A Merry Laugh in a Tangier Hideaway

International Tangier

Between the 1920s and 1950s, Tangier was a tax-free international zone isolated from the rest of Morocco and controlled by France, Spain and Britain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, the United States and finally the Soviet Union!  

It quickly gained a reputation for everything naughty, wacky and exotic.

I felt like a glass of wine...

Even now, it’s zany chords remain.  Early one summer evening I decided to go for a drink at the Bar Pilo. The Guide said, unlike most bars, it wasn’t a brothel.   I could have gone back to Caid’s Piano Bar at the Hotel El Minzah, but swank hotels are so passé.

The Bar’s frontage was low-key and there was a minder on duty.  I had a flashback to a revolving vinyl 78 RPM my brother played when I was a kid.  I loved the line:  Just knock three times and whisper low, that you and I were sent by Joe…

The door opened a smidgeon and in I slid, holding my breath
and there I was:

I know a dark secluded place,
        It was shady, with a long marble bar.

A place where no one knows your face,
        Well that was definitely the case.

A glass of wine a fast embrace,
        Wine, yes – but the only other patrons were a very tall handsome woman, heavily made up in a long dress with lots     of lace and I mean lots, and a feather boa; a short, middle-of-the-road man, well oiled, who I took to be deaf and dumb as he was miming madly at the bartender; and occupying the end seat, an inflatable lifesize Santa.

It’s called Hernando’s Hideaway ole!

Some places need time to absorb

My eyes rolled along the bar again, skirting the plastic flowers.  Behind a wall of mirrors, glass shelves were stacked with every conceivable liquor.  Wine came by the bottle,  accompanied by a bowl of warm chick peas with some…  tiny feet.  Hooves actually.  The barman, a small wizened man in a waistcoat and bow tie was quite jolly… “Baaaaa Baaaaa.”

“Lamb’s feet?  Really?  How tiny were the lambs?”  Let’s not go there Gill, I answered to myself.  Besides there were olives marinated in oil and lemon, more olives in harissa, crudities and crispy grilled fish.  A feast without the feet.

The large lady in lace was standing with one foot on the bar rail.  She moved closer and sat down.  I fancied the round red-topped bar stools some counters in a game, but didn’t make my move – we smiled and established a rapport in minor key.   She moved four stools back.

I looked around. The walls were deep, dark pink and the whole place was decked with Christmas decorations.  Fairy lights,  chains in coloured foil, tinsel, hanging stars guiding shepherds, a plastic Christmas tree, and best of all, the rest of the set of blow-up Santas each one smaller than the other.  On a mirror, etched with outlines of a mosque, a painted Santa paused - seemingly impaled on a minaret.

After my third glass, the sinuous Arabic music wove the bizarre seamlessly into ardor and ecstasy.  Forget the fast embrace, this would be a long drawn out affair.  There was a TV tuned to a news channel with no audio and as I drank, I could have sworn the singing voice started emerging from the perfect agile mouth of the presenter who was swaying to the melody.  Even the slightly soft Santa at the bar started to look interesting, well, really he was the only option. 

It was time for me to go – just as the night was about to start.    

Home to my hostel

I wound my way back to the Medina singing softly,
“Just knock three times and you will know, that you’ve arrived at Bar Pilo.”




Hernando’s Hideaway is a tango tune from The Pajama Game 1954.  I love it!


As Time Goes By

Real Life Romance

It was 1971 when I met Mike in Zambia and fell head-over-heels in love. 

But when he said, “… Here’s looking at you, kid,” I had no idea why. 

I don’t think anyone of our generation escaped seeing Casablanca (1942, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman), but not all of us memorised the whole damn script.

Remember Snuggling-Up at the Drive-In? 

A month or so later I thought I was on track when I took Mike to Gone With the Wind (1939, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh).  It was showing at the Lusaka Drive-In.  But he went to sleep until the interval when he sat upright, fired up his beat-up Ford Falcon and said, “OK. Let's go!”

It took a lot of persuasion to make him stay for the second half.  He didn’t believe that any film could be that long and or that turgid.  It was almost the end of a beautiful relationship!


Over the years, I made amends.  I sat through Casablanca at least three times, maybe five….  Not only that but our four daughters have indulged Mike too.

Yet as Time Goes By

I can come clean now;  I never did, and still don’t, get it.  

Ilsa tells Rick she can't think straight and he’ll have to do the thinking for both of them and Rick knows what’s good for her and packs her off without an explanation.  Sexist?  You bet!  What is the appeal?

But still...

A wave of nostalgia did hit me though when travelling solo in Morocco for I learned that the original gin joint in Casablanca was modelled on Caid’s Piano Bar in Hotel El Minzah, Tangier.

Hotel's picture of Caid's Piano Bar

Hotel's picture of Caid's Piano Bar

I was travelling out of a back-pack and covered in a rash, but did my best to smarten-up and sauntered into the El Minzah, a sophisticated old-world hotel overlooking the Bay of Tangier. 

Think palms, orange trees and Moorish archways; courtyards and teak lattice.  The hotel was the brain-child of an English aristocrat and first opened in 1930.  It has welcomed many celebrities over the years and appropriately enough, those old Hollywood stars of the 1940s; Rita Hayworth and Rock Hudson.

It was mid-morning and the hotel was deserted but I found a waiter, ordered a glass of wine and sat in the main courtyard and enjoyed a 'life is absolutely bloody marvellous moment.' 

My picture of the table where I unashamedly took a delicious white wine mid-morning... all to myself alone.

My picture of the table where I unashamedly took a delicious white wine mid-morning... all to myself alone.

Then I tiptoed to the door of Caid’s Bar, pushed it open, and heard Mike’s voice so clearly: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”

Which is why my picture of the Piano Bar is a bit shaky...

My picture of the Piano Bar

My picture of the Piano Bar

A Century Ago Tangier Attracted Artists from All Over the World

Moroccan loggia, 1912 by Hilda Rix Nicholas and Quarazazte Morocco by James McBey

Moroccan loggia, 1912 by Hilda Rix Nicholas and Quarazazte Morocco by James McBey

Journeys into Art in Tangier

It’s the journeys within journeys that I love.  My own personal discoveries of history and politics, of art and authors and of music.  Each new destination, a place to pick up strays; arty people either home grown or blown-in, who I have never heard of and may well be long forgotten in the rolling coast of life.

SELFIES:  Mrs George Mason Nicholas (Hilda Rix Nicholas) 1917 and James McBey

SELFIES:  Mrs George Mason Nicholas (Hilda Rix Nicholas) 1917 and James McBey

Two of my Favourites

Many European artists worked in Tangier in the first decade of the twentieth century.  New to me in Morocco was James McBay.    He was a Scot and his work reminded me of that of Hilda Rix Nicholas, one of my favourite Australian artists.  They were born only a year apart, and I could not but wonder if they had ever met.  They were both in Morocco around the same time, shortly before the outbreak of World War I.   

Both captured the colour and light of Tangier through intimate portraits, street scenes and the market place.  Both gave us unforgettable images of the First World War.  Both had endured great personal tragedy. 

Camoflage by Hilda Rix Nicholas 1914 and Arab Man with a Child by James McBey

Camoflage by Hilda Rix Nicholas 1914 and Arab Man with a Child by James McBey

A Pause for Remembrance in Tangier

A Tear in Tangier

I’m not a sentimental soul so get surprised when something maudlin, corny or schmaltzy triggers a sniff.  Let’s try that again: when something nostalgic, tender or passionate brings tears to my eyes.

These occasions are not rational or even legitimate, but they signal an aliveness within us, part of our emotional heritage but part primordial I think.  We surrender to them or suppress them at our peril.

St Andrew's Church

St Andrew's Church, Tangier

St Andrew's Church, Tangier

Ambling around Tangier, I came upon the charming St Andrew’s Church built in 1905.  With admirable grace its design engages with the local culture.  It has a Moorish interior, ornamented with the Lord’s Prayer engraved in Arabic together with quotes from the Koran.  

Buried in Morocco

The graveyard is almost English, lush green and shady; in it there are are buried a dozen or so downed RAF airmen.  I was caught short by five of them, an entire aircrew, their headstones lined up, side by side.  The youngest was nineteen and the oldest twenty-one. They crashed on 31 January 1945. At least sixty million people, some say eighty million, died in World War II.  So why did these graves, well-cared for in a sunny spot, make me cry?
Because they were so young, the end of the war only months away - they were probably already talking about what they would do after the war - and they were on a routine patrol; engine failure or weather perhaps.  

We don’t know how to mourn millions and millions, so we mourn the few and that’s all we can do, and do our bit for peace - keep trying to hold Government to account that keep wanting to make war.  That’s all we can do. 

Lts W M Allison & J H Buxman both South African Air Force, Sgts A J Boyles, H J Hutchinson & F E Turner all RAFVR. They were lost when the 22 Sqn SAAF Ventura serial number 6455 (ex RAF FP683) crashed during a routine patrol on 31 January 1945.

Lts W M Allison & J H Buxman both South African Air Force, Sgts A J Boyles, H J Hutchinson & F E Turner all RAFVR. They were lost when the 22 Sqn SAAF Ventura serial number 6455 (ex RAF FP683) crashed during a routine patrol on 31 January 1945.

Finding Cafe Hafa in Tangier

Cafe Hafa, founded in 1921, a Tangier icon that has avoided the dreaded developer!

Cafe Hafa, founded in 1921, a Tangier icon that has avoided the dreaded developer!

The Hafa Hunt

One of my first stops in Tangier was Café Hafa.  It’s wasn’t a long walk from the Kasbah, but far enough to get lost.  I felt foolish because a generational succession of writers, musicians and rock bands had found it without difficulty and I was stone-cold sober.  

Help at Hand

I realised I was being stalked by a women wearing a hijab on a electric mobility scooter followed by a posse in wheelchairs.  She was winning.  Why I found the combination of hijab and buggy incongruous says more about me than her, but there was a sense of deja vu. 

My husband also uses a mobility scooter and if you get to meet him, give him a wide birth. 
It’s red and he is exceedingly good-looking, even with the beard he insists on sporting
these days.  I think he's had his scooter souped up.

In Prague he mowed down a whole covey of Japanese tourists, in Sydney, he pinned a Chinese business man to the wall and he has caused grievous bodily harm to almost every family member.  I hasten to add he is neither xenophobic or guilty of domestic violence, just slow on the brakes. 

So when the good woman hailed me, I kept a safe distance hoping to outpace her. 

I need not have worried - without me saying a word, she knew exactly what I wanted.  She pointed me in the direction of Café Hafa.  

Sheer Delight with Mint Tea

The café was founded in 1921 and is a Tangier icon.  But the really special thing is it hasn’t just stood the test of time,
it’s just stayed there unmoved by time and fame. 

Well truthfully given a few rows of terraces painted blue and white cascading down a steep hillside spotted with gnarly wind-blown trees in a stunning position overlooking the Bay of Tangier, what is there to change?

My delight was that locals still hung out there, the chairs were cheap plastic, the terraces swept peremptorily, the service problematic.  No one had resortified it!  No plaques, nothing on the menu, no Hey Jude Orange Juice or Brown Sugar Mint Tea.

House of Joy

Entrance to House of Joy - a Cheshire Home in Tangier

Entrance to House of Joy - a Cheshire Home in Tangier

On the way back, I went looking for my friend.  She’d gone but I and found a few wheelchairs clustered round the entrance to the gates of a beautiful house - a Cheshire Home.  I walked in and gasped at the beauty of it - the sea blue beyond a profusion of flowers.  It was called House of Joy.  I went to Reception and left a small donation but the young lady said, not unnaturally, that I could not go further.  As I left I spoke to a lovely lass who was wheelchair-bound and had lived there for thirty-three years.

Leonard Cheshire was an RAF Group Captain who started the charity in 1948 and has left a marvellous legacy. 

All Over Tangier in a Rash

Watching the world go by in Tangier   

Watching the world go by in Tangier



Normally I read travel advice on health and am sensible because I’m reluctant to miss out on anything, waylaid by some avoidable affliction. 

Had I read it, I’d have known that sand-flies and ticks and fleas run riot in Morocco.

A Mighty Rash

When I left the Atlas Mountains, the rash that started after I was accosted by tiny black mites in a filthy eco-gite in the Mid-Atlas, became ferocious.  It ran, not just across my cheeks and forehead, but over my eye-lids, across the bridge of my nose making it difficult to wear my glasses, around the edge of my ears and all over my hands, especially along the sides of my fingers.

Sand-Fly Central

I changed my travel plans because I seriously doubted if immigration in Spain, my next destination, would let me in.  Instead I got the night bus from Marrakesh and, in the early morning, arrived just outside the Medina in Tangier.   I avoided the Petite Socco, once notorious for pimps and hash, but now a tourist hub, and walked further into the Medina until I found a simple and clean guesthouse.

I spent the first couple of days sitting on my laptop increasingly terrified by the list of diseases I might have picked up: Leishmaniasis, Tick Bite Fever, Sand Fly Fever, Mediterranean Spotted Fever, West Nile virus, Filariasis, Typhus and Scabies.

A rash of signs in Tangier!   

A rash of signs in Tangier!


The Ancient Landlubber...

I presented at every pharmacy I could find.  They all asked me if I had had a fever, did I feel dizzy, and when I said no temperature, only supreme anxiety, they sold me creams and seemed remarkably unmoved by my plight - although keeping their distance I noted.

No matter what I applied, the rash persisted.  I was embarrassed to speak to anyone,  swathed my head in a scarf, keeping out of the sun which exacerbated the itch and mooched around shoulders hunched, so even the hawkers avoided me.

Some days I'd blink back tears, imagining I’d slope around Tangier evermore, never to return to the bosom of my family, some kind of Ancient Landlubber, accosting Aussie tourists with my tale.  They’d shrink back in horror and I’d beg them to take messages to the other side. 

Tangier; a City Not To Be Missed

My early morning cafe outside the gate to the Medina in Tangier

My early morning cafe outside the gate to the Medina in Tangier

I have a fairy godmother, celestial patroness or maybe my muse is some male diviner.  Whoever.  Lady Luck is on my side when I pack my bags and invoke the traveller in me to come to the fore.

For without that damned rash I’d never have visited Tangier, now on my short list as one of the most delightful cities in the world.  In the end I didn’t want to leave. 

Within days I had my favourite early morning cafe just outside the Medina.  It was frequented exclusively by men, the elders.  I might not have sat there had the owner not smiled and welcomed me.  Each morning he'd see me coming across the square and my coffee would be ready at my table.  I'd take my book but seldom opened it.  It was a rare spot for me; a place where I just sat and, with a sense of supreme contentment, watched the world go by.


Keeping Solo in the High Atlas

One of my most memorable trips travelling solo
in Morocco was into the High Atlas Mountains
by Grand Taxi

On the lower mountain slopes, exuberant swaths of green and pink oleander bushes traced the paths of numerous streams and rivers; lustrous against a backdrop of biscuit-coloured mountains. 

Higher up the bare-rock cliffsides swirled, tilting and tumbling.  Gigantic scribblings that diarised colossal upheavals.  A work that echoed still with latent power.

Tabant to Zaouit Ahansal

My destination was Tabant, a small town with a school for mountain guides, that served hill-walkers and climbers. 
In the town I hired a guide with a car as I wanted to visit a woman’s cooperative in the village of Zaouiat Ahansal
some distance away.  

Tabant and the local petrol station...

Tabant and the local petrol station...

It was one of those rare journeys where I truly shifted to a spectator’s seat; the backdrop so endowed, it took on a cinematic quality.

The first part of the journey took us along the Ait Bougomez Valley, past many Berber villages and the towers of ruined kasbahs that looked as if they had hatched out of the mud. 

Irrigation schemes instituted half-a-century before had transformed the valley floor and it was gorgeously banded with orchards and fields of bright green and gold.  On the hillsides above, ancient mud-brick terraces were abandoned - built with so much effort, sweat and tears, they were gradually returning to the earth.

Ait Bougomez Valley

Ait Bougomez Valley

The car made heavy work of the climb and we had to stop frequently to let the engine cool

My troubles didn’t start until we were far above the villages, when Mohammad pulled off the road to take a last look over his valley before we swung over the Tizi’Tirghist Pass. 

“Let us look at the view,” he said, but Mohammad had something else in mind for our stop.   “Kissy kissy now?” 

I looked at him in amazement, primly adjusted my headscarf,  and stared him down.  “No.  No kissy, kissy."

He was an agile little spiv, his verdant mustache fanning with his enormous grin.  He was agitated and hopped
from foot to foot.

“Just little kissy kissy,” he repeated, reaching to take my hand.

I snatched it away and took a few steps back.  

“Absolutely not,” I said in my best English accent.  I was taller than him and I hoped, rather imposing.  A sort of Maggie Smith moment.

But I didn’t feel that confident.  I was, after all, standing on a precipice, we had seen one other car in the last two hours and in any case we were off-road.
I gave Mohammad a withering glare and walked resolutely back to the car.  

I was surprised and unnerved, but it didn't take much thought to know it was too ridiculous to be menacing.  I was at least twenty years his senior, a grandmother, short-sighted, seriously deaf and rather grubby - I had been backpacking for weeks - and I had a horrible rash from mites I had encountered earlier at an so-called eco-gite.  I was hardly hot stuff. 

I thought about imperiously demanding a return to Tabant, but whatever I had got myself into, I was halfway there.  Past the point of no return.

Back in the car, I talked of my husband, daughters and grandchildren.  He remained determinedly unconvinced.  The stops on the deserted road for sight-seeing were frequent and he repeated his offer at each one.  Back in the car, he’d reverse with his arm along the back of my seat, touching my shoulders.  As he drove, he constantly adjusted the car windows, pinning me back as he reached across to mine. Even tilting his rear-view mirror he managed to brush my forehead. I squirmed to keep out of his reach and pulled my headscarf tighter, my sleeves lower.

“Kissy, kissy?”  

“No kissy, kissy!”

“Kissy, kissy?”

I grew more confident too, until I just rolled my eyes and tossed my head like a recalcitrant old grey mare. 

Little did he know, I thought, focusing my glare on his mustache, how I loathed facial hair.

The Tizi'Tirghist Pass

The Pass, the highest in Northern Africa at 2,629 metres, was well defined.  The rough road was originally built by the French in the 1930s and it there that the last wild Barbary Lion, Africa’s largest cat, was sighted and sadly shot in 1942. 

Once through the Pass, mountains stretched forever, turbulent, earthy, wild and harsh.  Patches of snow were still about, shrinking in the spring thaw.  There were a few stunted trees scattered over the taupe landscape, but mostly the vegetation was ‘hedgehog’ clusters - greenery that had adapted and grew stunted, bunched together in pincushions clinging to the steep rough terrain.  Many were in flower and made a puffy patchwork of mauve, yellow and white tussocks while some remained shades of green with a velvet sheen.    

Taupe landscape that rolls on for ever and ever...

Taupe landscape that rolls on for ever and ever...

Nomad Tents Made of Camel-Hair

At first I gazed unseeing at the spectacular and grim mountain slopes until Mohammad pointed out black camel-hair tents of nomad camps and in some places, stone built kraals and low huts. Gradually I too was able to pick out a flash of washing or a group of camels, but it was the black tents that really thrilled me.

Eggs never tasted better

We reached a mud house that had turned one room into a cafe where a smiling Berber girl boiled us eggs in a kettle.  She deftly sliced them, sprinkling salt and spices, before dousing the dish with oil.  Served with hot mint tea and flat bread, it was absolutely delicious. 

Making it Plain in a Pretty Gite

From there it wasn’t far to Zaouiat Ahansal, a village clustered around a river-crossing in a gorge.  I had specifically asked Mohammad to drop me at a gite that was run entirely by women.  He said yes, but took me elsewhere to his friend’s gite.  It was charming and clean overlooking a rushing river tributary with pink hollyhocks in the garden. 

A girl showed me to a room with four mattresses on the floor and I choose one and dropped my backpack beside it.  Within moments Mohammad was there too dropping his bag by the mattress next to mine.  

“No way Mohammad, you are not sleeping in this room.”

He feigned surprise, shrugged and said it was the only room.

“Well, you can sleep in the car.”  I picked up his bag and slung it unceremoniously out the door.

I got on well with the family although I felt the father, the proprietor, took a dim view of me.   After dinner the three of us sat in the little lounge,   With solemn disapproval on one side and crazy man approval on the other, I excused myself and took a walk up the road.

I was soon joined by my ardent friend.
“Kissy, kissy?’

“Fuck off!”  I growled.   I was out of patience. 

He licked his lips nervously and I wondered if I might have made a mistake.  Maybe he liked rough talk.  I strode back to the village.

That night I stuck a chair against the door of my room, it’s back under the handle.  From my mattress, I watched the handle move up and down in the candlelight but my improvised door lock held and had it not, I was ready to do a fair impersonation of a banshee that would have summoned the entire village. 

I didn’t want to drive back with Mohammad but when I spoke to the proprietor there was clearly little alternative.

Weaving centre and a hollyhock outside my bedroom window at the gite.

Weaving centre and a hollyhock outside my bedroom window at the gite.

Delightful Zaouiat Ahansal

In the morning Mustafa, the son of the household, took me down to see the small Atelier du Tissages de l’Association du Zaouiat Ahsal - a women's weaving centre.  I would have liked to have bought a rug but they were too heavy.  I watched the girls at work and took mint tea with them.  To my dismay were very enthusiastic about the artificial colours they were starting to use. They didn’t fade, were so bright and cheerful and easy to prepare. 

Mustafa told me about the Association he had set up to control the rubbish in the village because trekkers were discarding plastic bottles and other garbage that the village had no way to deal with it.
The highlight of the morning though, was not the women’s weaving that I had travelled so far to see, but Mustafa’s tour of the village’s magnificent ancient kasbah.  He led me through a dark passage, up a staircase so black, I had to feel my way slowly as he scampered ahead.  We emerged onto a precarious roof space and mounted a wooden ladder to access an imposing tower and then he took me down again by a different route, using steps which were no more than axed notches in heavy wooden poles.  Villagers used the lower rooms to stable their donkeys.  The site was being restored with money from Government; a casual process.

The kasbah at Zaouiat Ahansalwhere the local leader lived and where the village would gather when under attack. It is being restored with Government funds and is quite magnificent!

The kasbah at Zaouiat Ahansalwhere the local leader lived and where the village would gather when under attack. It is being restored with Government funds and is quite magnificent!

Homeward Bound

The journey back was punctuated by Mohammad’s protestations of infatuation which by now didn’t even get a rise out of me.  I was glad to part from his company but wished him well for after all he had taken me safely on an extraordinary odyssey.


A week or so later I met some seasoned Moroccan travellers who asked if I’d had any difficulty travelling alone. 
No, I said, for the Moroccans were genuinely warm and delightful hosts.

“You didn’t you have any trouble with Moroccan men?”

“No, well not really.”

“We wondered because, you see, it’s well established that mature German and English women come to Morocco travelling solo looking for toyboys. They pay good money to have a fling.”

“Not my kind of travel!” I laughed...  but then I thought about poor old Mohammad.

“Ahhhhhh……,” I added, “Well that might explain one particular encounter.”

Footnote:  I have changed the real name of my guide.  He was not called Mohammad!

Going It Alone in Morocco

It was hard to tear myself away from Fez!

It was hard to tear myself away from Fez!

Tricks for Travelling Solo

Nature abhors a vacuum.  So without a travel companion, my psyche simply split and I could talk to my other self. 
We didn't always agree but it was nice to have someone in a tight spot.

I was nervous setting off from Fez to back-pack so I bribed myself.  Two nights of sheer indulgence - an eco-gite in the mid Atlas Mountains.  A traditional Moroccan mud-brick farmhouse, lovingly restored, with thick hand-spun Berber carpets and rich in cultural heritage.  A remote utopia where eagles soared above stony slopes crossed only by goat tracks.

Morocco by Grand Taxi

It was a long journey and I would do it all by Morocco’s Grand Taxis - shared cars that plough between regional destinations.  On the second day I was decanted on a deserted road and waited for Aqilah to pick me up.  (It wasn’t that simple, but I’ll cut to the chase.)

Gite d'Etape

When I got to Aqilah’s house,  his lovely wife brought out warm bread, olive oil and peppermint tea.  Aqilah wanted me to book mule rides, a kayak on the lake or a birdwatching expedition for the next day and it took some persuasion just to get him to take me up to the farmhouse. 

It was a stony, uphill track and, at a distance, the gite looked splendid.  

Très Jolie - On Closer Inspection - Très Terrible

Aqilah showed me where I would sleep on the upper floor.  At first glance it was pretty with fresh blue and yellow paint-work; it took a second to see the filth.  The dirty carpets and grubby mattresses; a couple of which were draped with stained sheets.  The droppings; everywhere - rats or mice - gerbils or jerboas - or all of them.  I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing, but strangely docile, I followed Aqilah down to the kitchen. Platters and bowls encrusted with leftover food, days or months old, sat on stockpiles of grimed and greasy plates.  Every surface etched with the grot of ages.

No wonder the website said no chemical cleaners; no cleaners at all

Stunned by the sleaze, I tried to see the bright side.  I waved my hand vaguely at the mud-brick fortifications behind the house, which were mellow and shapely in the afternoon sun. 

“Très jolie!” I said.

My psyche is shouting differently; très filthee…, c’est crasseux.

Aqilah was delighted and took me on a tour.  He beckoned me over to see the underground olive press and opened a chute.  His shining torch revealed a ghastly accumulation of rubbish, plastic bottles and tin cans. 

As we walked round to the house I realised much of the rubbish hadn’t even got that far, the whole place was one big tip.  I felt, by then, quite spooked to be alone on a blasted hillside with this man who thought it très jolie.  I got interrupted.

No Gill, you said très jolie.  And you just paid Euros 40 a night to stay in a squalid ruin.

I know but I'm here and there must be something good about it.

Très jolie - this guy is bonkers - he just took you to show you his rubbish tip.  

Why did I say très jolie?  It is très terrible. 

But Little Bits Were Très Jolie

I sat out on the little veranda and read, trying not to indulge my rising hysteria when up the hill came Aqilah's wife with a tagine, fresh bread and a thermos of tea. 

The warm dusk settled with her arrival, scribbling out the scruffiness, caressing the crumbling mud walls, infusing the painted woodwork. She had a strong, sun-beaten face and she patted my hand, grounding me and I could not help but relax. What else was there to do?  What's a little bit of dirt between friends?

After dinner, with a candle in a glass jar, I wriggled into my silk sleeping bag liner and wrapped the pillow with my scarf. I slept soon enough but was plagued with bad dreams.  I twisted hearing small scuffles in the room and brushed my face imagining things crawling over me.   


In the morning my dreams were fully realised - tiny black mites were running over my cheeks, behind my ears, through my hair, along my arms, over my hands. 

I jumped up and had stripped naked by the time I hit the shower.  I turned on the tap but there was no water at all.  I grabbed my towel and flew down to use the trickle of cold water from a tap outside the kitchen.  I splashed water everywhere, combed my hair vigorously and rubbed myself with lavender and tea-tree oil.  

“Douche, Madam?  Pas de l’eau,” said Azilah.

Forget the Breakfast

He went to get breakfast but soon reappeared with his finger dripping blood.  I had no plasters, but poured tea-tree oil in the cut.  He yelped and took off down the hill.

I packed and followed suit.  Bugger a bloody breakfast, I wanted out of there.  

He met me on the path.  I told him I was not staying.  He was disappointed.  He said there was no ute so there was no way for me to go. He also wanted me to pay for the next night. We had an impasse. 

I Set Off Down the Road

It started as a pleasant stroll along the lakeside, greeting a boy herding goats, then an uphill haul to the main road which was actually quite a minor one.  That took an hour.   I was hot, tired and hungry.  There was nothing on the road, no house, no shop, filling station -  nothing, and nothing for it but to keep walking and hope for a bus or a taxi. 

I practised Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking meditation.  Then I listed the reasons why the situation was good: Vitamin D, exercise...  The list was so short, I moved onto affirmations. I said out loud, "I am OK, I am strong, I am OK, I can
walk a long way."

Sweat trickled into my eyes, but without shade I just needed to keep walking.     

Affirmations are all very well, but I knew I was talking baloney; the next town was 30 kilometres away, my pack weighed a ton, the sun was hot and I didn't have enough water.


I’ve never hitched.


In Morocco?  Are you mad?


This was part of the road I walked to get away from the gite!

This was part of the road I walked to get away from the gite!

So I Tried Hitching

I heard a car coming so I stopped and patted the air at waist level which seemed to be a slow down, stop, look at me sign and I thought less likely to be misinterpreted than sticking my finger in the air.   The car pulled up.  He was helpful and told me I was on the right road for Azilal.  Another car stopped and another.  They reassured me I was going in the right direction. None of them offered a lift. 

I began to think that I would skip hitching and go straight to holdup. 

The universe likes a joke, the next guy who pulled up was a policeman.  He drove me into town, took me to the Grand Taxi stand and organised the next leg of the journey.  I offered money for petrol, but he would not hear of it.

It was the next day before I started to itch.


Footnote:  On TripAdvisor, subsequently two people shared a similar experience - well not quite; they took one look and didn't stay but just got into and onto their respective vehicles, a car and a motorbike, and got the hell out of there.

Setting Off Travelling Solo in Morocco

Near my Dar in Fez, Morocco after Alice left and I was travelling alone

Near my Dar in Fez, Morocco after Alice left and I was travelling alone

My space was a little hollow without Alice

When Alice left me in Fez to go back to London I felt bereft. https://gill-shaddick-xg56.squarespace.com/journey/an-accidental-journey-with-alice

I moved to another dar in the Medina, I don’t remember now how I found it, word of mouth I think.  It was more within my budget, owned by a Moroccan family this time,  filled with light, mosaics, fountains, cats galore, soft-footed family,  shy smiles and warm welcomes.  I was the only guest and each morning, I breakfasted alone with the cats, marvelling that orange juice, a croissant and a sprig of mint could look so magnificent on a blue tiled table with a shaft of sunlight filtering through the latticed rooftop.

Travelling Solo At Last

I need to say something here about travelling solo.  I am embarrassed to tell you how challenging I found it to be completely on my own.  I didn’t expect myself to feel the way I did.  After all I had craved it.  A space free of responsibility for someone else being hungry, hot or happy or not so.   

This journey had been part of my big Unilateral Declaration of Ownership.  Owning the situation and owning the solution.  And part of the solution had been to get away - right away.  Imagine that for a cure -  when family and physicians said, “Take your passport, stand not about wringing your hands, but GO!”

Perhaps it was because I hadn’t planned on Morocco.  But that was serendipity, part of the adventure.  How many other people set off for Turkey and land in North Africa?  I had stepped out of my life.  I could go bonkers, eat ice-cream, have serial affairs, write poetry, sleep in all day, party all night and no-one would know. 

Yet I Just Felt Wobbly and Wonky

All I felt like was finding a cafe and reading my book.  Where was the audacity I’d had at twenty-one?  Who was the intrepid traveller of maturity who had, in the last few years, been to Afghanistan, Laos, Tibet, Borneo?  What the hell was my problem?  I was like a child discovering again.  Of course I don’t remember what it is like to be a child discovering, but that’s the only way I can describe it.  Discovering my parameters.  I was scared, so terribly insecure.  Do men feel like this?  Ever?  And added to that, I was disappointed in myself that I felt that way.

Pets Make Good Travelling Companions

I closed my eyes.  Perhaps a four-footed companion. Travels with a Donkey.  Fez had a surfeit of those.  Get behind me RLS.  Those ideas take time and in any case Mike gave me a donkey in the Sudan thirty years earlier,  I could not get it to move in any direction even when I got off and tried to pull it along.

When I opened my eyes, the cats were all regarding me.  I could just stay in Fez.  It was a perfectly legitimate idea.  But the cats looked malevolent, squeezing their pupils as if to dislodge me from their world and my own craved security.  

Escaping Immediate Decision Making

Trying to get my stakes in the ground that first morning on my own, instead of thinking about where I would go in the coming weeks, my mind went back to another perennial problem.  How to be self-sufficient financially on my return to Australia in several months?

Like I was on a desert island and worrying about what I would do after I was rescued rather than addressing the need for water and a coconut.

I didn't have to look far for inspiration.  There I was surrounded by straws.  I pictured a little shop in Sydney; tiles, textiles and tagines.  I’d wear a caftan and Mike could grow the long beard I had always hated, wear a jellabah like he did in the Sudan, and pour out the peppermint tea.  

Clutching at a Project

I was delighted with myself.  A project.  I made enquiries and had no problem finding a manufacturer of Moroccan tiles.  He was delighted to see me.  Many people, he assured me, had made a great deal of money in Australia importing
from him. 

A container, no less, that was the only way to go otherwise it would be too expensive.  There would be no problem filling a container for my new friend had not only tiles and mosaics, but a cousin who made carved wooden doors and screens, an uncle with a good line in fountains.  It so happened his wife’s father owned the very best tagine pottery in Fez.  Over lunch we talked of family and finding out I had four daughters and unmarried at that, he said immediately he could supply husbands, maybe even four brothers.  And I myself, I was travelling alone?  He could squeeze them all in a container, ready-made, I had only to supply required sizes…

"Come back tomorrow," he said, "We'll talk some more."

No trouble filling a container - a new business opportunity awaited me and new opportunities galore

No trouble filling a container - a new business opportunity awaited me and new opportunities galore

Some Ideas Are Best Left Behind

It was evening by the time I got back to my dar.  The cats eyes shone round in the dark.
“It’s OK,” I said softly, “I’m going in the morning.” 

Somewhere on the road to total contentment in a container, I had also found courage, or at least enough of it to travel in my first Grand Taxi and after that there was no turning back. 

An Accidental Journey with Alice

A London Stopover

I was staying in a tiny flat in North London with my youngest daughter, Alice.  I mean tiny.  A house savagely sliced into pieces leaving rooms appearing taller than they were wide.  She lived there with Chris, her boyfriend. Their bedroom was a thoroughfare, you couldn’t access the loo from anywhere without going through it.

Mum we'll just cuddle up and watch TV

I slept on the sofa-bed and Alice insisted she and I watch the entire series of Downton Abbey - all fifty-two episodes within three nights viewing - well that’s how it felt.  I enjoyed the first few but now have a facial tick that manifests whenever anyone mentions the Abbey.  

We did a lot of fun things in London besides watch Downton Abbey!

We did a lot of fun things in London besides watch Downton Abbey!

I Wanted Some Alice Time

I wanted to take Alice for a holiday and we settled on Southern Turkey.
“So you’ll go to the travel agent tomorrow?”
“No way, I’ll book everything on the internet,” I said.
“Oh, you’re such a switched on Mum,” said Alice and I purred.

As Alice disappeared to the kitchen to cook supper she hissed Chris had a limited Internet plan. Chris was extraordinarily forbearing; deprived of Alice and his TV, subject to my nighttime excursions through his bedroom, he now gave up his final bastion and let me onto his computer.  

Come Fly With Me

It was mighty stressful as I scanned the bucket-shop sites for flights and hostels in Antalya or Alanya, the kilobytes, megabytes and gigabytes flying by.  Alice would come in to see how I was going and top up my red wine.  She offered helpful alternative dates which further complicated the breathless combination of flights and hostels which ebbed and flowed before me, seats filling before my eyes, so when I finally got the combo right, I wasn’t going to muck about, booked and went to help Alice with cooking and the red wine.  

So Mum...  aaaaaaaa

“So were do we fly into Mum?” asked Alice.

“Antalya,” I said, but as the words came out my mouth, my whole body did a kind of wiggly cringe. Intuition isn’t called gut feeling for nothing.  It’s also our innate wisdom.  Ha, bloody ha, let me repeat that: johnny come-late wisdom.   

I made some excuse, got Chris to re-fire his computer and checked the confirmation. 

Ryanair were so pleased we were going to Alicante on the Costa Blanca, Spain.

“I really can’t believe you did that,” said Alice, a spatula raised in one hand.  
“I’m sorry, just too many aaaa’s - I can’t believe it either.  Never mind, Alicante‘ll be nice.”
“Mum, I don’t want to go to Spain again!”
I shuffled off back to the computer, simpered to Chris who was checking his emails.

Ryanair would only let me change tickets for another flight on the same day and the only place left was Fez.  
“Mum, where the fes is Fez?”  


To make up for it, I booked a guesthouse beyond my normal budget to about the power of five.  An additional incentive being that reviews of my normal nightly outlay left others itchy, wanting for hot water or in some cases, any water at all.  

On arrival at Dar El Hana in Fez Medina, we were welcomed by Josephine.  My intuition had looked after me after all, if not my bank balance.  It was perfect.

On heaven's balcony... with a good book

On heaven's balcony... with a good book


Josephine's Dar El Hana

Josephine had drifted into Fes some years before on the start of a world adventure, never got further, instead bought a dar, an Arab house in the Medina, and started taking in guests. 

Jammed together, without windows, dar rooms face inward and, from upstairs, have balconies that look down to a central patio.  It may be a garden or just a table and chairs; a gorgeous riot of tiles, carpets, cushions, cedar wood and greenery.  

Some tiling from Fez

Some tiling from Fez

Buying a Dar in Fez

When a property is purchased in Fez, everything above the outline of the house at ground level is yours, but the houses have evolved in such an organic way that a winding stair-case or a burrowed cellar may well go beyond your footprint or you may find your neighbour in yours. 

That was what happened to Josephine as she told me when I admired the little coloured tiles on the kitchen floor.

“Most of them are original, I cleaned and sorted them myself.  When we lifted the tiles, the floor gave way and we peered down into the kitchen of our neighbours whom I’d greeted outside only shortly before.  It was a great surprise for both of us!”

So she had to buy and sell pieces of the house to establish her final footprint.

My journeys are always fascinating but often vaguely uncomfortable; an incentive to keep moving. 

In Fez with Alice I could have settled down for months and it was an effort to tear us away to backpack travel. 

Alice acquiesced with a certain stoicism, adopting the dress of an avant-garde Berber tribeswoman with a voluminous scarf round her head and lower jaw and enormous sunglasses to keep the sun off her fair skin. 

Alice - inside without the sungassses

Alice - inside without the sungassses


Together we explored the Medina in Meknes, the Kasbah in Rabat and holy marvellous Moulay Idriss.  At Roman Volubilis,  Alice sat in the shade for an hour while I haggled with a dozen taxi drivers in non-existent French and I embarrassed her dreadfully when I eventually hijacked some American tourists for a lift.  

Together we enjoyed a riot of colour and donkeys, camels and cats, great food, naughty boys, friendly Moroccans, and more colour.

Marvellous Moroco

Marvellous Moroco

An Ideal Travel Companion... 

Alice has a phenomenal sense of humour and a nose for a bottle of red wine.  She used both when we found ourselves on a windswept Atlantic beach where Lonely Planet’s, “Little visited idyllic seaside fishing village,” wasn’t the description we’d have given and where Alice woke me in the middle of the night to show me the carcass of a bedbug wrapped in a tissue and her lines of bites. 

“Move over Mum -  me and my mates are coming to join you.”   

Alice Knows About the Finer Things in Life

Back in Fez for the last two nights before Alice departed for London, she took control.  She rebooked us into the Dar El Hana, found a modern hammam for the most amazing full-body ex-foliation on hot marble slabs and on our last evening, she followed Josephine’s recommendation and a small boy fetched us and spirited us through the Medina at night to the Tourina Restaurant which was out of this world in ambiance, flavours and delightful service.

Next time...

Next time I go travelling with Alice, I am going to leave all the arrangements up to her.  I’ll just have to save up first.

Undoubtedly the opportunity to touch down in extraordinary Fez and sample the warm-heart of Morocco was the very best of accidents.

Market produce and no gladwrap!

Market produce and no gladwrap!