Patricia Masar

Books.Writing.Travel.Life


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Crossing into the Maghreb

In my last post, I left you standing at the crossroads of history — among the vineyards of Jerez de la Frontera, to be exact — contemplating the centuries of conquest and upheaval in the Iberian peninsula, as well as the flowering of science, astronomy, architecture, and medicine that occurred during periods of calm.

In case you were wondering what happened to the Moors of Al-Andalus following the end of the Reconquista in 1492, many of them fled across the Strait of Gibraltar into the Maghreb, what is now modern-day Morocco.

At its narrowest point, the Strait of Gibraltar (the English name is a derivation of the Arabic ‘Jabal Tariq’ — Tariq’s mountain — named for the military commander responsible for the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711-718 AD) separates Europe from Africa by only 14 km and, these days, the crossing can be accomplished in as little as 35 minutes by fast ferry between Tarifa and Tangier.

On a clear day, it’s theoretically possible to see both Europe and Africa at the midpoint of the crossing, something I hoped to witness myself on two different ferry crossings when I stood out on deck in a strong wind, waiting — in vain — for both coasts to shimmer on the horizon. A hopelessly romantic confluence of geography in my mind at the time, but it was thrilling enough to see the Northern coast of the Africa rise into view over the blue waters of the strait…

After disembarking in Tangier, you can board a train and continue your journey in the footsteps of the fleeing Moors — destination: Rabat. A fitting place to reconnoitre and connect the strands of history. Founded in the 12th century as a ribāṭ (fortress), from which the city takes its name, Rabat was built by the first Almohad ruler, Abd Al-Mu’min, as a launching pad for sending troops to Spain in the ongoing skirmishes.

Under Almohad rule,  the imposing Kasbah des Oudaias was built on a hill overlooking the Atlantic and the mouth of the Bou Regreg river, and the construction of  a mosque got underway (commissioned by the Almohad Sultan, Yacoub al Mansour, in 1195), which — had it been completed — would have been the world’s largest. The unfinished mosque and minaret (Hassan Tower), with its expansive views over the Atlantic Ocean, is an evocative place to explore in this imperial coastal city.

Kasbah of the Udayas Rabat Morocco

Kasbah des Oudaias – Rabat, Morocco

Hassan Tower Rabat Morocco

Hassan Tower – Rabat, Morocco

Just outside the modern city of Rabat, the ruins of Chellah bake under a hot sun. The Almohads converted the remains of this Roman port city (Sala Colonia) into a necropolis. While under Merenid rule, Sultan Abou el Hassan (1331-1351) added monuments and the impressive main gate to the walled enclosure. Pass through the gate into a secret garden of wildflowers and vines growing among the ruins, the most picturesque of which is a tiled minaret, now the province of storks who have cleverly commandeered the perch as their own nesting site.

What better reminder of the inevitable rise and fall of the powers that be, than to wander through these atmospheric ruins on a spring afternoon, accompanied by the chirp and rustle of the bird life whose sanctuary this has become.

Chellah Rabat Morocco

Chellah ruins

Rabat declined considerably after the Almohads lost control of Spain, as well as much of its territory in Africa. Following the Reconquista, an influx of fleeing Moors helped to revive the city, with the original medina built by refugees from Badajoz in Spain, who brought their architectural style along with them.

In its modern incarnation, Rabat is a tidy and cosmopolitan administrative capital, a city of gardens and flowering trees, as well as home to the country’s ruling monarch, Mohammed VI. Less well known and visited than its more glamorous (and chaotic) sister cities, Fez and Marrakesh, it’s well worth going off the beaten path to spend some time wandering the compact medina, to peruse the carpet-sellers’ wares along the Rue des Consuls, and to partake of mint tea and pastries at the Café Maure in the Kasbah des Oudaias with its picturesque view across the river of Salé (established by the Phoenicians, Salé is a much older city than Rabat and — in the 17th century — a haven for the notorious Barbary pirates).

As the heat of the day subsides and the streets fill with strolling locals, cross the boulevard from the pretty train station (Rabat Gare) and have a drink on the terrace of the Balima Hotel as the sun goes down. I can’t think of a better place to contemplate the tides of history — and watch the world go by.


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Standing at the crossroads of history

One of the pleasures of travel is the opportunity to spend time in the confluence of history — a reminder that people, places, cultures, civilizations are always in flux.

Empires rise and fall; culture and language are born, only to disappear into the mists of time; cuisines are enriched by contact and trade with travellers and those just passing through (especially when passing through means sticking around for a few centuries).

Andalusia in southern Spain is such a place that stands at the crossroads of history. Scratch the surface of this multi-textured region of the Iberian peninsula and it is easy to see history at work here. Cordoba, a lively city on the banks of the Guadalqivir river, was once a Roman city during the time of the Republic and later, after being captured by the Moors in the 8th century AD, the capital of the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba, a region that included most of the Iberian peninsula. Signs of the various rulers are abundant in the city’s architecture, an enticing blend of Roman and Moorish arches and quintessential Spanish tiles. Fountains can be found throughout the city, a legacy of the water-loving Moorish populace, while the famed patios (interior courtyard gardens), built in the Arab style, provide a welcome cool retreat in the hot summer months.

Roman Bridge Cordoba

Roman Bridge across the Guadalquivir river

In the 10th century, Cordoba, at the height of the caliphate, was the most populous city in the world, as well as a center for education under the rule of Al Hakam II, who established several libraries, in addition to the medical schools and universities in existence at this time. Developments in mathematics and astronomy flourished during this period, when the city of Cordoba was the intellectual center of Europe. Along with the great Mosque of Cordoba (Mezquita), the city boasted 3,000 mosques, magnificent palaces and what was then the largest library in the world.

Cordoba Mezquita

Cordoba Mezquita 

In 1236, Cordoba was retaken by King Ferdinand III and the Mezquita converted into a Catholic church. The most significant alteration was the construction of a nave in the middle of the  structure, built after the go-ahead from Charles V, king of Castile and Aragon, who, when he travelled to Cordoba to view the result reportedly stated that  “they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”

Such are the lessons of history — viewed through the lens of future centuries — that it may be a good idea to leave glorious works of architecture alone. That said, much of the spectacular architecture of the Mezquita remains intact, including the maze of interior Moorish arches and the courtyard gardens filled with orange trees.

Speaking of orange trees….if you travel to Andalusia in the spring you will be welcomed by the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms wafting through the warm air. Mixed with the occasional cloud of perfume rising up from the myriad jasmine plants growing all over the region, the scent is so uplifting it will raise even the darkest mood….making Andalusia a wonderful place to visit when you need to shake off the dregs of winter!

Orange trees Cordoba

Sleepy Jerez de la Frontera, with its charming train station, is another interesting place on the history map. Famous as a wine-growing region, particularly for distilled and fortified types such as sherry (being an Anglicization of Xeres or Jerez). Jerez has been a centre of wine-making since it was first introduced to Spain by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC. After the Moors conquered the region in the 8th century AD, they introduced distillation, leading to the develop of brandy and other fortified wines.

Train station Jerez de la Frontera

Jerez de la Frontera train station – interior

Train station Jerez de la Frontera exterior

Jerez de la Frontera train station – exterior

Wine production continued unabated through five centuries of Arab rule. In the 10th century however, Al Hakam II (the Caliph of Cordoba during Moorish rule) ordered the vineyards to be destroyed. Quick-thinking citizens of Jerez appealed to the Caliph to reverse his ruling on the grounds that the raisins produced in the vineyard also provided food to the empire’s legion of soldiers.

Luckily for sherry lovers everywhere, the Caliph spared the majority of the vineyards, and sherry-making continues to be an important source of revenue for the city.

In spite of the current economic crisis — which can be felt all over the region — life appears to be going on more or less as usual, much as it has been for centuries. As we stand on the crossroads of history, acknowledging time’s long reach allows us to stop for a moment in the midst of our worldly cares, to lift our nose from the grindstone, set aside the burdens of daily life and remember all those who have come before. Scientific discoveries made, empires built and lost, libraries and universities and mosques and cathedrals constructed… and then fallen into dust.

So let’s enjoy the days of wine and roses (and orange blossoms!) while we can, as they are all too fleeting, and — like so much of what we think to be an unchanging world — ‘this too shall pass’.


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Be where your feet are

There are three wants which never can be satisfied: that of the rich, who want something more; that of the sick, who want something different; and that of the traveler, who says, Anywhere but here.   -Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we’re very young – and everything about the world is new and exciting — it’s almost always the case that we are happy to be exactly where we are in that moment, especially if we’re on vacation,  no matter where it is, so long as we are freed from the normal routines of the day.

As our young self gleefully dips a toe into the surf on a summer afternoon, we’re not wishing to be anywhere else, no matter that the beach is small and pebbly and the cottages lining the shore are uninspiring and poorly constructed. Our only wish is that the day will last forever. That we can remain right there on that beach till the end of time, with the sand between our toes and every fiber of our being drinking in the heat of the sun, the smell of salt, the calls of gulls in the sky.

Fast forward several decades and the chance is high that our lives and travels have taken on a ‘been there, done that’ quality. We may even find ourselves peering out at the world through jaded eyes. Oh no, not this dump, not again.

‘Anywhere but here.’

But anything we encounter can be a source of wonder, or at least amusement, if we allow it. So in my travels – and in life – I’ve begun the practice of staying in the moment, of embracing whatever experience I happen to be having, whether it could be labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. No place is a dump if you see it through the eyes of a child; even if it’s not what you expected, because everything will appear before you like a freshly minted penny, glinting in the sunlight.

Like many travelers, I’ve been guilty of falling into the trap of the idea that just over the hill or around the bend is a more picturesque town, a better restaurant, or a café filled with more sophisticated people than the one I’m sitting in.’

Thinking that there’s a prettier, cooler, more exciting, or more relaxing place than the one we happen to be in robs us of the experience we are actually having in that moment. In our overstimulated world, it has become the norm to look for something better, to be ‘anywhere but here’ as Emerson so aptly puts it of the never-to-be-satisfied want of travellers everywhere.

Make a pact with yourself: wherever your travels bring you, ‘be where your feet are’, feel the ground under your soles, even if rain is pummeling the streets into a slurry of mud and the restaurant you travelled so long to get to is closed and the promised sea view from your hotel is blocked by a spectacularly ugly high rise. Anywhere but here, you might be thinking as you make a beeline for the nearest bus or train station. But, caveat viator, that place over the hill or around the corner you are sure is so much better may be a dead end after all.

So stay. Smile at the absurdity of best laid plans…laugh at the rain and the mud and the blocked sea view. That very spot may turn out to be your best travel memory ever.

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