please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
In this post I'll share some places we explored with Montezuma, Colorado, as the anchor. We explored three gulches off the Peru Creek Road, the most interesting of these in terms of mining ruins was Cinnamon Gulch.
At the mouth of the gulch, visible from Peru Creek Road (it's a dirt road, not a 4x4 track), are the steadily collapsing ruins of the Pennsylvania Mill, and further up the hill the mine and the tram house that conveyed ore between the mine and mill. The Pennsylvania Mine started operations in the late 1870s pulling out about every kind of valuable mineral in these mountains: gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc. Its biggest production year was 1893, the year of the silver price collapse. It operated until 1908 and then continued sporadically until the 1940s.
If you look closely, you can see the top of a wheel near the apex of the roof. A bird was standing there talking to us as if he was either the sentinel on duty to guard it or the tour guide explaining to us how the mill once looked and operated.
I wish I would have known about all these places a couple decades ago -- you can find photos on the internet that show how much more intact they all were even just 10, 15 years ago. I feel fortunate to see them at all before they're completely gone, as it's obvious that the trajectory for most of these is steeply toward a featureless pile of wood and metal.
I was surprised to find out this mine is considered the most toxic in the state. Reclamation efforts are ongoing, but currently no fish or other aquatic critters can live in Peru Creek.
As a bit of an aside, you might be wondering, as I frankly did, " How does moving earth around create something toxic that pollutes the water?" I picked this explanation up from the Summit Daily if you're interested:
"Most of the gold, lead, copper and other metals mined in Colorado are found in ore deposits with metal sulfides. Drilling huge holes in the ground exposes those sulfides to air. Those compounds then combine with oxygen and water, and a chemical reaction occurs that creates sulfuric acid, spiking the acidity level of rivers and streams. The process also releases heavy metals in higher concentrations into the water as it trickles over the rocks, turning creeks a ruddy, orange color. Plus hard-rock mining smashed large rocks into small pieces, which means more exposed surface area, intensifying the problem. This oxidation of minerals happens naturally, but mining operations greatly accelerate the process."
Trams are a feature prominent and particular to the old mines in the South Park-Montezuma area. I live in a gold and silver mining area also but most of our mines are at a lower elevation, below tree line, and trams were not employed ... either small mills were built nearby or other modes were used for long distance transport ... unlike this region where many of the mines were high up on bare mountainsides above tree line where tram cars would be unimpeded by the likes of trees, making them by far the most direct and efficient form of transport.
The most challenging of the three gulches to drive, Chihuahua Gulch, requires a high clearance 4x4 vehicle. There were no ruins to see, but the route was fun for Erik, his favorite kind of 4x4 trail -- some big rocks to clear but no cliffs to fall off of -- and there was a pretty hiking trail at the end. We were there late in the day and had not prepared for any real hiking, so we walked up it only a little ways.
The other is Warden Gulch. The road ends in a valley at a few splintered remains of a mine with completely gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. It made an excellent lunch spot.
I put Santa Fe Peak on our itinerary based on the recommendation of a fellow we met at the two Colorado Gambler 500 rallies we've been to. The description in the main source I was using to plan and judge the difficulty of routes also suggested it would provide excellent views and wasn't too hard. Well, part way up this trail is when Erik realized he really, really did not like driving these very narrow roads with loose rocks and nothing but sheer drop-off on the outside. You can just make out another vehicle parked facing uphill at the switchback below us.
In between the two switchbacks is when Erik realized this and got a bout of vertigo. We stopped and got out to walk it off and decided it wasn't worth continuing if it was just going to be stressful and not fun. If the driver isn't having fun, neither is the passenger. So we went back down and stopped to talk to the folks on the lower switchback. They had done the entire route two days earlier and said that's why they were stopped there on that switchback ... the guy was an experienced driver (his wife said he is usually "fearless") and he said he kind of regretted having done it because he'd never been so scared in his life. Haha. Basically it only got narrower with looser rock and steeper cliffs and they felt the view was just as good at the top as where they had stopped. So while I already wasn't feeling bad about turning around, it was nice to talk to those folks and feel justified for having done so. I later read a description of it that said, "May be intimidating for novice drivers." Erik is anything but a novice, and it sounded like the other guy wasn't one either. So I believe it's more correct to say intimidating for people simply not keen on narrow shelf roads on super steep treeless mountainsides and those who feel vertigo.
(It was this experience on Santa Fe that helped us decide to turn around at the North London Mine without much hemming and hawing when we saw Mosquito Pass looking a bit similar.)
Webster Pass connects Montezuma to Highway 285 north of Fairplay and is one of the higher roads in the state, crossing the Continental Divide at 12,100 feet. This also was underrated on the site I was using as my primary source. It said pretty much nothing about it except that it was a connector from Highways 6 to 285 and rated easy. This was essentially true of the north side -- you need a high clearance 4x4 but we didn't find anything actually challenging. The south side of the pass is a different story even though there is nothing technically challenging there either. But first let's stop at the top and marvel at this rather surreal landscape. The colors really reminded us of Haleakala Volcano on Maui.
After we got home I looked the pass up on some other websites and found most of them more accurately described the south side, pointing out the width of the shelf road with loose rocks and hairpin corners and the sheer drop-off. But to be honest, there is really no indication of this from the north side -- it's only obvious once you're looking down from the pass. As we came to the bottom of the south side, we saw signs there warning people heading up, "Experienced 4x4 drivers only," and "Road narrows, not suitable for full size vehicles, no turn around beyond this point." I guess maybe they figure you can discern that for yourself from the pass looking down, haha, but you might not know it starting up still below tree line.
But after Googling Webster Pass I see plenty of photos and videos of SUVs on the pass, so we weren't exactly scofflaws by driving our full size vehicle. But what was a little unnerving is I saw photos of vehicles both descending and ascending the south side. And the sign speaks truth: there is no turn around, so I don't know what you'd do if you met another vehicle, as there is also zero room, as in *zero,* room to pass and backing up or down the narrow rocky ledge would be eight steps beyond hair-raising. From the pass you can see most of the road and could probably tell if someone was coming up and wait for them, but I'm not sure that's true from the bottom of the south side.
So in spite of the precise kind of road that gives Erik vertigo, it was worth going down that for this view. Therefore in retrospect I'm glad I didn't read the other write-ups because we might have avoided going there, and we're both glad we didn't, even though Erik's shoulders were tightened up high enough to about brush the bottom of his ear lobes. Fortunately, wise or not, I always have faith in Erik's driving so it really wasn't stressful for me as the passenger.
Another day we entered this network of trails from Breckenridge and came out through Montezuma on Deer Creek trail, which is not difficult. We decided to check out an unnamed side trail that was a little more challenging and were delighted with what is these days a rare find -- a mine entrance that hasn't been intentionally (or unintentionally) collapsed and has the cart tracks still intact leading in. I don't know anything about it as far as when it was last mined, so I'm not sure why it has remained in such pristine condition. Because of its condition, though, I'm not inclined to reveal any more information about its location. Too many jerks these days who go around ruining things for everybody. Just enjoy the photo. :-)
A car below the mine who has seen better days.
And our trusty 4Runner, Chewie, who is in his prime. I love him and I was happy to spend a whole week with him in this area when we otherwise spend so much of our 4x4 time with Pinzy (our 1973 Pinzgauer) these days.
Read more articles about this area, Montezuma-Breckenridge-South Park
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
These are two pretty aptly named old mines, whose lodes were discovered in the late 1800s but are long abandoned, near Fairplay, Colorado. Access is from County Road 18, also known as Fourmile Road, just past the junction of Hwy 285 and Hwy 9 South. There aren't any real technical sections, but a high-ish clearance vehicle and 4WD would be super highly recommended for the Peerless, where we also encountered snow on the trail up there in September.
I was very disappointed in the lack of information on these mines on the internet. Sobering to realize how much credit I have come to give Google for presuming it knows everything! About the only thing I learned is that they started as silver mines and later secondarily produced lead and zinc (after the collapse of silver prices in 1893). As for the history of them, I found barely a few scraps. If you're reading this and can provide more information than me, send me a message and your sources!
The ore from the Dauntless Mine and the Hilltop Mine was processed at the Leavick Mill alongside Fourmile Creek.
Following is some interesting (in my opinion) info I snagged from a brochure (mostly verbatim from a PDF) put out by the forest service. They put out a whole series of brochures about the South Park area. If you notice little round signs along the roadsides with numbers on them, they correspond to information in these brochures, so you can take your own informative auto tours. I picked mine up at the Fairplay visitor's center a couple years ago.
"The remains of the old Leavick mill on the right are a crumbling reminder of 1890's high technology. The first buckets of promise were brought to the surface [from inside a mine] by pulleys and hand labor. Then burros hitched to winches pulled the substrate into daylight. Later, tracks and ore carts streamlined the process, but burros still provided the power. The Hilltop Mine eased the burro's burden and added efficiency by constructing an aerial tramway to move its ore to this mill. It stretched 1.75 miles from the mine to the mill [!] with 125 buckets that could hold 400 pounds per bucket.
"Eventually railroad tracks were laid to the mill that anchored the town of Leavick which only had one street. Along that street, a store, post office, cookhouse, school and a few cabins clustered. The Hilltop Mine operated off and on until about 1920. [The Dauntless lies several hundred feet below Hilltop.]
"A common mine laborer could expect long hours, many dangers and low pay. For $1-3/day, including board, a miner toiled in dank and dusty tunnels. He worked in constant danger from falling rocks or cave-ins, from explosions caused by the buildup of gases in unventilated tunnel shafts, and from fires or snow slides that could trap him inside the mine. In the 1890's, this was a scene of bustling men and animals, puffing steam engines, and streams of ore cars."
Further up the road from the mill, we ran into a mama moose and her two children munching the bushes.
We didn't hike up to Hilltop Mine, but its name describes exactly where it is, nearly 13,000 feet above sea level. The hardiness of 19th century miners just astounds me ... they didn't have all our nifty technologies and materials. They carted supplies up in wooden wagons with burros, for heaven's sake, up super steep mountainsides to work and live in some of the harshest climate in the country, particularly through the long winters, living in wooden cabins and bunkhouses with virtually no insulation like we have today.
The road is closed at a gate at about 12,000 feet, so it's another 1,000 feet up to the Hilltop Mine. I didn't know anything about that mine at the time (error on my part), so we just walked up to the one we could see from the gate: the Dauntless Mine. Many people walk past both of these on their way to summit Mt. Sherman, yet another thousand feet higher, which is apparently about the easiest 14er to hike up.
Various rusting machines and appliances -- the first one is a cookstove, probably resided in a bunk house during the heyday.
Nature always wins, though, even where there is little in the way of life at such high altitude and brutal climate. I thought these thorny plants were pretty but also looked vaguely sinister crawling over the rotting wood, looking almost like an octopus or something.
In the photo below, the track to the left took mine carts from the mine to an ore bin, which has been torn down, and the right track took the waste rock to be dumped over the end. This info was given to me by a guy whose dad worked in this mine and others around it. He also explained that the large iron thing between the tracks is what's left of a tram motor that pulled the mine cars in and out of the mine.
I thought it was neat to hear from someone who had actually witnessed the mine run. "I spent many days through the summers up there following my dad. A friend and I watched the compressor, and sometimes we went in the mine with the miners and watched."
Getting to see pikas was another great component of checking out this mine. I absolutely adore these tiny but incredibly hardy creatures who live typically above tree line in extremely harsh climates, building their dens in the crevices of rockfalls and skree. Look at how large their furry feet are relative to their body, their size and padded toes help them scamper all over the jumble of rocks they make their homes in. These tiny souls weigh in at about six ounces. You'll see them collecting lots of grass in their mouths and carrying it into the dens, but they don't hibernate, they're simply building up their winter food cache. I've just recently learned that they are an indicator species -- meaning that changes in their behavior, location and numbers can be particularly evaluative of the effects of climate change in the area.
So the thing is, the first day I misremembered the map I was using via COTREX and didn't consult it once we started up Fourmile Road. So that day I actually thought we were at the Peerless Mine, which was where I had planned to go, when in fact we were at the Dauntless. I was confused when we reached a gate well before the mine, when the route information I'd read said we could drive right up to the mine. Well I figured out the next day, after looking at the maps, it was because we weren't at the Peerless Mine at all! Since I didn't know anything about the Dauntless or Hilltop mines -- they weren't mentioned on the website I was primarily using to plan our routes -- this is why we didn't know to hike up to the Hilltop Mine.
So a couple days later we decided to abort a route I had planned for us over Mosquito Pass, as we weren't super keen on the very narrow, rocky cliff-side shelf road, and decided instead to find the Peerless. The photo below is us driving the road to Peerless. Lop off about a third of the width of this road, put a whole bunch more rocks in it and add another couple thousand feet to the drop-off at a steeper angle to get a sense of what we aborted.
Heading toward "peerless" on the map wasn't very difficult, as there was only one road that branched off of Fourmile in that direction toward a mountain of that name. However, finding the actual mine is not what we thought, and we likely never found the main entrance. But I didn't know this until I got all the way home and "met" (online) the fellow whose dad worked there. I was expecting some ruins along the lines of the Dauntless with lots of artifacts and buildings, but the only thing we found was the entrance to what we presumed was the Peerless Mine. But according to the miner's son, this in fact is called the Twinkle Mine, of which he says: "My dad and a few other men leased the claim in about 1957 and tunneled in to a small stope they mined out. Don't think it paid the bills." [If you're wondering, "stope:" Stoping is the process of extracting the desired ore or other mineral from an underground mine, leaving behind an open space known as a stope."]
So where was the Peerless? As far as I can tell, we probably never even saw the main entrance. It's apparently near the saddle we drove up to where the driving trail ends. The little patch of snow just behind Chewie in the pic below has a shaft beside it down into the mountainside with a grate over it.
I asked if that was it, and he said possibly part of it but he thought the main entrance was below it. Anyway, the point being there were no buildings remaining, perhaps some splinters of wood we couldn't see from where we were.
So Peerless Mine itself was a bit of a bust, but the pursuit of it and the view at road's end is certainly fairly peerless. Absolutely amazing views on either side of the saddle (I didn't have a camera that could do it justice) -- one view down into the South Park basin and the other view down into the Leadville area. I realized the two are not really so far apart as they seem driving by road. A crow can get between them in no time! Assuming he's flying the same direction as the wind ... he wouldn't go much of anywhere trying to fly against it. It was quite calm on the mountainside but up on the saddle it was so windy I couldn't even hold my phone to take a picture with one hand, had to use both hands to keep it steady. The miner's son said of it, "They called it Gobblers Knob, said it was the only place they knew in the winter you could spit down wind and have it hit you behind the ear five seconds later. It was brutal. They parked at Leavick and pulled a sled with a little D4 Caterpillar dozer all the way to the Twinkle. They were glad to get underground, out of the wind to work."
Although sometimes 4x4ing it's super handy, even crucial, to run across another vehicle on the trail, I absolutely love it when we are all alone, which we were most of the time exploring this area. On this day we came down from the saddle to have a late lunch sitting on the tundra beside the trail. Neither of us was talking. I was privately thinking to myself that it's too bad I have to chew my food because even just the sound of my jaws mashing a soft burrito shell and pepperoni was extremely distracting to such deep silence, I wished I could just drink it in. Back in the car on the way down, Erik made the exact same comment, how when he stopped chewing his sandwich the silence was almost profound, the chewing was a distraction. When two people have such a completely random thought that chewing food is too much of a trespass, you know that's some divine silence.
Thanks to Herk Almgren for the firsthand info and personal memories.
Read more articles about the South Park area
Read more articles about Colorado
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
If you don't know the title's reference to one of the most classic movies of all time, I'm not sure we should be friends. (haha) I started to make a small post about a plane crash site; I started to make a small post about an abandoned railroad; then I realized I also have photos of old abandoned cars around here, and so decided to put them all in one larger post just so I could use that as the title.
Let's start with the train, though. The Colorado mountains were once full of railroad tracks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, built largely, at least originally, to service the widespread mining industry. Once the old mines closed down, the railroad route usually did, too. So there are plenty of abandoned tracks around the state but few as picturesque as the old railroad trestles on the west side of the Needle's Eye Tunnel at the top of Rollins Pass.
The standard gauge railroad that climbed up Rollins Pass was envisioned not for the gold and silver mining industry, but as a way to connect Denver with coal mines from the western slope. But the tracks zigzagging up the mountainside over Rollins Pass and through the Needle's Eye Tunnel wasn't the final vision -- it was meant to be a temporary route until the much longer Moffat Tunnel could be built much further down the mountain. However, it took 24 years before the Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1928, so in fact the hill route's temporariness was quite extended. The "Hill Route" was closed in 1935 and the rails were pulled up. It was re- opened as an auto road in 1955 until 1979 when a rockfall near the north portal of the Needle's Eye Tunnel closed the road to the public.
To drive the road you need a little more clearance than say a Lamborghini sports car, but the average passenger vehicle can pick its way around the potholes and rocks. Access is from Rollinsville on the east side or from Winter Park on the west side (where it is often referred to as Corona Pass rather than Rollins Pass). The Moffat tunnel is still functional and train tracks still run through the valley connecting Denver with Winter Park, carrying both coal and humans. Whenever we are driving the road that parallels it in the valley and a passenger train goes by, I always roll down the window and wave at all the train cars.
On the east side (where I access it) the road is gated off a bit below the Needle's Eye Tunnel. You can walk or ride a bicycle the rest of the way. Can you pick out Erik in red walking along the road? Just a tiny dot ... gives you a sense of scale of the landscape here. The mountains always make me feel deliciously small. I like knowing the world is so much larger than I am; my human worries seem fairly insignificant against the backdrop of such time and matter.
The tunnel itself is gated off, so you just climb the hill over it to reach the trestles. From the west side, you can drive a vehicle right up near the trestles.
Here's an old track paralleling the Arkansas River near Buena Vista. You can poke around the old lights and switch boxes.
Another in Eagle County.
In what's known as South Park (yes it's a real place, not just a TV show, though no town of that name exists except the historical museum) along Highway 285 north of Fairplay, the town of Como still exists with a very small population, but was once a hub of activity, with a large stone roundhouse, railway depot, coal docks and a hotel to service the tracks running between the mountains and the plains. The South Park Line was a narrow-gauge track. This type of track can deal with mountainous terrain better than standard gauge, with the ability to use a smaller right-of-way, sharper curves, lighter rails and smaller, less expensive equipment. Work was begun on it in the 1870s.
The last scheduled passenger train left Como in 1937 and the rails were removed in 1938. One of the biggest contributing factors to its closing was the continual difficulties with the tunnel at 11,500 feet -- very harsh conditions at that altitude! Other branches of the South Park line remained operational until 1943, when the line in Leadville was shut down.
The roundhouse still stands and is currently being restored with an implication that it will be opened as a museum. There are several random railcars sitting in the meadow around it, but it's my understanding that they've been brought there from elsewhere in more recent years.
Now for airplanes. A very challenging 4x4 route that starts from Bunce School Road leads to the site of a small airplane crash that happened in 1965, commonly known as the T-33 plane crash site. The fact that the whole Bunce School area is now overrun with ATVs is a double edged sword. Why? Because I mostly find them annoying when they're like bees from a hive swarming all over the trail and you have to figure out how to pass one another every few minutes, yet one of them rescued us when Pinzy (our 1973 Pinzgauer) tipped over on that trail. But that was before the real swarm moved in and it was a privately owned dune buggy with an electric winch.
We hadn't had Pinzy for very long yet and Erik (as the driver) was still getting used to its idiosyncrasies, as it's quite a different vehicle than our 4Runner, Chewie, in terms of lines to take and strengths vs. weaknesses. We first ran the trail with Chewie but had several close calls with bottoming out on rocks we didn't have enough width to navigate around on the trail. Pinzy could romp right over those rocks but has wonky tipping issues. I happened to be outside of the vehicle and it was very surreal to watch it tip over on its side, but it was even more surreal for Erik who was inside and I'll never forget the look on his face, like a turtle suddenly flipped onto its back. It tipped onto the driver's side which meant Erik could climb out via the roof hatch on the passenger side.
Anyway, with the help of the winch pulling up and a few guys' manpower pushing from underneath it, we were pretty easily righted. So we had to be thankful for these folks in spite of their vehicle! But that was a few years ago. I will say here, though, that this is one thing I love about 4x4 "culture," which renders most societal things irrelevant, such as political affiliations which would otherwise prevent us from associating, economic status (expensive vehicle vs. cheapo vehicle), and even names. We've spent hours with other people either helping them or having them help us -- shoveling, pushing, pulling, winching, towing, shuttling, you name it -- and parted ways without ever even knowing each others' names. Most 4x4ers seem to follow a code of unconditionally helping strangers on the trails -- we all need karma!
Anyway, as to the site, I'm just going to post a photo of the informational plaque that stands at the site for the best explanation for the presence of the wreckage itself. Photo courtesy of 4x4explore.com ... I myself didn't think to take such a picture.
It's pretty sobering to imagine the pilots in their last seconds, the force of the impact that took their lives.
The most amazing thing in the wreckage is the turbine of the jet engine that still turns with but a flick of a finger. It's smooth as butter -- and I mean butter, not margarine -- which I found remarkable considering all the weathering it's endured outside in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. You'd think someone had greased it yesterday.
OK, so now I need to include some automobiles! Nothing much to say about these, just a random collection of abandoned vehicles we've run across either 4x4ing or hiking in the mountains of Colorado. Not a big collection, just enough to complete the title of the post. :-)
Read more articles about Colorado
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
OK, so that's not a very clever title, but an expedient one: you already know what you will find here! I thought it was a very picturesque place and a workout for the wide angle lens. Because I had a problem culling the pics -- there were too many I wanted to share -- I didn't want to combine a post about it with any other sights.
The Palace was listed in guidebooks as one of the top sights to see in Marrakech. The proprietor at our guesthouse also circled it as an important stop on the city map. I figured we would enjoy it, but first I had two other priorities, the Saadian Tombs and the Majorelle Garden. I almost came to specifically not want to see it on account of all the people annoyingly telling us, "The palace is that way!" as we walked past, hoping we'd stop to ask more about it so they could attach themselves as our guide. It also annoyed us that everyone presumed we were wanting to see the palace. So when we ran across it, just by accident of covering so much ground, we decided to check it out, though it didn't look like much of anything exciting from the street. Admission wasn't too expensive so we paid it to see what all the fuss was about.
Well, I'd say the fuss is well-deserved. I consider it very serendipitous that we came across it, because I don't know if I would have taken the effort to find it and it ended up being a highlight for me. In our travels, we often come across things in a way that makes Erik say, "We were meant to see this," or "to find this," when we look for something without directions, just winging it. It's probably simply because we are wanderers by foot and by car, so odds are in our favor of running across cool stuff. The architecture and the detail in the wood, stucco, painting and tilework were as mesmerizing as at the Saadian tombs, but there was much more of it. Courtyard after courtyard and room after room. We certainly didn't see all of them but the entire palace complex has over 150 rooms.
There weren't many plaques inside the palace, we weren't given a brochure guide and the rooms are all empty, so we weren't given much context to decide what any given room was for. This is a rare time when a guided tour might have been enjoyed (not usually our style), because I can't find much information on the internet either about what the various rooms are called. I often do my research after I get home from a place to be able to label photos with more information than I documented at the time. So there's not much I can say about most of these except "a pretty room," "impressive ceiling," over and over.
Below, notice the level of detail in the door, the ceiling, the archway, the floor, the stained glass ... every inch of this palace is covered in exquisite detail. It took thousands of craftsmen to render this dazzling opulence, working for seven years. Materials were transported here from throughout Northern Africa and the finest Italian marble was imported from Carrara.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the palace is that it was not built by a king (a sultan) nor by a wealthy merchant -- by far the two most common builders of ancient splendor. No, built in two phases in the second half of the 1800s, it seems like a fairy tale or a story extracted from 1001 Arabian Nights. Born as a slave and growing up with the heir to the throne, when said heir became sultan, he promoted his slave, Si Moussa, through the ranks to eventually become Grand Vizier. Once he reached this status, Si Moussa commissioned the Bahia palace for himself.
But the real depth of splendors were added when his son, Bou Ahmed, succeeded him as Grand Vizier to the next sultan and served as regent of Morocco while that sultan was still a child. Bou Ahmed added many rooms including ones to accommodate his four wives and harem of 24 concubines. Many of my friends who have been to southern Spain have commented that what they see in my photos reminds them of sights there. And indeed the renowned architect hired by Bou Ahmed had worked in Andalusia, and the Bahia Palace is considered an excellent example of Andalusian and Moorish architecture.
The Grand Vizier Bou Ahmed died in 1900 and his splendid palace was quickly looted, his treasures stolen. Morocco was then a French Protectorate and Bahia Palace was the centre of the new French administration. The most famous official of this era was General Hubert Lyautey, who played an important role in the cultural history of Marrakech. It was during his tenure that the Saadian tombs were rediscovered. Now the palace belongs to Morocco’s royal family and has received a UNESCO World Heritage designation. At the beginning of the 2000’s the palace was extensively restored.
Every surface from the floor to the ceiling is remarkable, but I found the ceilings to be the most notable. All the rooms and nooks had gorgeous cedarwood ceilings hemmed with excruciatingly detailed stucco work. Here's a sample of them.
Now how about some doors .....
Fancy a fountain, anyone?
Just another crazy-fancy room below. I can't imagine actually living in this place -- the rest of the city, the largely monotone pinkish-orange medina, the gray cobblestone streets, would seem so drab and bland and boring. If I were the palace's resident, I think I would feel scared of the dullness of the world outside and rush back home as quickly as possible to the comforts of color and design.
But now, dear readers, we must leave this delicious grandeur and go back to our simply decorated lives. I wonder how the grand vizier and his concubines would feel being lifted up and plopped into a minimalist-designed house. I think it would feel like a lunar landscape! Or in my house they would just feel disoriented and confused by the widespread randomness and pockets of chaos and wonder when I was going to get someone in to paint those plain wooden beams.
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
Our first steps into the medina are chronicled in the Tuesday Tale, "How We Found Our Riad in the Marrakech Medina." In this post I'll share some pics from the labyrinth known as the medina. We'd been to medinas and souks in Tunisia and to bazaars in Iran, both of which presented us with the feeling of being a rat in a maze. In Iran we were with our guide the whole time, so we did not get lost. In Tunis, we got lost and couldn't find our way out and I desperately had to pee, like I mean I thought I might die or else pull down my pants and go right there on the cobblestones, we kept running into dead ends where there were no shops. We made it out barely in time for me not to burst. Usually we enjoy getting a little lost in these types of places, but that became painful! We've meandered medieval labyrinths in old quarters of several European towns, as well. So I can't claim to have been to *tons* of these types of places, but a fair number. The Marrakech medina was on a whole new scale from anything we've previously experienced.
Our first day there, we meandered with little point ... i.e., just for the sake of meandering. At the time we finally stopped for lunch about 2:00 p.m. and asked the waiter if he could point out on a map where we were, because we had zero idea, we were shocked to see how little ground we had covered from where our riad was. It seemed like we must have crossed vast distances. But though we walked a lot, we made little progress as the crow flies. But that was no problem, our goal was mere exploration. Later, when we had goals, it was more unnerving to have been walking for ages and have no idea where we were. Paper maps are useless. Google Maps was helpful only when we got reception on our phone (we had purchased a SIM card at the airport), and it often cut out deep in the medina. We also were sure to take the business card of the riad with us when we went out walking precisely so we could pay someone to take us back if absolutely necessary.
One time a British girl came up to us as we were trying to consult the phone and asked if we knew where we were and how to get to the big main square. Although we had come from the square an hour or two earlier, we had absolutely no idea how to get back, and we were trying to head the opposite direction of it to our riad, but we weren't getting a signal, so we had no clue about anything, not even if we were doing what *we* wanted to be doing. We felt badly but we could not help the girl, she was alone, I said she could come with us until we found our bearings, but she opted to keep going on her own. It's definitely more scary to be lost alone so I was glad to have a teammate and Google Map reader.
I regret not buying some strawberries. We ultimately didn't buy anything in Morocco except for two bracelets I picked up near the end of the our last day as we straggled home after a lot of walking. At that time we didn't know that we had 24 hours to get out of the country, so I'm glad I made that one little purchase or I would have nothing at all to show from the brief trip. But anyway ... the strawberries looked absolutely divine and there were tables and tables of them throughout the medina.
I've never seen such piles of herbs before. I would get hit with overwhelming olfactory sensations from time to time, and usually it was in passing a mound of herbs. The most common smell punches were mint and cilantro.
We noticed that for such a crowded place with so much raw food, so many stray cats, no real drainage systems we could see, often patchy roofs, we really didn't encounter unpleasant smells -- even passing by the raw meat and the exceedingly fresh chicken (which kind of made me sad).
I've spoken before about how my dad's exotic travels for work when I was a kid and teenager inspired my desire to see the strange wide world for myself. One of the places he went was Morocco. I still have the souvenirs he brought me back. I remember him talking about the raw goat carcasses hanging in stalls along the roadsides. By now I've seen this many times in various countries, but seeing it here specifically reminded me of my dad's tales and how at that time I couldn't imagine this.
So what else do they have to peruse there in the maze? Well, shall we take a little stroll to see a teensy fraction of the things available?
Mounds of olives.
A fair number of items mysterious to us. Sometimes as we stopped to ponder, the seller would point things out to us in English or explain what they were used for, which of course was always a prelude to trying to make a sale. So unfortunately we could not stay very long at these places and learn very much -- the longer you stay the harder the sell.
Dried flowers, roots and herbs.
Craftsmen and things like hardware and appliances, scooter parts, etc., seemed to clump together in little sections. We watched some men carve designs into wooden posts and dowels using a tool with their feet. Here's one of the wood shops.
Most of the medina is simply where people live. The marketways, shall we call them, are like arteries through the medina, and off of them are the countless quiet little capillaries lined with residences that often dead-end at a home.
The capillaries are filled with wandering kitties. They wander and sleep in the market areas, too, but they were much more accessible to the stalking tourist who wants to pet them in the residential areas. They seemed very fond of sitting on the seats of parked scooters and mopeds. Notice in the painted mural above that there are two cats on the back of the scooter.
Lots of kittens, too. Here was a mom nursing her kiddo. In the back you can just see the white tummy of another kitten stretched up against a gate. He wanted to come out so very badly. He cried and cried and bit at his metal prison. Surely he was safer inside, but I finally had to move on because his desperate little pleas were killing me.
This was sweet, in a random corner, somebody had set up a little place for this momma and her kittens ... a rag and a piece of glass that was probably both a wind shield and a solar panel. A plastic dish of water nearby. The kittens were so precious sleeping in the sun, oh how difficult it was not to reach around and snatch one up to snuggle. The people probably really need to be fixing the cats not to breed so much, but if they're gonna breed, at least they take good care of them. We saw extremely few cats in questionable health.
We had lunch that first day beside this paved street. Wise kitty across the way diligently looks both ways before crossing the street.
Should you visit Marrakech (if you haven't), you can see the tanneries if you want, but find them yourself, don't let anyone tell you they're walking home or to work and it's just on the way, they'll lead you no problem; that there is a special market today, an auction, a berber auction is ending in an hour, hurry come see!; that street is closed, come this way. Also find the palace by yourself -- 1,800 people will want to show you where it is. No one is doing anything for free, either they will ask for money or they're getting a kickback from whomever they lead you to. It's a shame but the occasional genuine person gets lost in the sea of scammers and unwanted guides who try to force themselves upon you. After awhile, Erik was just waiting for the next guy to tell a lie or try to lead us somewhere, they were going to get some schooling!
He also stood his ground about paying the tannery guy who never said there would be a charge. A passerby with better English stopped to moderate the scene. In the end we paid the guy 20 dirhams (basically 2 Euro). The other people staying in our riad, a British foursome, fell prey to the same scam and paid 250! So we got off OK but I was kicking myself for being so stupid -- usually Erik is more susceptible to these things but this time it was me because of my glee at the prospect of seeing "a Berber auction" with camels and stuff ... the promise of which turned out to just be a lie.
We had been strolling along -- with our fair skin we simply can't hide that we're tourists -- and some guy lounging on his moped struck up a conversation and told us about the supposed market. "Just go down there, then turn right, and then left, and then after the square another right. Oh heck, I'll just show you, my house is over there, I'm going home anyway." We suspected a scam immediately and told our impromptu guide who led us there over and over and over that we were not going to pay him money, but he insisted he was just on his way home, "No no! I'm not asking for money." After many more than three turns, he dropped us off at the tannery without a charge. So it was a two-part scam and by the time we were inextricably inside the tannery, it was too late. A man ushered us inside immediately and began walking us around like a tour guide before we could say "boo," crushing mint leaves into our hands to breathe in as "a gas mask" to dilute the smell. Over and over "a gas mask!" As if we didn't get the joke because we didn't laugh. I didn't laugh because I was already simmering at how we'd walked right into this, for clearly we would have to pay this guy. So I kept waiting for the admission price but one never came as he tugged at me, "Over here, over here, take a photo."
So we did follow him around for about 20 minutes and listen to his script explaining the process. I already knew that goat hides were soaked in urine to remove the fur, and to be honest despite the raw hides and the ones soaking in urine it didn't actually smell that bad. So below, a pile of hides and the various "tubs" used to soak the hides in either urine or dye.
So tannery toured, he then led us inside a big shop to see the finished products. I was surprised he didn't ask for money from us when he turned around at the door. It is of course a three-part operation, because now they want you to buy something in the store, so I figured this was the end of the "scam" being dropped off here. Gratefully, the people in the store were not actually hard sells, we told them several times we weren't interested in buying anything, we just wanted to look, as they tried to interest us in this and that. In a place like that, having to give only *a few* brush-offs was refreshing, even relaxing. They did have lots of really cool stuff, leather and otherwise, but we were not there to spend money and didn't have a lot anyway.
I was just about to think that maybe I had been too cynical, so far nobody had asked us for money. But a few steps after exiting the store, our tannery man came up asking for the money. We were annoyed but saw it coming, though we didn't expect it this late in the game. If he had asked a reasonable price, we wouldn't have made a fuss. But when he asked for 250 dirham for his unsolicited services, that was a step beyond annoying. I'm sympathetic to the idea that Western tourists in developing countries should not haggle the vendors to death because a few dollars isn't much to us but can be a lot to them. I don't like being taken for a ride in the markets either, and maybe I should relax on that and actually I have compared to how I used to bargain, but at least you are presented with a price up front, nobody is trying to pretend they're giving it to you for free or waiting until you're already walking away with the merchandise to mention that there is a price on it. This is what was annoying. If he had said a price up front, we may have chosen to pay it. Not the equivalent of 25 Euro, to be honest, but it would have been honorable to give us the choice. He could have bargained with us for a price we thought was worth it. For some perspective, the entry fee to places like the palace and the tombs and the gardens was 70 dirham per ticket, so 140 total for an actually amazing experience lasting several hours each. For additional perspective, we paid the guy whose help we desperately needed and asked for who spent a lot of time with us to get us to our riad 300 dirham.
So as mentioned above, after some heated arguing with the man for misleading us and never stating a price, the passerby mediated and we paid 20 dirham. We were pretty sure our first unsolicited "guide" had purposefully led us on an unnecessarily circuitous route, probably hoping we would need help from someone to get back, for a price of course. But we actually found our way and eventually walked by that guy standing in the same spot where we "met" him, obviously nowhere near his home that was supposedly by the tannery, looking for his next victims. We didn't confront him but had a good chuckle since we only paid the tannery guy 20 dirhams, he didn't get much of a kickback from us.
Another guy attached himself to Erik so relentlessly, professing he just wanted to practice his English, but just by coincidence of course offering to show us the way to various places. Erik finally had to literally tell him to leave. I was already sick of people coming up to us and just walked away leaving Erik to fend for himself. It's exhausting, but if you know it's going to happen, I think it helps you brace yourself and maybe brush it off better. But again, it's a shame because the occasional genuinely friendly person cannot be discerned from the overwhelming number of disingenuous and scheming people who see you as just a dollar sign. I read warnings from other travelers about Marrakech, but it was hard to truly understand the scope until experiencing it myself.
Here are a couple photos I snapped as I wandered off by myself while Erik was weighed down with the "English practicer."
One thing I did not get good photos of was all the donkeys and donkey carts. The medina is full of them and especially the streets and parking lots surrounding it. Even in sub-Saharan Africa and China I never saw so many in one place. There were truly gobs of them. So it's kind of weird that I didn't end up with any good photos, but here's one beside some street art, which we did not see very much of, at a wide spot in the medina. He looks a bit thin to me, but most donkeys seemed quite healthy.
So all in all we really enjoyed the medina, though it was trying at times. If we get to come back to Morocco someday and complete our aborted itinerary, I think we will feel we have done Marrakech enough and move on down the road. I'll tell you about our last night there in another post. I'm still pining for those strawberries!
Read more articles about Marrakech