finally, the people at the agency asked if we could go to Casablanca, where the Head Office of the insurance company is situated. Strangely enough, Juergen and I had discussed that as a final solution, if we didn’t get any further in Meknes. We didn’t really want to go to a big city, but the solution this helpful young woman had from the insurance company was really no solution. She had done all she could.

So we got into Bertita and headed for Casablanca – a detour of over 400 kilometres!

Casablanca street parking: imagine our surprise at finding such a perfect place to overnight after reaching the city. The vacant lot allowed these flowers to bloom, and improve our mood. And it was walking distance from the insurance company’s Head Office the next morning.

Day 7 – Tuesday 26 March – I’m not leaving until we have a workshop to go to

6 days had passed since our accident; I was determined not to leave the insurance company’s head office without a solution.

On arrival, once we had explained our problem by putting our paperwork in front of them, we were greeted almost immediately by an English speaking woman. She took us to her desk and started collecting information. We stuck to our position that we wanted our vehicle repaired in Morocco to its condition before the accident.

After some time, we were taken into a larger office where several people waited. Some spoke English and some not. We were getting used to people asking questions and giving them simple answers, and then waiting while the locals conducted a long conversation that we didn’t understand.

They also went through the routine with the bank account and knowing someone in Morocco etc. We stated again that we didn’t have any access to a bank account and what we wanted was to get our vehicle repaired in Morocco now, to its pre-accident condition – and we would really like to be out of the country as near to our Thursday deadline as possible.

Finally they found a workshop, which would do the job and try to get it done by then. We were finally getting somewhere. Of course, when we arrived at the workshop just before 12.30, it was time for lunch. We were greeted by the boss and a young woman, named Rita. She spoke very good English and was our go-to person for the duration. She explained that we should park across the street, and said they’d be back at 2.00. We had lunch, and waited. At last, we were just a little hopeful.

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At dare2go, we encourage you to rent a vehicle and take one of our road trips. Here are some tips, and a coupon, to save money on that rental car.

Drive yourself holidays have always appealed to many people. While we travel in our own vehicle, if you’d like to “follow in our footsteps” on a road trip we’ve described, you will probably need to rent a car; or maybe even a campervan, to follow one of our longer road trip suggestions. Here we want to help you save money on a rental car or campervan so you can do just that.

We’ve all seen the ads for cheap rental cars – and the smaller the vehicle, the smaller the price. Not only that, the smaller they are, the less fuel they use. You may also feel more comfortable behind the wheel of a smaller vehicle when driving in unfamiliar countries – maybe even on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Some of the roads we choose can also be quite narrow.

So, you make your choice of vehicle based on many things, but cost is a major factor. And then there’s the shock of the insurance cost when you pick it up!

An abandoned AVIS station somewhere in rural Australia.

Our Tips to Save Money on Car Rentals Disclaimer: This posts contains affiliate links to products and services. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. 1. Compare Prices of Rental Cars

At the very least, it is always worth comparing prices between aggregator sites and booking with a rental car company. In our experience, the prices for rental cars seem to be highest when you deal directly with the major companies, especially if you walk into their shops. Aggregators usually find the best price for you. You can use the same websites you use when searching for cheap flights, or there are specific vehicle rental comparison sites. Internationally, there are companies like carrentals.com (owned by expedia.com) and others.

We frequently rent vehicles in Germany, and always use a page called Billiger Mietwagen . We needed a car in Germany when our Berta was arriving in Bremerhaven, by ship from Colombia. We only paid €147 for a 1 week rental of a Ford Fiesta, with a different drop-off location!

2. Assess Your Needs

Yes, you can rent a Ferrari or a Porsche in places like Germany – but do you need one? No, that would purely be for the fun factor. You’ll save money by taking the smallest, most economical vehicle you can live with.

Do you really need to register a second driver? This small detail can increase the rent considerably. When we needed a second driver in the above rental, we paid around €12 extra per day.

3. Avoid “Extras” from the Rental Car Company

This is where car hire companies make their money! They offer very competitive rates to lure you in, and then try to convince you that you need added extras on top.

a. GPS for Navigation

These usually cost €10-15 per day. These days, almost everybody has a smart phone that you can navigate with. You don’t really need to hire an expensive GPS. And don’t even think about how much it will cost if you lose or damage it!

Are you confused about Google Maps and data connection; do you think you’ll get lost if you lose your data connection? Don’t worry, that’s not the best way to use your phone for navigation! There are plenty of free apps around, which navigate completely off-line , including turn-by-turn spoken instructions. All you have to do is download the app and the maps for the region you’ll be travelling in. You can do this at home or at your hotel over WiFi, and be fully prepared to say, “No, thank you.” when you go to pick up your car.

We have been navigating with an Android tablet since 2014 – with hardly any problems!

b. Child Seat Rental

Yes, these are mandatory in most countries. But often you’ll save money if you buy one locally or online from Amazon (and have it delivered to your hotel). Car rental companies usually charge €15-25 per day for a child seat, capped at 5-7 days maximum. For €40-90, you can buy a brand new, completely clean seat. Booster seats for older children are even cheaper. Just donate the seat to a charity shop, after returning your rental car (or leave it at your hotel – somebody will take it).

c. The Excess Waiver for your Rental Car

When you rent a vehicle, cover called Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) protection is generally incorporated into the cost of the rental. As a renter, you will be required to pay a sum that is called ‘deductible’ or ‘excess’ if there was any damage to the vehicle. This excess can range from €600 to €3500.

Enter the Excess Waiver – a policy to reduce or waive the excess. Here’s a product that every car rental company trains their sales people to talk you into. Not because it’s the best deal for you, but because it’s an excellent money earner for the car rental company. It will normally double your daily rate, just to reduce your excess. If you choose to refuse, you must sign an extra field on the rental form.

But there are options to save big and get coverage elsewhere:

  • Your travel insurance might cover the excess. It’s a good idea to check this out in your policy’s terms and conditions before you need it.
  • It may also be available in the travel insurance provided by your credit card, when you use it to pay for your trip. Once again, check before you travel.
  • There is also the option to buy Excess Waiver Insurance online for your rental car from companies, who specialise in it, and can offer you much better deals than the car rental companies. Buying excess waiver from the rental company typically costs €15–25 a day and may double the price of the rental. Car hire excess waiver insurance coverage is available from third-party agencies at a far lower cost than the amounts car rental companies charge.
Important Bonus:

While car rental companies typically exclude any damage to the windows, lights, tyres, and undercarriage of the car, independent car hire excess insurance available from third-party agencies such as CarInsuRent.com (which offer its policies to non-EU and non-UK residents), usually cover this kind of damage, so an independent policy with this included is better value.

Our readers can enjoy 10% discount when using a “10off-dare2go” coupon code prior to checkout at CarInsuRent.com .

As long as there have been cars (actually, as long as there have been horse drawn carts) accidents do happen…

One of our goals at dare2go is to encourage our readers to visit relatively unknown sites that are “off the beaten track” so to speak. Don’t worry, these are seldom on unsealed roads, which most car rental companies don’t want you driving. Often these road trips can be followed using public transport, but driving yourself is the ultimate way to get the full experience. And sometimes, it’s the interesting things you see on the way that give the most pleasure, when you can pull over and take a photograph. Or perhaps take the opportunity for a short walk or a picnic lunch in a beautiful location. It’s the unplanned surprises like that that make it an interesting way to travel.

Often we are lucky and can camp at such an idyllic spot over night.

Don’t forget our discount of 10% when using the 10off-dare2go” coupon code prior to checkout at CarInsuRent.com .

We recommend for your next trip
 

The post Save Money on a Rental Car to Follow in our Footsteps appeared first on dare2go.

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The fortified Berber Granaries of Morocco were traditionally used to store grains and family valuables. We believe these should be World Heritage listed.

Once we saw one agadir, we went searching for more igoudar

The Berber granaries, or igoudar (singular: agadir) as the Berbers call them, are an important part of the history and culture of Morocco. Berbers, or Imazighen (singular: Amazigh), are probably the original inhabitants of North-West Africa. But we do wonder why their granaries are not listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As you may have noticed, we use the World Heritage list as a substitute guide book, checking constantly if there is something listed anywhere near our current roadtrip route. We discovered the granaries from a chance mention on a caption of a photo in our guidebook . Juergen then found another mention on a blog. This started our search for more information.

Unfortunately, googling ‘agadir’ only brings masses of travel information for the resort city of Agadir, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Our first, simple understanding was that they were fortified granaries; somewhere to keep their precious food supply safe from any marauders. But somehow that didn’t seem to be the whole story. Juergen found them on OsmAnd, one of our navigating apps , and we started looking for them along the way, in the real world. Later we found that googling ‘Berber granaries’ brought more information, but usually in blogs, written by fellow travellers. Most had found it equally hard to retrieve information.

The granaries of the Southern Atlas in Morocco: here an unnamed Agadir on a hill next to the road. You can see the typical two watch towers on either end of the structure.

At our second stop, we got a perfect explanation from the key-holder, Hassan, who spoke quite good English. His first statement: “It’s a bank”. Every Berber tribe would have its own granary, and each family in the tribe had its own box in the agadir. They didn’t just store their grain there, but all their valuables and important documents – in chambers that are really big ‘safety deposit boxes’. The granary had a guardian (amar), elected by the tribe, who lived on the premises with his family. It was also guarded by tribe members taking turns, day and night. The current key-holder is often called the guardian, but doesn’t seem to live on the premises these days.

We believe that the granaries of Morocco need some sort of heritage protection, best would be a combined World Heritage listing. Otherwise they might have the same fate as this Ksar – falling into ruins.

Here are 10 igoudar that we either visited, attempted to visit, or photographed from the outside at a distance. I’ve included the GPS readings because we had so much difficulty finding out exactly where some of them were.

They are all accessible from roads between Taroudant and Tafraout, and are listed in the order that we encountered them. We left Taroudant and drove south-west until we reached the R105, the main road from Agadir to Ait Baha, and on to Tafraout.

Berber Granaries between Taroudant & Tafraout 1. Agadir Imchguiguilne

Agadir Imchguiguilne: Our first sight of a Berber agadir, and we are unable to go inside. This is an excellent example of the watchtower, which is a feature of all granaries.

By mistake, we visited this Berber granary first, passing by the turn-off from the R105 to Ikounka. It wasn’t difficult to find, as it sits on top of the hill in its village. But it was difficult to find the way up to it, from where we had parked. While looking for a path up to the structure, I met a man who explained that the agadir was ‘ferme’. It took me some time to understand that it was not open for visitors at all. That the police had closed it. (Later Hassan explained that it’s closed because of some dispute between the villagers – we couldn’t find out more.)

We found a path up to the building and took some exterior photos, but were very disappointed not to be able to enter. It was a shame, as we could see from the outside that it had been restored in many places.

Agadir Imchguiguilne: Notice how this Berber granary has been restored, with new stonework among old. This is the front door, which is unfortunately locked. No visitors allowed at this time.

Location of Agadir Imchguiguilne 30:05:39.82, -9:09:51.91

2. Agadir Ikounka

Agadir Ikounka: Unlike most igoudar, this one is in the middle of the village rather than on top of a hill. This is the the part that fronts the road.

We backtracked to Ikounka – it wasn’t far. This one doesn’t stand on top of a hill, but our GPS devices knew where it was. As we arrived, a number of children and a man appeared – as they do. The man beckoned us in. We thought we were in luck. It turned out that, although the door in the outer wall was open, the actual agadir was padlocked and he didn’t have a key.

We were really disappointed by not being able to get inside this one either, and were almost ready to give up. I still wanted to know what these things were. We knew they stored grain and that they were heavily fortified for their time, but that was about the limit of our knowledge.

We sat in the truck, looking at various possibilities to park for the night. Suddenly a car came up and parked across from the entrance. A man got out and rushed across the road, picking up some rubbish in front of the building, and then disappeared. Juergen went after him to see if he was perhaps the one who had the key. Yes, he did have the key. He was here to open up for the local area governor and his wife, who were about to arrive for a visit.

His name is Hassan and he is the guardian of the granary – the one responsible for it, although we couldn’t completely understand the system in place. He spoke English well enough to communicate, and explained that we could come in but we would have to wait until the governor had gone – maybe 20 minutes. So we went back to the truck to sit and wait. It was quite a long wait – probably creeping up toward an hour.

When the governor finally left, we were taken inside. There was a bit of a zig-zag path to the second entrance, from where a long, low passageway leads into the agadir. When we stepped inside, we were both totally overawed, turning around and saying wow! There is a long passageway, lined with the storage chambers.

Juergen started taking photos and Hassan started explaining.

The chambers in this one are all the same size (probably around 7-8 meters long, a little over 2m wide and just under 2m high), because everyone in the tribe is equal. There are 3 tiers with huge, flat, stone steps to reach the second and third levels. These stones need to be strong, and well-fixed in the wall, to support a man carrying a bag of grain – up or down. There are 147 chambers. It is at least 400 years old – Hassan couldn’t give us a more exact time frame. They are a Berber tradition and existed in all parts of Morocco, where the Imazighen were.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Location of Agadir Ikounka 30:06:49.65, -9:12:03.73

3. Agadir Inoumar

At the time we didn’t find the Agadir Inoumar. This Berber granary is so large that it has 4 watchtowers. [photo credit ]

We were very disappointed not to be able to find this Berber granary. It is in easy reach of the city of Agadir and there are tourist trips available from there.

According to Google Maps, it should have been very near to Ait Baha, and quite close to where we had parked for the night. But, when we arrived at the coordinates given, there was no sign of it. So we moved on toward our next location, following a side road off the R105, just outside Ait Baha.

A couple of days later we found the correct location, but it was too late to go back. Thanks Google maps…

Location of Agadir Inoumar [link to website] 30:09:46.74, -9:06:32.07

4. Agadir Imazene

Agadir Imazene: many of the igoudar are not in the best condition. This is a clear indication that this heritage should be protected, so that finance might be more available to restore and maintain this important part of the Berber culture in Morocco.

The road winds up and down and then up again. As we got closer we could see the agadir above, on top of a hill. When we arrived in the village, we drove as far as we thought we could, and then got out to try to find the walking path. It wasn’t clearly defined, so we followed what was on our navigating app. As we were heading up something that didn’t really look like a path, a young man appeared. I asked, “Agadir?” He beckoned and said: “come, come”. So we followed him up and up until we could see that we were on the right path. He was so much faster over the rocky terrain, but he made sure we were following.

When we arrived, he was sitting with an old man under a rough shelter. He took us up to the entrance and there we waited for the old man. He was dressed in very ragged clothes and looked somewhat frail. It turned out that he was the guardian and had the all-important keys to the place.

Agadir Imazene: The front entrance of this granary. The old man sitting under the shelter is the key-holder or guardian of the agadir. He will let you in and point out interesting features of the place.

There was no zig-zag between the outer and inner doors in this one; the inner door was straight ahead as you entered the outer door.

He opened up and we went inside. He kept pointing things out to us that might be of interest, or that we might miss. It wasn’t in as good condition inside as Ikounka, but it was enormous in comparison – I think there are 3 inter-connected passageways of chambers, 3 storeys high. There were many rock falls to climb around and over to be able to see the extent of it. We stayed as long as we liked taking photos, and then headed outside.

The young man – also Hassan – then beckoned us to follow him down a narrow path between a ‘forest’ of prickly cactus. The ground was rough and rocky, and far too precarious for Juergen to manage. So, with continued encouragement from Hassan, I followed. He told me it was very beautiful and I must come. I’m glad I did. We walked right around to the other side of the granary and discovered the guard tower. There was an amazing view to the surrounding countryside. Then he led me up some difficult steps to a platform on the side of the tower, where we could see even further.
We finally made our way back to where Juergen and the old man waited near the entrance.

We had come without change to tip the old man. Hassan took our 200 Dirham down to the village and brought back change. We always have some doubts about people who want to help, because they are often looking for money or gifts. Hassan appreciated the 20Dh tip we gave him, but he was more interested in being able to connect with us on Facebook and Instagram . He tried very hard to explain things and answer questions, even though he didn’t always understand us. We also gave him a lift into Ait Baha when we left the village.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

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We continue our roadtrip in the South of France, with more historical & natural sites including Arles, Les Baux, La Camargue, Canal du Midi and Carcassonne. (Sunset in Arles)

Visiting Arles, Les Baux de Provence, La Camargue, Canal du Midi, Carcassonne, Forteresse de Salses, and Côte Vermeille

Like so many young Australians of my era, my first major overseas trip was to Europe. In the mid-80s, I bought a backpack and a Eurail pass, then flew to London with a girlfriend. We had 4 months to see as much as we could.

Recently, continuing our roadtrip through France , I found myself revisiting some places from my first trip in the South of France 30+ years ago. We’ll take you to some more interesting historical and natural sites, and I’ll share my personal experience and response to a number of them – the second time around.

Arles

The Roman Theatre in the old city of Arles is an important part of its UNESCO World Heritage listing.

I was really looking forward to seeing the World Heritage site of Arles again. Juergen was also keen, as he had never been. Back in the 80s, I arrived by train, with a detailed list of where to go and what to see. The list had been provided by a good friend and fellow teacher. She had lived and taught in Arles, a short time before my trip. She wanted me to experience some of her favourite places, and come back with good memories we could share.

This time, we drove right in to the old city and parked just outside the walls – or where the walls had once been, since there is not much left of them – on the banks of the Rhone. I was eager to see if I recognised anything from that other visit, half a lifetime ago.

The old city of Arles is a great place to just wander around. You’re almost guaranteed to stumble upon the important sites, which put it on the UNESCO list:

  • Roman theatre, arena and cryptoportico from 1 BC
  • Roman baths and cemetery from 4 AD
  • Romanesque Saint-Trophime church and cloister from 11 & 12 AD

The Romanesque Saint-Trophime cloister, begun in 12th century, is one of the important monuments in the World Heritage listing of Arles.

Arles is a good example of the adaptation of an ancient city to medieval European civilization.
Source: UNESCO World Heritage listing

The World Heritage old town of Arles shows its history in every street, with old and new standing side by side. Notice the new building with a glass facade, incorporating an old entrance.

When you wander the streets and alleys of the old city, you will also pick up on the atmosphere of a historic city with a real life today. Since we visited in late autumn, many of the outdoor cafes and restaurants were closed for the season. But those that were open, catered mostly to the people who lived there. The houses show their age, but often have colourful window shutters and plants to brighten their appearance. It is obvious that real people live in the old city of Arles.

Arles also has several museums. We went to the Arles Archaeological Museum. It has an impressive collection of antiquities, including a Roman barge discovered on the riverbed of the Rhone in 2004. Raising it required years of study in situ, and nearly 50 specialists to raise it and preserve it! You can see an informative video of this painstaking process at the museum.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Arles has an impressive amphitheatre. Unfortunately, the interior was being renovated when we were there this time.

Visit the Arles Archaeological Museum to see this Roman Barge, which was only discovered in 2004. It had lain on the bed of the Rhone for centuries, before being carefully raised and restored.

Also at the Arles Archaeological Museum, is this collection of carved sarcophagi, from the Roman era.

 

We recommend the Arles Tourist Information Office; most of the staff speak English and are knowledgeable and helpful. There are several options for passes to visit the monuments and museums. It takes a bit of working out, but is much cheaper than paying individual entry to each of them. You can buy them at the tourist office, online, or at the first monument or museum you visit. They helped us decide which option best suited what we wanted to see, in the time we had.

Impressions – my second time in Arles

I really liked being in the old city of Arles. It was uncrowded and quiet, and we could wander at will, taking photos of interesting houses and small passages, as well as the major sights. It didn’t seem to have changed very much from my first visit. But, it was late November, and we were told that in summer it is absolutely crowded with tourists, these days.

Les Baux de Provence

“A small town that seems to be carved out of the top of a hill.” This was the description from my friend, as she insisted that I rent a car and visit Les Baux. It was one of her favourite places for weekend trips, when she lived in Arles.

A typical street scene in the small fortified town of Les Baux. Notice the citadel in the background, which stands on the highest point.

Of course I wanted to drive out there again. I remembered the countryside with white, rocky, limestone hilltops. You can see the village in the distance, but it blends into the landscape. Les Baux is a fortified town, with a citadel on the highest ground. We arrived at around 4.30, and decided it might be nice to walk up to the town, find a café, and maybe have a look around, before we looked for a place to park for the night. It’s not an arduous climb, but it’s all uphill – first on the road and then by stairs.

The town is quite small, with very narrow streets. We decided against exploring the Citadel – it was late in the day; it had an entrance fee; and we’d seen quite a lot of castles since returning to Europe. Our quest for an open café was fruitless and within an hour we were back in Bertita driving to a place nearby to spend the night.

We overnighted in a parking lot, just below the Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux. Behind Bertita you can see Sculptures des Baux, a collection of strange sculptures amongst the rocky landscape.

The parking lot was next to the old limestone quarries, which have a new life now as Carrieres de Lumieres – Quarries of Lights . One of our French followers on Facebook had recommended this place, and we are very grateful.

The old quarries have been transformed into an art-based, sound and light show. The next day we went for the experience. It’s a bit difficult to describe, but the walls of the quarry are used as screens and, as you wander through the ‘rooms’, the pictures, often animated, change. All set to amazing music. There were 2 shows programmed when we were there. They are on constant repeat and you can stay as long as you like. The 2 shows we saw were:

  • Picasso and the Spanish masters, using the artwork of the artists and set to classical music
  • Flower Power – Pop Culture, the music and symbols of the 60s, a short show

Both impressed us. We stayed through 2 sessions of each.

Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux. This is what the quarry looks like between shows.

Picasso and the Spanish masters at Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux. This is the same section of the old quarry as shown in the first picture.

 

Between Arles and Les Baux, you can stop off to visit the Abbaye de Montmajour. We only stopped to photograph the exterior. We are slowly learning that we can’t stop to investigate everything that looks interesting. Europe has a much greater concentration of such sights than we experienced in South America – but we only have 90 days at a time to cross from one non-Schengen country to the next. (This time it was the UK to Morocco, via Belgium and Germany.)

Flower Power – Pop Culture at Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux: a 10 minute media presentation guaranteed to stimulate a nostalgic response in anyone of our age and older.

Impressions – my second time in Les Baux

I was disappointed with my experience. I remembered a vibrant town, full of people going about their lives. There were restaurants and cafes and a few tourist shops. This time the only businesses open were tourist shops. The restaurants and cafes were mostly closed for the season. Any that were still operating were closed for the day by 4.30. I also had the feeling that nobody really lived there anymore. That the town was really just a tourist attraction, waiting for the next busload. It no longer stands out as a must see place for me. There are plenty of other more interesting fortified towns – like Perouges , for example. But the Carrieres de Lumieres [official website] certainly made the visit worthwhile.

La Camargue

My friend’s other favourite place to visit on weekends was the Camargue: wetlands with cowboys on white horses. Back then, she also suggested taking a rental car from Arles to drive into the Camargue, so we came and went in one day.

This time we drove there in Bertita, and stayed a few days in a lovely spot. We were right on the water, with lots of birds, including the famous flamingos. It was a very relaxing and beautiful place to be. Once again, I’ll remind you that it was almost winter. I imagine the summer would be much busier.

Wetlands are beautiful places to watch the sun go down. The reflection in the waters of the Camargue create a lovely sunset image, with the ever-present flamingos.

The Camargue is the Rhône delta, made up of 20,000 hectares of wetlands, marshland, farmland and scrubland. It includes the Camargue Nature Reserve and other protected areas. It’s on the tentative list for recognition as World Heritage, and was the first French wetland of international importance declared under the Ramsar Convention. It is a very important habitat for birds, including the greater flamingo; for some of them, this is their only nesting place in France. There are also many migratory birds, which spend their winter here.

The white Camargue horses are indigenous to this watery environment, and one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world, having lived in the Camargue for thousands of years. Curiously, the foals are born dark, some almost black, and fade to the light colour as they mature. They are traditionally ridden by the ‘Gardiens’ – Europe’s only cowboys.

The cowboys of the Camargue: a Gardien on a Carmargue Horse in the waters, with flamingos as a backdrop. This is the essence of La Camargue. Unfortunately, we didn’t take the photo .

Winter in the Camargue: when not surrounded by water, the narrow roads are often tree-lined like this one.

 
Impressions – my second time in la Camargue

Wetlands are wonderful places to have time. My first visit was much too hurried. You can’t really appreciate how big and how special the Camargue is, in an afternoon drive from Arles. I have few distinctive memories from that visit. This time, I left with the impression that this very important wetland is being well-managed and will be here for future generations to experience with similar awe.

How did we plan this route through France?

Well, with our trusted DK Eyewitness Travel Guide France of course, and a Marco Polo paper map . Without this book we might have missed a lot of valuable information about these sights along our route.

[Affiliate Links to Amazon]

 
Aigues Mortes

There are very few urban areas in the Camargue, Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer being the main town of the area. We passed through to shop, but didn’t stay. Instead, we drove on to the fortified, mediaeval town of Aigues Mortes. Its name means ‘dead water’ because the town is surrounded by the salty marshland of the Rhone delta.

Just outside Aigues Mortes you will find this tower. Constructed in the 13th century and restored in the 19th, it was once a strategic part of the defenses of the fortified town. The only road access through the Camargue, passed through this gate.

A stunning view of the Camargue, from the top of the Carbonniere Tower, outside Aigues Mortes.

 

But first we visited the

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