Yesterday, we set off early, in the dark, as we had a long day ahead of us, so we adopted our usual routine on such occasions where one of us drives while the other sleeps. Those of you who know Marigold will have guessed who does what in this arrangement.
The sunrise was magnificent and as the distant hills came into view the morning sun positively gleamed on their whitened peaks.
‘Change of plan,’ I mused and turned inland. By the time Marigold woke from her slumbers, in urgently proclaimed need of coffee, we were high in the Sierra Nevadas, the air was cool and fresh and there wasn’t a café for miles. There was snow all around, not yet enough to attract the ski brigade, but only just over an hour ago we were alongside the Mediterranean and we're now surrounded by a winter wonderland scene good enough to grace a Christmas card.
We weren't equipped for mountain walking, but the first intrepid hikers/trekkers were already rolling up, wearing woolly hats proclaiming their dubious fashion sense, so we left them to it and set off back down the hill again.
Two hours later, at a house we’d once owned, I stood on the terrace I’d built to provide a seating area overlooking the sea and a glimpse of Morocco on the distant horizon, sun bleached terracotta tiles warm under my bare feet –the new owners only come here in the summer – and wondered how a familiar vista could still be so perfect.
We drove further on, some ten miles or so, and parked up on a piece of land we still own. It's little more than an acre or so of scrubby hillside, with a view, but it's ours.The last house we owned in Spain was just up the road. The new owners of that one had added a glazed conservatory to a three hundred year old finca. It looked ridiculous and must have been unbearably hot in the summer.
There were no signs of life at the house, absent for a while by the looks of the fallen leaves on the terrace so we peeped through the end window, but if the owners were in residence we’d never contemplate knocking on the door of a former house and introduce ourselves. Yes, we lived there once but those days have gone. Gone for ever.
Bygones. It’s our favourite word. Move on to the next adventure.
Tonight we’re parked on a glorious stretch of white sand. The sea is rolling in, waves tipped with foam, for this is the Atlantic, not the Mediterranean and we’re in one of our favourite places: Tarifa. It’s laidback, Bohemian, packed with fresh-faced young surfers with bleached hair and can-do attitudes and one of our favourite places in Spain.
Tomorrow, we’re heading back to Morocco with all it has to offer. The ancient cities, Fez and Marrakesh, ageless and magnificent; still largely unchanged over a thousand years. The Rif Mountains and the High Atlas where time paused in the Middle Ages and has yet to move on. The vast and ageless expanse of the Sahara, along with so much else, will be outside the scope of this trip, but we still treasure the memories of still, silent nights under the stars with only the whisper of sand dunes teased by a breeze to disturb the absolute tranquility of a desert landscape.
We've both been fascinated by North Africa since our very first visit twenty years back. The remote areas are, almost literally, another world. The people are friendly with none of the pestering that afflicts visitors to places on the package tour trail. I speak passable French, even allowing for rustiness as it’s been a while since I lived in France, but certainly enough to get by. For someone fascinated by history, the architecture alone is reason to get excited as we move on to each new town, each different region.
The South of France may have made ‘shabby chic’ into an art form, but it’s in Morocco that we see the true magnificence of the concept, especially away from the ‘tourist’ areas. Ragged urchins living in buildings seemingly on the point of imminent collapse would engender pity if almost every face we see didn’t have a smile on it. This isn’t Third World poverty. The people may not be rich by Western standards, but there’s a determination to make the best of what they have without any visible sign of complaint that is laudable.
This will be a short trip as we have commitments elsewhere very soon, but any visit to Morocco is to be savoured. The reason we're here is due to our mutual fascination with one of the most tumultuous eras in all history, the so-called Moorish invasion and subsequent conquest of Europe and the friendships we've made on previous visits.
In April 711, the Arab governor of Tangiers, Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the narrow strait of water between what are now Morocco and Spain with an army of nine thousand Berbers and began a process that was to see the Arabic influence extend to food, agriculture, architecture and just about very single detail of life on the European continent until they were finally driven back from whence they came in 1492. With Columbus ‘discovering’ America, 1492 was quite some year! As a couple who lived for many years in ‘El-Andalus’, now termed Andalusia in Southern Spain, we can certainly vouch for the impact made by these sophisticated invaders.
A few years ago, we met a young man, a Berber, in a village called Imlil in the High Atlas, very close to the summit of Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Imlil is where the road ends. No more tarmac. Only mules are suited to travel beyond this point. The village has a little tourism as it’s a centre for trekking in the High Atlas and it was as a mountain guide that my young friend, Zinedine, was employed. He spoke French, at about my level, and we formed one of those oddly incompatible friendships that I’ve often made when travelling.
Before the trekkers arrived, the Imlil area subsisted on its walnuts, apples and cherry production. I deliberately said ‘subsisted’ as having met Zinedine’s extended family, the expression ‘dirt poor’ is the only one that comes to mind. The Film ‘Seven years in Tibet’ was partly filmed in the village and Zinedine’s father still wears a shirt given to him by one of the actors. I asked if the actor had been Brad Pitt, but he had no idea of the identity of any of these strange visitors who were ferried up the mountain roads every day from their luxury hotel on the plains.
Zinedine wasn’t my friend’s real name. He told me his name, but I can’t recall it and certainly won’t attempt to spell it. He’d adopted the name of his hero, the great French footballer Zinedine Zedan, who was of Berber descent.
Berber history dates back to prehistoric times, at least 4,000 years. They fought against Roman, Arab, and French invaders. Many attempts have been made to colonise the Berber people, but up in these high mountains, they have managed to preserve their own language and culture. The people of the High Atlas were never conquered and their identity lives on.
Zinedine is the only member of his family able to read or write. He went to school, another first, by virtue of being the youngest of nine sons, his mother being his father’s third wife, and the only one who has ever left the immediate locality. Nine sons was a proud boast, but although we wondered about daughters we didn't ask. In this culture sons are valued, daughters are mere chattels and barely get a mention. It's still the Middle Ages in the High Atlas.
The language spoken in the village dates back thousands of years. Arabic was imposed elsewhere in Morocco but in the mountains the Berber language remained the only form of expression. Things are not very much different even today. The Berber language is purely spoken and does not exist in written form at all.
Zinedine’s family do not own a car, or even a motorbike. They live in low single-story buildings, topped with flat stones in the shelter of the hills where the climate varies between snow and bitter cold in winter to baking heat in summer. The family own two mules and a donkey and scratch a subsistence living from the earth, working twelve-hour days, every day.
Zinedine was the spoilt boy, in his own words, who was
encouraged to break away, to earn a living outside the family, and we have somehow managed to keep in touch. It's odd how some friendships endure, even those of such a brief tenure, while others fade away in time. He has a house of his own now as well as a qualification from a French university and is very much a success story. In the U.K the first child in the known history of a family to gain a university place is rightly celebrated. How does one quantify the first child to even attend school, in a family whose history dates back hundreds of years, obtaining a university degree?
We're not going into the High Atlas, much to our relief as our present car is not ideally suited to travelling up goat tracks, as Zinedine is a ‘townie’ these days, still studying hard to become a doctor, eventually. We're very much looking forward to the next few days.