Tag Archives: History

Morocco, The Assessment

Marrakech Souk

This was the second visit to Morocco and although essentially quite similar Fez was significantly different to Marrakech with fewer tourists and much less evidence of western influence.  We were quite clear and fully aware that we were temporary guests in an Arab country with a wholly different culture to Europe.

I use the term guests in a wider sense here because it was clear that in some places we were tolerated rather than welcomed, taken advantage of rather than warmly embraced and mostly kept at arm’s length, treated with suspicion and excluded.  The Riad was different from the streets because the owners were French and the staff were mostly Christian Armenian so there was a certain European atmosphere but once outside the front door it was a different world altogether.

Earlier in the journal I told you how we were unwelcome in the holy city of Moulay Idriss, so much so that Abdul, the taxi driver wouldn’t stop for even a moment or two for a sightseeing walk through the intriguing streets but there were other exclusion zones in both Fez and Meknes.  These were the Mosques and although we could look through the open doors and windows we were certainly not allowed to step over the threshold.  I find this difficult to understand, apparently even the prophet Muhammad invited Christians to pray in a mosque before meeting with them but it seems that attitudes have changed and intolerance has become an Arab religious characteristic.  I am forced to compare this with our own balanced approach which certainly (I hope) wouldn’t exclude a Moroccan visitor to the UK entering, for example, Westminster Abbey or any other religious building.

Fez Morocco Mosque

I really liked the experience of the souks, the colours, the merchandise and the sounds, sights and smells which filled the senses to overflowing, a mad overdose of random commotion which left us giddy from the experience but on the down side shopping was a nightmare.  The shopkeepers were persistent, rude and irritating with no concessions made to the European way of shopping, no browsing allowed and eye contact instantly interpreted as a desire to haggle and buy so whilst we could see, hear, smell and taste we certainly couldn’t touch.

Most shopkeepers clearly see European tourists as fair game and the collective objective is clearly to separate them from their cash as quickly as possible.  If I want to buy, say, a pair of shoes, I want to look in all of the shops and compare the styles and the prices but in the Moroccan Souks everyone wants to pester me into making a hasty decision before I am ready which is rather self defeating for them because feeling uncomfortable, unfamiliar and intimidated I buy nothing and spend no money.

Worst of all are the groups of young boys and men who hang around the streets preying on puzzled tourists and offering their services as guides.  Even when you say no they persist and hang on like barnacles and are extremely difficult to shake off.  I told you about the visit to the restaurant which had been recommended to us (and for which he was taking a commission) but even so other men insisted on accompanying us to the front door and then tried to claim the percentage cut for themselves.  During the meal the waiter even brought a boy to our table to ask if he had made the recommendation that he was claiming.  This naturally makes things surprisingly expensive because street economics appear to be based on tips, backhanders and commission and with every one taking a share this inevitably forces prices up.

Don’t get me wrong because on balance I enjoyed the experience of Fez, the Riad was excellent, the food was good, the sightseeing was unexpected and we were treated with courtesy and respect by everyone associated with the Riad but I have seen Morocco now and I think it may be some time before I return to North Africa as we resume our travels through Europe.


Riga, A Russian Taxi Driver’s Perspective

Riga Freedom Monument

For evening meal we choose the out-of-town Lido amusement park where we had been before on our previous visit.  Kim was certain that it was a very precise eight-minute walk but we were all pleased that we overruled her and took the twenty-minute taxi ride instead.

The Lido looked wonderful, there was a skating rink with people enjoying themselves on the ice, someone had forgotten to switch off the Christmas lights and the whole place was like a huge fairy grotto made all the more impressive with the liberal covering of snow below our feet and a clear velvet black sky above our heads.  Inside there was a sumptuous display of self service fare all carefully arranged by meat types which to be honest only vaguely assisted selection, faced as we were by an overwhelming choice of food.

This place didn’t seem to fit the vision of Latvia as being a place to get away from and move to the east of England instead.  I know that with the lowest average wage it is officially the poorest country in the EU, and for that reason tens of thousands of Latvians have left for England where they can earn as much in a week as they earn in a month back home but this place was lively and vibrant, the food was excellent and inexpensive, and the customers seemed affluent and happy.  With women in stylish fur coats and extravagant high heel boots none of this seemed consistent with tales of migrant worker woes back home!

The journey back to the hotel was one of the highlights of the holiday! We left the Lido and looked for a taxi and it was just our luck to select one with a lunatic escaped from an asylum for a driver.  When it comes to taxi drivers we certainly can pick them.

Kim made the first approach and asked if he could take some of us back to Riga and to our surprise he indicated that he could take all five of us in his Renault Megane.

This was a vehicle that was clearly unsuitable for accommodating five passengers and probably not licensed to do so either!  Kim doubted this and just for clarification enquired a second time and clearly running short on patience he gave her his “why can’t this stupid woman understand look”, and immediately increased his carrying capacity to an absurdly optimistic eight!  Kim looked even more startled by this and even examined the interior of the car for concealed seats by sticking her head through the open window.  He responded by raising his eyeballs so far into the top of his head that if he’d had laser vision he would have fried his brains.  This was our cue to accept the five in a taxi invitation and we piled in.

Then the fun really started!  He immediately quizzed us about our national origins: “Where are you from?” He enquired, “England” said Micky, “London?”he followed up.  This is a standard opening conversation with a European taxi driver that frequent travellers will be familiar with; the only place they really know in England is the capital, and sometimes Manchester, so they always make reference to it “No, Lincolnshire” Micky informed him without managing to raise a flicker of recognition and immediately closing down this topic of conversation.

Taxi driver “Do you know Tony Blair?”, Micky “Well, not personally, no”

The scary driver went on to explain how from his personal perspective life was desperately unfair in Latvia.  From his explanation of conditions we discovered that he was a Russian living in Riga and by his own self-assessment suffering all sorts of discrimination (which is hardly surprising really when they (the Russians) had spent forty years or so kicking the shit out of the place).  His solution to the problem was the advocacy of a red revolution and I for one thought it sensible not to disagree too robustly.   He spoke with a thick Russian accent and had the unfortunate habit of preceding each statement with an unpleasant phlegmy hack that was half cough and half retch and definitely only half human.

Times are hard, it is very expensive to live in Riga”, “No way” said Micky, half mocking him now, “This place is very reasonable!” This led to a few seconds of choking laughter and uncontrollable hacking by the driver and after a few more cost of living exchanges Micky, fully mocking him now, did eventually concede that life was getting a bit tougher in the west; “Yes,” he said “I have to agree, things are getting harder in England too, look at us, we used to have two wives each but now we can only afford one and a third to share between us!

Then the driver lamented that it would cost him a month’s wages to stay three nights in a Riga hotel and again Micky put him straight and corrected his estimate to just the one night. This man was good fun and he even thought it was amusing when we directed him to the wrong hotel and he had to make readjustments to his route to get us to our intended destination.  And it only cost ten Lats, that’s what I call good value, a taxi ride, conversation and excellent entertainment thrown in.

Actually Russians have had a bit of a hard time since independence because when Latvia broke free in 1991, it granted automatic citizenship to those who had lived in the first independent Latvian state, between 1918 and 1940, but not to those who immigrated here after the war, when Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Under Soviet rule during the Stalin years thousands were arrested and sent to Siberian labour camps, or executed. Later, hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians flooded into the republic under a deliberate policy of Russification. The Latvian language was squeezed out of official use.  Latvians were resentful citizens of the USSR and by 1991 they comprised only half of the population of their own country, while in Riga only a third were Latvian.

Today Latvia is determined to revive the national identity. It says that its policy towards Russians who immigrated there during the Soviet period is aimed not at punishing them for the ‘crimes’ of the Soviet regime but at ensuring that they learn Latvian and integrate fully into society. In order to naturalise, Russians must take a test in Latvian, and pass an exam about Latvian history in which they must ‘correctly’ answer that the country was occupied and colonised, not liberated, by the Soviet Union in 1945.

Skyline Bar


More posts about Riga…

Jurmala by Train


Riga – The Skyline Bar

Works outing to Riga

Riga- Lunch at the Lido

Rosa Klebb’s endurance sightseeing tour of Riga

Sigulda, Latvia

Latvia Dining – a Chronic Case of Indecision

Jurmala, Latvia

Riga sightseeing

Riga – Festival of the Family and a BBQ


Portugal, Bom Jesus do Monte

Bom Jesus Braga Portugal

The plan now was to drive north to the City of Braga and visit the park of Bom Jesus do Monte and although this was only a short journey this wasn’t nearly as straight forward as it should have been.

Tired of paying motorway toll charges I decided to take the old road instead which runs close by and often parallel.  What made this so difficult was the curious system of road signs that the Portuguese have.  One minute you are happily following signs to a destination and then suddenly, usually at a roundabout or busy junction, they simply disappear and taking the right option becomes a bit of a lottery.  It was all too confusing so after only a short while I abandoned the old road and found a way back to the motorway.

Braga is the third largest city in Portugal but we weren’t planning to visit the Episcopal capital of the country and instead we used the ring road to swing to the east out into the country and towards the religious sanctuary on top of a high hill on the outskirts of the city.

Many hilltops in Portugal have been places of religious devotion and the Bom Jesus hill was one of these. It was an ancient site where in 1629 a pilgrimage church was built dedicated to the Bom Jesus (Good Jesus), with six chapels dedicated to the Passion of Christ.  The present Sanctuary was begun in 1722, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Braga, Rodrigo de Moura Telles and under his direction the first stairway row, with chapels dedicated to the Via Crucis, were completed.  He also sponsored the next segment of stairways, which has a zigzag shape and is dedicated to the Five Senses of Sight, Smell, Hearing, Touch and Taste and each is represented by a different fountain.

Around 1781, Archbishop Gaspar de Bragança decided to complete the sanctuary by adding a third segment of stairways and a new church. The third stairway also follows a zigzag pattern and is dedicated to the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity, each with its own fountain. The old church was demolished and a new one was built following a neoclassic design by architect Carlos Amarante. In the 19th century, the area around the church and stairway was expropriated and turned into a park and in 1882, to facilitate the access to the Sanctuary; the Bom Jesus funicular was built linking the city of Braga to the hill.  This was the first funicular to be built in the Iberian Peninsula and is still in use today.

We stood at the top of the steps and debated whether or not to go to the bottom but after we realised that true penitent visitors climb them on their knees we agreed that a gentle stroll would be quite easy by comparison so we did just that and we were pleased that we did because the view from the bottom looking up the towering black and white stair case made it worth going to all the trouble.

For the first time today the sun was really out and it was a warm climb back to the top where the park was beginning to fill up with Sunday afternoon visitors from the city. There was a curious blend of attractions in the park, with the church itself, gardens that had a touch of Antoni Gaudi and Park Guell in Barcelona, the inevitable tourist train and childrens’ photographers.  Everyone was having a good time including a quartet of old lady singers who were being enthusiastically orchestrated by a fifth member of the party who was in charge of song selection and keeping everyone in some sort of time.

We left Bom Jesus and as the sun was shining decided to head for the coast and a late lunch at the seaside down of Esposende.  Because of the trouble with direction signs we crossed the city from east to west instead of using the ring road and after we emerged on the other side we passed by the town of Barcelos without stopping and made straight for the coast.  Along the route there were lots of roadside vegetable stalls where growers were selling their produce, mostly onions and potatoes, to passing motorists who would pull up now and again without warning to make a purchase.

There were more and more motorists now and as we approached the coast the roads became quite congested and somewhere along the way the girls stopped blue-sky thinking and the clouds rolled back in from the Atlantic.  Esposende was very busy and although we found the seafront restaurant where we were planning to eat it was completely full inside and with a strong wind coming in off the sea it was far too cold to sit outside.  This was a disappointment, we had sat in this very spot in February when the sky was blue and the sun was shining, there were only a few people around and the place was pleased to see us.  Today it didn’t need our custom and it seemed less friendly so we abandoned the idea and returned to the car just as the first spots of rain began to fall.

Although it was only a few kilometres it seemed a long journey back to Vila do Conde and this wasn’t helped when I took an unnecessarily circuitous route back to the main road.  By the time we arrived back it was really pouring with rain and with everyone in Portugal out for a Sunday afternoon drive and clogging up the streets we made slow progress through the town.  Before going back we stopped at a small patisserie and bar and had coffee and cakes and watched the rain bouncing off the pavement outside.

On the previous evening we had sat on the terrace bar for an early aperitif but tonight was different and we were forced to sit inside on account of the poor weather and wait ages for service because the hotel was running on a skeleton staff because all but a few of them were at church celebrating someone’s first communion.

We had a final meal in the restaurant and Sue and Christine must have been feeling brave because they ordered fish pie but, partly down to me I suppose, it wasn’t exactly what they were expecting and this turned out to be another setback on the journey towards the enjoyment of marine food dining.  After dinner we played cards and drank the second bottle of port and just before we all went to bed there was a firework display over the town which brought us out of our bedrooms to watch on the balcony, with at least one of us (Christine) with slightly fewer clothes on than perhaps they realised due almost certainly to the quantity of port consumed!