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Week 1 in Morocco

Week 1 in Morocco

by Ruth Murdoch  |  February 2019  |  Morocco, Africa

Table of Contents

From Tangier to Fes in One Week, 345 kms

Click to enlarge images

Day 1: Spain To Morocco; Monday 28 Jan 2019

The steps we took to ease into our Moroccan adventure gently can be found here.  We read up about Morocco and what to expect plus we read numerous forums on Facebook.  The best resource we found, and were pointed to on multiple occasions, was a book we purchased on Amazon called Motorhome Morocco written by Julie and Jason Buckley.  This has been an absolutely invaluable resource and should you decide to venture over to Morocco this is a must buy.

The ferry to Morocco was booked for 1pm and we are told to be available and waiting one hour before.  So at 11.55am our long wait of ten and a half hours begins for a 90 minute crossing, immigration and customs.

Here’s how it unfolded.

After nearly an hour we are told we are waiting in the wrong line. “Yours is over there”!  We proceed over there and after another half an hour, as the line finally starts to move, we are informed that the 1pm ferry is ‘fast ferry’ which can only take vehicles with a maximum height of 2.8 metres.

Wouldn’t it have been nice for the ticket seller, who knew we had a motorhome, to give us this information.  The ‘slow’ ferry we need leaves at 4pm!  So, a little annoyed but accepting the situation, we naively continue to wait, expecting our ferry to leave at 4pm (silly us).

The 4pm ferry left at about 6.15pm and arrived around 8.30pm for a 90 minute crossing.   With hot meals and drinks available the ferry appeared pleasant enough and hosted what looks like the world’s smallest duty-free shop.

Upon exiting the ferry there is a long drive where one could be forgiven for thinking we’re out of the official zone.  Did we take a wrong turn?  Have we missed customs altogether? Fear not. The fun is yet to come.

Eventually, you come to a lineup of cars, many of them locals, stacked to the gunnels with all manner of goods inside plus bundles of goodies strapped to the roof, some trying to reach the sky.  Here you wait for the customs search. There doesn’t seem to be a system of who goes first to get their car to the front of the queue.  The more aggressive you appear the more likely you can sneak ahead.

Horns toot, at what we’re not sure.  One will start and the others soon follow suit. It’s like the male testosterone letting off steam.  We let a couple of cars squeeze in around us before we decide to stake our claim on a piece of tarmac and resist any invaders.

People start to unload the goodies from their cars and vans, some even included literally, the kitchen sink.  Not an inch of space is left unfilled.  It transpires that the locals travel across to Spain to purchase second-hand goods with a view to selling these much needed items in Africa.  Every vehicle is overloaded with suspension maxed out.

Men wander around with their car boots open displaying their newly acquired tidbits, waiting expectantly to be processed and are then flagged on.  In most cases the officer digs down through a few layers of goods, peering in with a torch looking for who-knows-what, before either letting the driver go on or directing him up to the X-Ray machine for a full vehicle scan.

I wonder if these over-worked customs agents actually find anything needing confiscation?  So far it hasn’t been obvious.

Two official looking people with police hats walk around looking at this and that, then refer to their documents. No one is moving very far or very fast.

We are lined up across seven lanes and four deep.  If you look hard and long enough you may just see some semblance of order to the chaos around.  The views are entertaining if nothing else.  It’s a game of patience and is certainly no showcase for Moroccan efficiency.

By 10.15pm we arrive at the front of the line.  Our documents are taken away for processing.

A young good looking policeman indicates he wants to look inside Betsy.  Speaking French, for which we don’t understand, he finally asks in English if we have any weapons.  Alan, always the comedian, suggests ‘just ma femme’ (my wife).  We got a smile out of him.  Next we’re instructed to open the overhead cupboards and revealed some dangerous looking spices and a frying pan that Alan suggested could be dangerous in his wife’s hands.  Again another smile and a lifting of tensions.

A quick look inside the bedroom and this young officer realises we are a low risk and leaves us alone.

It doesn’t take long before another policeman came knocking on our door with the requisite D16 temporary vehicle import form, our passports and our Green Insurance card in hand.  With no other instructions we assume that’s our ticket out of here.  We gingerly drive forward, hoping to not get into trouble.  We are travelling in convoy with two other motorhomes behind us and are mindful that we have to wait for them.

Feeling like we have survived and then escaped the clutches of some foreign country (oh hang on we have) we then crawl forward at 10.30pm outside of the confines and make our way slowly to the money exchange offices that are situated as you leave this zone.  Here we had been foretold is a good place (not quiet though) to spend the night in order to avoid driving in the dark to places unknown on our first night in this foreign land.  Alas we are not alone.  The car park is filled with motorhomes all having the same idea and we find the last three slots and tuck up for the night.

I wonder what treasures await us tomorrow.

Morocco, Here We Come…

Goodies on the Roof

Tidbits Including Kitchen Sink!

Car Boot Jammed Full

Day 2: Martil; Tuesday 29 Jan 2019

We woke to pile driving going on behind us and there was no way further sleep was possible.  We decided to head off about 10am and make our way to the Mediterranean coast, as that’s where the sun is supposed to be.

Having read up ahead of time we were aware that people walk randomly on the road and it didn’t take long before some chap, obviously high as a kite, decided that dancing on the road was important to him as three large motorhomes approached.  The entertainment factor was epic!

We made our way across the high mountains and enjoyed the feast in front of our eyes.  Brightly coloured houses painted blue, yellow, pink, red, or white greeted us nestled amongst the rolling hills.  The roads were surprisingly good and the two lanes for most of the way were plenty wide enough to squeeze past the odd parked car.

There was livestock galore to pique our interest, from a donkey all loaded up with saddles, to massive storks, which I thought were pelicans they were so large, to cows, sheep and of course dogs.  Zoe informed me she even saw a camel!

The road took us through the small town of Fnidq and then Tetouan before we arrived at our home for the next two nights in Martil.  We stayed at Alboustane, Camping Caravaning, Martil Marruecos, tel 05 39 68 88 22.  GPS coordinates 35.6289 -5.2773.  There is plenty of space for us and the grounds are situated nearby to the township.  The facilities are clean and adequate for our needs.

We took the opportunity to dump the grey and black water before settling into our pitch and plugging into electricity.  Needing electricity is rare for us, as is being in a campground, but with no LPG in Morocco and a desire to stay for a couple of months, we have to conserve every bit of gas we can.

The local cats came out to greet us and were happy to be picked up and cuddled.  They remind me of Turkey and I realise how much I miss having a cat around.

After a cuppa and a quick bite to eat we headed into town to purchase a local SIM card.  Who would have thought it would take all afternoon?

Maroc Telecom was suggested as the best bet, so off we went in search of them.  Thankfully we had downloaded maps.me before crossing over from Spain so we could find the GPS coordinates and the route to the shop without needing data or the internet.  That made finding the camping ground and the Telecom store easier (GPS 35.6179 – 5.2747).

The language barrier proves to be a challenge as we speak very little French and the man at Telecom spoke nil English.  Thankfully Alan knows a few words and uses Google Translate for the rest.

Alan and Tommy were at the counter while Helena, Harkin, Zoe and I were seated.  It wasn’t long before I noticed a man walk in and make his way to stand behind Alan and Tommy.  Next thing I see this complete stranger put his hand into Tommy’s pocket!  Quick as a flash, I jumped up to stop him and he casually backed off and walked around to another counter, his plan foiled.  No one in the shop reacted, as though it was a natural occurrence or they didn’t know what was going on, I’m not sure which.  Tommy didn’t lose his wallet this time but it was a close call.  We then realised that having someone watch out for you at a distance is a good strategy to employ.

The SIM card cost us 40 dirham (approx €4) from the Telecom shop and then we had to go down the road to purchase data for 10 dirham (€1) per 1 GB.  

We arrived back at the camping ground later in the day, too late to tackle the washing, so that will have to wait until tomorrow.

Helena and Harkin invited us all over for dinner, wild boar and moose stew and we contributed with some pastries purchased at the local bakery.  A most enjoyable evening, treasured times with wonderful friends and great traveling companions.  It was our first time traveling with other motorhomers and it proved to be successful and helped us to feel safe, particularly in such a foreign land.

Our Port of Entry, Tangier

After Purchasing The SIM Card, We Loaded Money Here (the shop on the right)

Tommy & Zoe

Harken & Alan

Ruth & Helena

Day 3: Martil; Wednesday 30 Jan 2019

We woke to slight dampness in the air but that didn’t deter Alan from tackling the washing and gosh how it builds up.  That kept us in Betsy for the day and stationed in the camping ground.  It also allowed me to catch up on some paperwork and have a quiet day in preparation for what was to come.

Day 4: Chefhaouen; 31 Jan 2019 

Heading towards the blue town, otherwise known as Chefchaouen, we meander up through the hills. There are people sitting on the side of the road selling their wares, from onions, strawberries, avocados, pears, carrots and plenty more.  They wave out with large smiles on their face.  We had been told that foreigners are treated like celebrities here so expect to be wave at and ensure we wave back.

The roads are rough with roadworks much of the way and they are needed due to the constant potholes and the edge of the road being broken away.  The speed signs say 60 but get behind a fully leaden old truck and traveling at 30km/hr is an accomplishment.

With a build up of cars behind us we find a spot to pull off and ease the congestion for our sake as much as theirs.  This proves to be an unusual manoeuvre as we learn later on.  Passing lanes are non-existent so the locals take their chance to pass slow vehicles, usually on a blind corner uphill.

We come around the corner to see a truck attempting to pass another truck uphill at 30km/hour.  Not a good idea and he thankfully gave up as there’s plenty of head-on traffic.  How they don’t have a head-on accident is anyone’s guess.  We crawl up at a snails pace and the expected arrival time on the GPS seems very optimistic.  We were told to add at least 30% onto stated driving times but from our experience this could easily be another 50%.

Rounding the corner we came across an example of what can happens when driving skills are put to the test.  This had just happened before we arrived as the cones were being distributed.

Parking Moroccan Style!

Betsy does a great job passing uphill. She’s not a high-powered machine by any stretch of the imagination but when the goal is passing another vehicle slugging away at 20 something kilometers per hour she doesn’t need a big run up.  Who would have thought she wasn’t the slowest thing on the road?

The trees high up here in the mountains are in full blossom, well ahead of schedule as though they are encouraging the spring to come early.

 The locals are spotted washing their clothes in the river below in the fine rain.  Or they are stooped over carrying bales of vegetation on their backs walking beside the road.  Others, mainly men, just stand by the roadside, their purpose unclear at least to the foreign eye.

We arrive into Chefchaouen and follow Tommy and Zoe through the township and out the other side to Camping Azilan (GPS coordinates 35.17579, -5.26701) overlooking the township below.  It’s a fair walk away and steep enough to put the eBikes and riders through their paces.

We are greeted at the camping ground by the resident ginger tomcat, a rooster and chickens.

We park and level up then tuck into a chicken salad for lunch.  The rain is coming down hard so I get the Monopoly cards out and try my luck against Alan (damn he’s getting good, I’ve taught him all my tricks).

The rest of our group decides to take a walk into town while there’s still some daylight as the rain has eased off a little.  It’s quite a walk back uphill so we opt to take Betsy and meet the others in the medina. The drive was a bit hair raising but no-one seemed to care that we wanted to drive on the road while they were using it as a giant sidewalk (except us).

Tommy & Zoe Lead The Way Into Chefchaouen

The Girls Are Looking At The Sights While The Boys Negotiate A Dinner Venue

Brightly Colourful Trinkets Adorn The Shops

Stunning Artwork

The medina is unique.  Lots of little alleys and paths weave their way through the hillside like a spiders web.  There’s no rhyme or reason as to the layout, no shops are the same size or shape, of some hardly have an opening, rather they appear more cave-like than a shop.

Children run around playing, darting in and out while adults stand around, some shouting in Arabic, at what or to whom isn’t clear.

We meet up with our friends in the square and proceed to check out the many restaurants enticing us in with offers of cheap food, photos of specialty dishes and their Google ratings (gotta love technology).  We decide on a little place called Marisco Twins and are treated to good quality authentic tagines. Alan had a starter of shrimp and avocado salad where the shrimps had turned into rather large deliciously fresh prawns served on a bed of lettuce and cucumber.  His main was beef and plum tagine and we both tucked into cream de caramel for dessert.  My entree was a Spanish omelet and for the main, I opted for chicken and lemon tagine.  We don’t venture out for dinner often so this was a real treat and the food was delicious. 

Avocado and Prawn Salad

Beef Tagine

Lamb Tagine

Day 5: Chechaouen; 1st Feb 2019 

It rained heavily last night and the wind blew hard.  Facing African rain in a motorhome was an experience.

We didn’t want to leave Chechaouen before we had a real chance to see all the sights it had to offer without the interference of rain and the forecast was promising a break in the weather.  Therefore we decided to hang out for an extra day and relocate to a parking area nearer the medina (GPS coordinate 35.16603, -5.26162) (at 30MAD compared to 110MAD in the campground).  The money here is called Dirhams, and is written as MAD.  Ten MAD is equivalent to €0.93 and NZ$1.56.  Our parking in the camping ground was €10.20 or NZ$17 for the night including electricity.

This is where we parted with our friends, who are on a tighter timeframe than us and who are in search of finer weather, so they headed towards the west coast.  They found it too, 20C compared with our 8C!

Thankfully the expected break in the weather eventuated and by 3pm we were off exploring again.  This township is truly remarkable.  The influx of Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 brought with them the tradition of painting buildings blue.  Five hundred years later this has become famous, known as the ‘blue town’ and is a tourist destination which is possibly the most unique place we have come across on our travels through 25 countries and two continents.

The locals are friendly and were respectful of our tourist status.   We were offered hashish by one fellow, which we politely declined, and were not harassed or bothered by shopkeepers wanting to sell us rugs or take us off the beaten track to see their family shop.  A few asked us where we were from, some knew New Zealand, others looked blank.  We were freely given unsolicited, helpful information to find our way without asking for or expecting anything in return.  This is a far cry from what we had read about before coming here.  I wonder if this is the city style, as opposed to the countryside towns and time will tell.

We had been given a tip of saying that this isn’t our first time in Morocco, so that we don’t get pestered too much.  So far it seems to be working.

We made our way back to Betsy, buying some eggs, bread and water on our way.  It pays to check out the price of water in particular as it varied from €0.40c per litre to €0.25c per litre.  Whichever way you look at it, the water isn’t expensive.

Arriving back at just before 6pm was perfect timing as the weather started to turn again and it rained constantly through the night, although this time without the howling wind to shake Betsy and us inside her.

Looking Up Towards The Hills Of Chefchaouen From The Square

A Typical Alleway In the Medina

Could You Imagine Checking Into A Hotel Here?

Life In Morocco

Day 6: Fes; 2nd Feb 2019  

It was time to head down to Fes, also spelt Fez, today and off we set.  According to Google maps we were in for a four-hour drive, but Emily, our Garmin GPS had other ideas suggesting it was just a 2.5 hour trip.  However she was clearly not aware of the ‘add 30% to your driving time’ rule and she was way out, Google Maps was right.

We left Chefchoeun at 11am and arrived into Fes at 3.30pm which included a short stop for lunch on the side of the road, a four and a half hour trip.  The roads are average and at times reminded me of Bosnian roads where they are narrow and the crumbling shoulder drops down a foot below the road surface giving a strong incentive to not drive too close to the edge.

Most of the children just wave to us but some stand on the road with their hand up indicating they want us to stop, basically playing chicken with a 3.5 ton vehicle!  Alan toots the horn as a warning and shows that he has no intention of stopping.

The cars here are a mix of new modern ones and old bangers. Mercedes Benz seem to feature regularly amongst the older ones and we wonder how many original Merc parts are still holding them together.

The crops in the highlands are mainly olive trees, the roadside vendors sell jars of olives in some kind of liquid.  On the flats, the crops are orange trees.

The non-mechanical mode of transport here is the donkey, which not only carries humans side saddle, but their panniers are filled with goodies, sticks or produce.

Flocks of sheep, with newly born lambs, and accompanied by a shepherd brandishing a requisite stick are grazing on the roadside.  The men are dressed in long cotton robes that oftentimes drag through the mud. They look heavy and not very warm.

Finding a suitable stopping area to pull off for a rest proves challenging so we keep pressing on.

We come across a fully laden truck toppled over on its side in a paddock beside the road.  It’s the second vehicle to be parked in such a manner that we’d seen in just a few days.  Given it was a straight flat piece of road we wonder how it met its demise. Then not far ahead of us we witnessed a very near head-on accident again on a flat straight piece of road. The culprit was traveling directly in front of us and had been swerving in and out of his lane for several kilometres.  Typically Muslims don’t drink so we ruled out alcohol, however, hashish is plentiful and maybe this was a factor?

The offending driver eventually pulled to the side of the road and looking down as we passed I could see he was glued to his mobile phone sitting on his lap.  Ah, that’s the culprit.  Not just a factor in first world countries eh?

Finding the camping ground Diamant Vert** (GPS coordinates 33.98787, -5.0191was easy and the traffic and roads leading into it were kind to us.  The reception area was of first world standards with a solid building, tiled floors, and two (male) receptionists behind the counter.  A restaurant sat alongside in the hope of catering to the campers – a pity about the reviews, however.  After check-in, we found the way to our parking spot nearby a shower and toilet block, which left a bit to be desired in terms of functionality.  The taps were coming off, the hand drier in bits hanging down from the wall and the showers run hot and cold.  The toilets thankfully are of European standard with real toilet paper and included a toilet seat.  Funny how the expected things in life become welcomed and not so expected in a foreign land.  I figured the trick to a successful shower, was to go at 6pm when there is no one else around.

We are relieved to finally be parked up and take a well-earned break over a cuppa tea.  Alan meets the neighbours, a lovely couple from the UK, Karen (Kaz) and Nik and we are invited to join them on a guided tour into the medina tomorrow.  A medina is the name given to the old walled part of a North African town.  We graciously accept and are looking forward to what tomorrow might bring.

Soon we hear a knock at the door and it’s another English couple, David and Sue, who we were parked beside in Chefchoeun.  They were also accompanying the others into the medina tomorrow and when they heard of a third couple from New Zealand joining them they realised it must be us, so they came over to say hi.

We enjoyed a few glasses of wine together and a warm bowl of pumpkin soup Alan had freshly made for our dinner.  Karen and Nik joined us later for drinks so we could all get acquainted before our medina experience.

** P.S.  We hear that Diamant Vert is now closed and there seems to be a pending legal battle to reopen.  For an alternative camping ground try Camping International Fez which is in Camping Contact (sitecode 21394).  (GPS coordinates 33.99982, -4.97150).

Day 7: Fes: Sunday 3rd February 2019

Today we headed into the medina of Fes, one of nine UNESCO sites in Morocco.

The medina, dating back to the 9th Century, encloses 89 kilometres of narrow passages, some no more than shoulder-width apart.  It houses 220,000 people and umpteen shops of all descriptions including many that defy description in Western terms.

Donkeys are used to transport goods in and out of the medina just as we would typically use vehicles for transporting goods to and from our businesses and homes.  They are strong but small animals and appear to just plod along placidly, often also carrying the weight of the rider, sitting sidesaddle with his goods.

Camel and goat heads are hanging in the market, their meat for sale.  Wafi tells us that the going rate for a camel is €2,800-3,000 so I wonder what price the meat sells for.

During summer, up to 60 degree temperatures are reported in Fes, however, the medina itself with its narrow paths and tall walls stays much cooler.  We enjoyed 18-20C in the sun on our February visit into the medina however with such narrow tall buildings the sun had little opportunity to kiss us or the ground.

The first floors of the medina houses have no windows.  The reason for this is privacy for the women as traditionally it is forbidden to see women without her head covered.

The alleyways between the homes are so narrow I’d hate to think how one would get new furniture or move house. The walls are shored up with timber bracing to stop them from falling inwards.  Although parts of the medina have been rebuilt due to earthquakes and fires, the mainstay buildings dating back from the 9th Century still remain original.

We visited thirteen different places today, nine inside the medina and four outside.  Here’s a list and to read more please click on the link to access the full blog called Fantastic Fes.

1. Royal Palace
2. The Jewish Quarter
3. Al Qarawiyyin University
4. Bou Inania Madrasa (School)
5. Mosques
6. Carpet Weaving and Sales
7. Restaurant Palais Tijani
8. Herboriste Diwan Pharmacy
9. Antiquities Shop
10. Clothing and Weavers Cooperative
11. Chouara Tannery
12. Borg Nord Ruins
13. Ceramic Workshop

If you are going to visit there yourself then I highly recommend a Guide.  When people say you will get lost, they really mean it.  The alleyways don’t follow any logical pattern or flow and as great as Google is, there is no such thing as using Google maps here.  I read that even a compass won’t help to find your way back.

I would also recommend visiting the medina with other people for a few reasons.  One, others often see things that you may have missed and can point these out to you.  Two, you get to share the experience and learn about the travel plans of others and pick up on their top tips.  And three, if you’re not in the market to make expensive purchases (eg a new carpet), then maybe someone else will, which takes the pressure and focus away from you.

So if you are interested in finding a professional certified guide (please ensure they are certified as some are imposters), then please contact Wafi, the guide we used.  He charges $400MAD for a couple (€37), for a full day tour.  Below are his details.

Elouafi Hanaf (pronounced Wafi)
Email: guide-elouafi@hotmail.com
Phone: 00212672040156
Works for the Office of Tourism Morocco

Please let him know you found him through Ruth & Alan from New Zealand, cheers.

Stay tuned for week two when we learn how to make Moroccan Beef and Prune Tagine at a private cooking class in a motorhome.

Costs for Week 1

These costs do not include the ferry ride over (€190). 

Borg Nord

The Township of Fes

Will We Get Betsy Down Here?

Mosaics Are Beautiful

For more photos and details of Fes, visit our blog Fantastic Fes.

Please feel free to Pin and read later

Fantastic Fes Morocco

Fantastic Fes Morocco

by Ruth Murdoch  |  February 2019  |  Morocco, Africa

Fantastic Fes

Reading about the famous medina in Fes and learning all it had to offer was enough to get me excited to actually be here and anticipating a full on day.  We were not disappointed.  Today we headed into the medina of the fantastic Fes, one of nine UNESCO sites in Morocco.

The guide had introduced himself to us yesterday and told us we could join the other two couples from the UK.  You’ll be home by 3pm, maybe 4pm at the latest he told us!  As he dropped us back at the camping ground after 7pm I was thinking that he really knows how to provide value for money.

We woke at 7am in anticipation and excitement of the day to come.  By 8.30pm I was back in bed with stomach pains unsure if we would ever make it on the tour, and thinking we may have to bow out.  A couple of Panadol and rest took the edge off the pain and I was determined not to let this opportunity pass us by.

We met our guide Elouafi, pronounced Wafi, at 9.30am and waited for our driver with the eight-seater van. We were in for a treat visiting thirteen different sites, nine inside the medina and four outside. Our first stop was on our way to the medina where we came across the Royal Palace and Jewish Quarter.

1. Royal Palace

Fes Royal Palace, or the Dar el-Makhzen, is located at Place des Alaouites, in the center of the Fes el Jadid quarter and was built in the thirteenth century under the reign of Mérinides Dynasty.  Formerly the main residence of the sultan, the Royal Palace is still used by the King of Morocco when he is in the city of Fes.

Surrounded by high walls that we cannot look over it spans an area of 195 acres (80 hectares).  We hear that a drone once crossed over the boundaries, daring to take a look inside the mystical palace grounds, resulting in 14 days in jail for the owner.  Perhaps that’s why drones are now banned from entering Morocco? Our guide tells of multiple spectacular gardens being created to represent different corners of the world, inside the walls, however without anyone ever seeing inside, this information is handed down through a trust and belief system and cannot be verified.

There are seven brass doors of different sizes with matching knockers and intricate geometric patterns, surrounded by fine zellige (mosaic tilework) and carved cedar wood.  Although this is the only thing to be seen here, it was well worth the visit and we were grateful to be allowed an up close and personal view of the doors.  At times, there is a 100 metre exclusion zone barrier, preventing the perfect photo opportunity.

Talking about photos, around the corner on our way to the Jewish Quarter there were guards wearing three different kinds of uniforms.  Apparently, in Morocco there are many different branches of armed forces, guards and police and each has their own uniform.  Permission must be asked before taking photos of these guys, and one of our party asked and was refused.  We learn that guards can lose their jobs if a photo is taken which is then displayed on the internet.  In a country where employment is difficult to find, this request must be highly respected.  I read that your camera will be confiscated if you were seen taking their photos and given I take photos on my iPhone I didn’t want to risk having this taken from me.

Kaz & Nik in front of the centre doors of the Royal Palace

Outer doors of the Royal Palace

2. The Jewish Quarter

Located just around the corner from the Royal Palace is the Jewish Quarter or Mellah. Although most of the Jewish population has left the distinctive architecture of the buildings and charming antique shops remain for our viewing pleasure.

Next, we arrived at the medina where the driver drops us off and it’s on foot from now on.  First here’s some background information about the medina  to set the scene of this unique location.

Architecture of the Jewish Quarter

Famous road in the Jewish Quarter

About The Medina

The word ‘medina‘ is used to describe the old walled part of a North African town. This is the second one we have come across and is by all accounts the most impressive.

The medina, dating back to the 9th Century, encloses 89 kilometres! (according to our guide) of narrow passages, some no more than shoulder width apart.  It houses 220,000 people and umpteen shops of all descriptions including many that defy description in Western terms.

Research indicates there are some 9,000 – 9,500 alleyways here but how would you know.  Perhaps that’s one of those urban myths that has turned into fact by repetition.

Donkeys are used to transport goods in and out of the medina just as we would typically use vehicles for transporting goods to and from our businesses and homes.  They are strong but small animals and appear to just plod along placidly, often also carrying the weight of the rider, sitting sidesaddle with his goods.

Camel and goat heads are hanging in the market, their meat for sale.  Wafi tells us that the going rate for a camel is €2,800-3,000 so I wonder what price the meat sells for.

During summer, up to 60 degree temperatures are reported in Fes, however, the medina itself with its narrow paths and tall walls stays much cooler.  We enjoyed 18-20C in the sun on our February visit into the medina however with such narrow tall buildings the sun had little opportunity to kiss us or the ground. The first floors of the medina houses have no windows.  The reason for this is privacy for the women as traditionally it is forbidden to see a woman without her head covered.

The alleyways between the homes are so narrow I’d hate to think how one would get new furniture or move house.

The walls are shored up with timber bracing to stop them from falling inwards.  Although parts of the medina have been rebuilt due to earthquakes and fires, the mainstay buildings dating back from the 9th Century still remain original.

Our guide gave us some basic rules about walking through these narrow streets.  If someone calls out beware (obviously not in English), then you must stand aside so they and their trollies or donkeys can safely pass you by.  These are workers going from A to B and don’t want to be held up by meandering souls.  The second was that photographing individuals is out unless you ask permission first.  Taking general photos of the produce was okay but be respectful of taking photos of people alone.  Just think how you might feel if someone took your photo without your permission.

The Road Leading To The Medina

So Many Choices Here

Donkeys Carry Payloads To The Many Shops

The Narrow Alleyways

Camel For Dinner?

A Feast For The Eyes

3. Al Qarawiyyin University

Also known as the University of Al Quaraouiyine, this institution nestled in the medina dates back to 859AD and as such is the oldest university in the world.  It is still operational today.  

Whilst we couldn’t enter, I did manage to snap a photo of its impressive front gates and then, later on, we got a quick look at the mosque that sits inside the university boasting some of the stunning mosaics ceilings.

This historic university is actually recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest degree-granting university in the world.  

The Doors To The Oldest University In The World!

A Wee Glimpse Into The University

Through A Side Door Into The University

Check Out This Mosiac Display

4. Bou Inania Madrasa (School)

We visited this school, located near the Mosque of Al-Quaraouin which is the most famous school in Fes, built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris ibn Abi-Hassan Marini between 1350-1355.

It is considered the last of the great schools of Morocco in terms of the unique and vast area, building decoration, and its planning.

The school consists of a large courtyard and two classes of teaching.  Students would live for 18 years here learning the Quran and sleeping in tiny windowless rooms on the second and third floors.  

Today the school is a museum displaying the stunning mosaic tiles and intricate woodwork throughout.  The wood is typically cedar and was treated so it would last thousands of years.  This involved drying it out completely then soaking it in a mixture of fats, oils, and garlic (to stop insects from eating it).  This was a one-off process and seems to have done the job because most of the wood is in excellent condition.

School Courtyard

5. Mosques

We poked our head into several Mosques that are centuries old.  Wafi joked that if I, as a non-Muslim, were to enter one of these then Alan would be circumcised.  Enough said.

Mosque For Prayer

6. Carpet Weaving and Sales

The widows of Fes are often left without any form of income after their husband dies. 

If they are able to work, there is a cooperative that provides an opportunity to learn the art of carpet weaving, thereby providing an income. 

The cooperative handles the materials supply and the sale of the carpets and ensures that the widows receive a fair price for their efforts, 80% of the sale proceeds.  It’s painstakingly intricate and skilled work taking months to complete just one carpet.

We are shown a young looking lady weaving a carpet and were astounded to learn that the pattern is memorised.  She kindly slows down to show us how the knots are tied and I noticed the bandage on her finger.  After weaving the thread through two pieces of vertically strung yarn, she then ties the knot over and back on itself and physically yanks at the wool to break the thread and then starts again.  The speed at which she works is incredible and I found myself wanting to purchase her work just to give her some money.

From here we were taken into a room and served mint tea (make sure you say yes to a little sugar in your tea otherwise it can be bitter).  The sales pitch starts and we are shown a number of different carpets made from sheep wool, camel wool, agave silk, silk, and cotton.  Some had half a million knots per square meter and were stunning displays of craftsmanship (or should that be craftwomanship?) 

One of our party purchased a large blue rug for her bedroom floor, making the time they spent with us worthwhile.  As is always the case though in this type of transaction, the final price was much lower than the first asking price because haggling is normal and expected.

A Small Room Housing Three Weavers

7. Restaurant Palais Tijani

Immediately underneath the rug shop was Restaurant Palais Tijani, a delightfully decorated ‘safe’ place to eat.  The typical format for dining out is a three-course meal, starting with salad, then hot tagine for the main followed by fruit for dessert.  A word to the wise, the salad alone was plenty for lunch and we were rather thankful that Alan and I shared a vegetarian couscous main dish. The salad consisted of several hot and cold dishes and fresh bread.  Lunch, including a bottle of water between us, and a ten percent service fee, came to 180 Dirham (€16.50 or $27NZD). 

It was the first time we had come across a service fee and felt that lunch was expensive when compared to a three course evening meal we had in Chefchaouen a few nights earlier for $45 Dirham (€4.10 or $NZ6.80). Unfortunately, according to our guide, safe choices for tourists inside the medina are somewhat limited and no one wants to be sick for a couple of days while on holiday. 

We are left to eat without the companionship of our Guide, Wafi, who went off to pray.  As a devout Muslim, this happens five times a day, every day!

A Moroccan Salad!

8. Herboriste Diwan Pharmacy

We were treated to a pharmacy tour and shown how argan oil is made.  The argan tree (Argania Spinosa) is endemic to Morocco and is ecologically indispensable.  Its deep roots are the most important stabilising element in the arid ecosystem, providing the final barrier against the encroaching deserts. Despite its uniqueness and indispensability, the argan tree sadly faces a variety of serious threats.

Nearly half of the argan forest disappeared during the 20th century – and average density dropped from 100 to less than 30 trees per hectare. This historical pressure on the forest was driven by demand for high quality charcoal (especially important during the world wars) and, more recently, by conversion to agricultural production of export crops such as tomatoes.

In recognition of its ecological value and local economic importance, the argan forest region was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Argan oil, derived from the seeds of the argan tree fruit, has been an important resource for Morocco’s Berber people for centuries. The oil came to the attention of the outside world in the 1990s and is now highly sought for culinary, cosmetic and medicinal purposes.

Goats are one of the primary threats to the argan forests because they climb the trees to graze their leaves.  The goats, as well as aggressive fruit harvesting techniques from some locals, can damage branches and dislodge buds for the next year’s production.

What is interesting, however, is that goats used to be an important part of the oil making process.  The nuts are incredibly difficult to crack open, so enterprising people poked through goat poop to pick out the valuable argan nuts. Through the magic of goat digestion, the shells of the nuts became easier to open, and processing went from there. These days, most of the argan oil used in cosmetics is harvested without the help of goats, but in some places, the traditional goat-poo process is still in place.

The process, without the help of the goats, is painstakingly tedious.  First, the ladies harvest the pods, which look like small pebbles.  To crack open the pods they use sharpened stones and bang them against a block of wood.  Each nut is opened individually in what is a very manual and labour intensive process.  The kernel is then removed, and it looks somewhat like a flat almond only smaller.  Beware of eating them however as they start off tasting sweet before turning bitter in your mouth.

From here the seeds are placed in a grinder, separating the oil from the residual brown tacky substance left behind.  Nothing goes to waste; the brown substance is turned into soap.

We purchased a 75ml bottle of this ‘liquid gold’ at a cost of 120 Dirham (€12), making this a whopping €160 per litre.  I have seen reports where the price is as high as €263 per litre!  Compare this to the cost of a one litre bottle of olive oil and you get the feeling for the price.  

Painstakingly Cracking Open The Kernels

9. Antiquities Shop

Our next spot was an antiquities shop and my eyes bulged.  It was difficult to take everything in and there were so many goodies that I could have easily purchased.  One was a table that pulled out to reveal a chequers board, backgammon board and a felt card table.

The displays were separated into different ethnicities/origins, for example there was an area for Sephardic Jewish antiquities and another for Berber artifacts.  The prices were a little eyewatering but probably reasonable given the quality, age and generally excellent condition of what we were looking at.

The detail was stunning and sadly we were unable to take photos of individual pieces.  Here are a couple of photos of the broader views that we were allowed to take.

This shop was one of the oldest houses in Fes and had been beautifully restored.  It was apparently unique in that it had balconies on the third floor at each of the internal corners of the courtyard.

The shop is on three stories, each one jammed packed with stunning ancient furniture, weapons, and household goods, each of which no doubt had their own history to reveal.  The owner asked Alan how many camels he wanted for his wife, and when Alan said a random 500, the owner said I was worth more than that, even much more than 600, although he didn’t give the exact figure.  At the going price of €3,000 for a camel, the price tag on my head exceeded €1.8 million and counting!  Hmm, I’m not sure whether to be flattered or worried!

Antiques Glore!

Stunning Building

What Can We Fit Into Betsy?

Looking Down From The Third Story

10. Clothing and Weavers Cooperative

Our next treat was to see a weaver making scarfs.  This is the second time we had seen this (the first being in Chefchaouen) and both times the weaver was a male.  I was keen to take some of these beauties home and really had to restrain myself due to space and costs.  I did, however, find two gorgeous scarfs, one from agave silk and the other made from traditional silk.

Many of the shops are traditional 15th century Fes houses, which have been restored using UNESCO money.  Behind the multitudes of scarves and other weavings, the detailed mosaics, plasterwork, and intricate architectural features can be spotted and appreciated.

A Weaver Hard At Work

Our Guide Waiting Patiently

11. Chouara Tannery

Morocco is famous for its leather goods and no visit to this city is complete without a visit to the tannery.  The tanning industry here is considered one of the main tourist attractions.

Upon arrival, we were handed a fresh mint sprig to disguise the smell of the tannery.  It wasn’t that bad, although I could imagine on a forty plus degree day it would be another story.

The tannery is eleven centuries old and the entire manual process hasn’t changed since medieval times.   They work with lamb, cow, goat, and camel hides and the process takes a staggering three months from whoa to go.

Initially the hides soak for three days in large vessels made from limestone which allows the fur and hair to fall off.  Next, the hides soak in a white liquid for three weeks, which we are told is made using pigeon feces that they collect from the markets below.  Further research indicated it might also be mixed with cow urine, lime, salt, and water.  This soaking cleans and softens the tough skins and we watch as men, wearing waders, tread on the hides in the large round stone vessels.  Next, the hides sit for one month in the coloured dyes.  These chemical-free colourants are made from natural products, such as henna for orange, poppy for red, indigo for blue and cedar wood for brown.

After dying, the hides soak in vinegar for one week, which fixes the colour.  From here they are left out in the sun for drying.

We were taken into the large display rooms where every kind of leather goods imaginable are displayed.  High-quality bags and purses of all shapes and sizes are for sale, as are beautifully crafted coats and jackets, shoes including slippers and belts.  Apparently, camel skin is best for bags because it is lighter but flexible and extremely tough while goatskin is best for leather jackets because it stretches so is more comfortable.

I was impressed to learn that they would take your measurements and make a jacket of your colour choice and style, then deliver it to your hotel in just two hours!  

12. Borg Nord Ruins

We left the medina late in the afternoon and visited the ancient ruins on the mountain overlooking the medina and the old historic city.  From here our guide pointed out that during our eight hours of walking we only managed to explore a small part of the medina.

The ruins of Borg Nord, reminded us of the Greek ruins, and in a similar state of disrepair, although for me that it all part of the attraction.  Below the ruins sit the Marinid Tombs, also known as the Merenid Tombs, which were not part of our tour today.

13. Ceramic Workshop

As the evening light started to fade, the last stop on our packed tour was to the ceramic workshop called Art D’Argile.  Here we were treated to a demonstration of how to make tagines on a potters wheel – so simple, it only took a few seconds.  It’s funny how one can make something look so easy after twenty five years of practice.

Next we watched as a skilled artist carefully chiseled away at the surface of a plate, removing the unwanted ceramic to create his carefully crafted pattern.  The same craftsman then demonstrated how each tile for a mosaic is cut out using exact strokes with a hammer and chisel.  You start to gain an appreciation of how much skilled labour goes into producing the stunning mosaics we have seen today and the goods on display around us.

The following artist was hand painting a detailed pattern onto a dinner service for an Australian client.  The paint he used was a dull purple colour that becomes a brilliant vibrant blue following glazing and firing in the kiln.  How he could paint such a perfect pattern and reproduce it over and over again defied belief.

Out in the courtyard we were led to a mosaic surfaced table and told it contained an error.  If we could find the error we were welcome to the table.  After a clue about which area and colour to look for I found the offending piece, see if you can pick it.  Here’s the clue, one piece was supposed to be red but wasn’t.  (I didn’t take the table because I couldn’t lift it and anyway, it wouldn’t fit into Betsy, lol).

Can you find the offending piece?

Our Purchases in the Medina

I’d been hanging out to buy dates and finally saw them.  Our guide organised the sale for half a kilo (sweet tasting and yummy) @40MAD (€3.68) per kilo

Small orange leather coin purse 10 MAD (€0.92).  The seller had been waiting patiently for me to complete our rug visit and then lunch.

Two scarfs, a rich orange colour made from the agave plant, they call the product agave silk and the other a pink one with many colours and patterns made from silk.  I paid $400 MAD (€37) for the two.

Argan oil 75mls ($120 MAD, €11) and massage oil 100mls ($150 MAD, €13.80)

Tanned coloured soft leather belt $170MAD (€15.60)

The Many Doors of the Medina

The architecture here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and some of the doors take your breath away.  I snapped all manner of doors and must show you some of these splendors here.  Click on the images below to enlarge and look at the details.

Guides & The Medina

A guide isn’t just a good idea in this labyrinth, it’s a must, in my humble opinion.  Without a guide, we would have been wondering the whole time how we would find our way out.  When people say you would get lost, they really mean it.  The alleyways don’t follow any logical pattern or flow and as great as Google is, there is no such thing as using Google maps here.  I read that even a compass won’t help to find your way back.

I would also recommend visiting the medina with other people for a few reasons.  One, others often see things that you may have missed and can point these out to you.  Two, you get to share the experience and learn about the travel plans of others and pick up on their top tips.  And three, if you’re not in the market to make expensive purchases (eg a new carpet), then maybe someone else will, which takes the pressure and focus away from you.

So if you are interested in finding a professional certified guide (please ensure they are certified as some are knock-offs), then please contact Wafi, the guide we used.  He charges $400MAD for a couple (€37), for a full day tour.  Here are his details.

Elouafi Hanaf (pronounced Wafi)
Email: guide-elouafi@hotmail.com
Phone: 00212672040156
Works for the Office of Tourism Morocco

Please let him know you found him through us Ruth & Alan from New Zealand, cheers.

Oradour-sur-Glane, Why Everyone Should Know This Story

Oradour-sur-Glane, Why Everyone Should Know This Story

by Ruth Murdoch  |  December 2018  | France, Oradour-sur-Glane

Where Is It?

Oradour-sur-Glane is a small settlement in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region in west-central France.  It is 23kms northwest from Limoges.

What Happened There?

During World War II, two hundred Waffen SS (pronounced Vaffen SS) the armed wing of the Nazi Party’s SS organisation committed an act of sheer terror.  They stormed this quiet village and massacred all those people they could find, a total of 642 men, women and children.

They rounded everyone up on the pretence of checking their documentation, a relatively common occurrence.  Therefore, at the time no one seemed overly concerned as they had no reason to suspect what was about to unfold.  They were forced by the officers to the town square (although it’s not a square at all).  Anyone who resisted was immediately shot dead.

The area to the right is where everyone assembled

They then separated the men and teenage boys from the woman and children.  The men were divided and sent to six different buildings* throughout the village.  In one of the buildings the perpetrators lined up two machine guns in the doorway and proceeded to open fire in a sweeping motion while the men stood facing the back wall.  For anyone who hadn’t died instantly, they then received another bullet to finish the job off.  Similar fates befell the men in the other buildings.  The soldiers were instructed to cover the bodies with straw and oil and burn them.

The women and children were taken to the local church.  Here they were locked in and smoke bombs were set off inside the church.  While the woman and children were screaming and gasping from the thick smoke, some of the SS fired into the mass with machine guns.  The bullet holes in the walls remain today.  The church was then set alight while the soldiers stood outside listening to the screams of those inside and from their position of safety threw grenades into the building.  They waited there watching until the roof of the church collapsed and the sounds inside died away.

NB: *There are many blogs, posts, and stories written that talk about these men being taken to ‘barns’.  When I think about a barn it conjures up in my mind a single building on a farm that houses hay, farm equipment, some chickens and the occasional cattle.  Here in Oradour-sur-Glane the buildings that we saw these men taken into were flanked by adjoining buildings either side on a main street.  Perhaps we have a different understanding of what the word ‘barn’ means to those from France.  Anyway, I cannot accurately recall the information from the museum about where these men were taken, so if anyone can shed some knowledgable light on this, please feel free to leave a comment below and I will ensure this post is updated with accurate information.  I didn’t feel it was correct to put the word ‘barn’ into this post without verification.

Inside the Church a Memorial of WWI Victims Bears The Scars Of Bullet Holes Meant For
The Women & Children

The Church Ceiling Collapsed
Courtesy of Museum Photos

The Church Today

After everyone was dead, the soldiers then set fire to the bodies in an apparent effort to conceal what had happened.  They also put the entire village to the torch and although the buildings are made of stone, the roofs and large parts of the walls collapsed in the ensuing inferno.

Photo Courtesy of the SS

A Tribute To Those Who Perished In The Church 

The following day orders were received to bury the bodies and bits of bodies in a mass grave making identification impossible.  Fewer than ten percent of the victims’ bodies could be identified which made the mourning that much harder for any surviving relatives.

Sadly this was not an isolated incident.  According to the International Military Tribunal all the Nazi armed forces including the Waffen SS, security forces and SS police, reserve troops and the Wehrmacht followed orders involving killing and terrorising civilians, which were later deemed to be war crimes.  There were many horrific events of mass murder documented on both the Western and Eastern Fronts.   What makes Oradour-sur-Glane unique is that the remains of the village have been left virtually undisturbed as a continuous and powerful reminder of how brutal and callous mankind can be to each other.

About The Population

Of the 642 victims, 638 had known ages.  Amongst the deceased were 62 children less than 6 months old and 263 less than 21 years.  Thirty-nine people were aged over 71 years old, eight of these were 81 years plus, with the balance of 340 people aged between 21 and 70 years.

On 10th June 2017, a tribute to those people who were murdered was unveiled.  The purpose behind this gallery is to think of these people as individuals, rather than as a collective group.

The individual portraits, where possible, are displayed on porcelain plaques lining both walls on the corridor as you enter through to the village.  Where photos are missing a name and age is written in the ever-hopeful attempt to find those from absent victims.

Individuals’ Photos Line The Corridor Leading Out To The Village

When Did This Happen?

It was Saturday, 10th June 1944.  Oradour-sur-Glane was especially busy on this day as there was a school vaccination program for the children being carried out here.  Tobacco distribution day also bought people in from the surrounding areas.

 

Why Did It Happen?

Terror was an effective weapon used by the Germans and the Nazis wanted to ensure that this weapon be used on a regular basis.  Encouraged by the recent D-Day landings, the French resistance had taken control of the areas to the west and east of Oradour-sur-Glane, however this village had little resistance activity and effectively became a sitting duck for the SS.

It appears that the events at Oradour-sur-Glane were intended to demonstrate to the population that terror could happen anywhere, anytime and that attempts to disrupt the German war effort would be severely punished.

There were no specific reason given as to exactly why the village was selected or why it was so completely and ruthlessly annihilated, despite several urban myths and earlier theories arising in the following years.

Click on the middle right-hand side of the picture to show more or wait for the slideshow

Urban Myths Put To Rest

Was Oradour-sur-Glane a case of mistaken identity like many claim?  There are rumours saying that the real town the SS were looking for was in fact Oradour-sur-Vayres.  However, that’s all it was, a rumour.  According to the audio commentary at the museum, this fact was never substantiated.  On the contrary, it has been proven that there was no case of mistaken identity after all.

Another myth concerned the reason for the attack which suggested that it was in retaliation for the capture of an SS officer by the resistance (even Wikipedia states this).  However again new information has now put this one to rest.  Yes, there were two incidents of captured SS officers immediately preceding the event, however, one of the men (and his driver) escaped and fled to the nearby town of Limoges, to arrive during the morning of Saturday 10th June.  A second SS officer was captured in the general area and moved to a secret location, however at the time of the incident these two events were unlinked.  The SS themselves used the disappearance of their Officer as later justification for the Oradour massacre.

A third story tells of how the SS shot the men below the knees to prevent them from escaping.  However, the orders of the SS were to kill everyone, so there was no need for inflicting incapacitating injuries and the information at the museum suggests that the SS shot to kill and finished off the survivors before incinerating the bodies.  There was no specific account of wounding, according to official sources that I have been able to verify in the research, despite seeing this recorded in numerous places and blogs.

An entire family killed

Look at the name Thomas, so many family members gone!

They Were Just Children!

The New Town Rebuilt

On 10th June 1947 President Vincent Auriol presided over the ceremony of laying the “foundation stone” of the new village of Oradour-sur-Glane.  The new town, which took over six years to build, was an exact replica of the old town, except that there was no train station.  The new town sadly entered into a period of mourning that was to last for decades.

The extended mourning period was due in part to the fact that the SS burnt many of the bodies beyond recognition making identification near impossible for grieving relatives from outside Oradour.  Additionally, the fact that no-one was brought to any kind of justice for committing these atrocities helped to fuel the mourning.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s when a new generation inhabited this town did the mourning period officially end.

 

The Silent Treatment

In the Bordeaux War Crime Trials after the war, the relatives and survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane sought justice and expected that those responsible would be tried, sentenced and punished appropriately.  However, the majority of the soldiers, officers and commanders were now dead and many others were in East Germany who refused to extradite them.  Eventually, after eight and a half years, 21 men were brought before the tribunal, found guilty and sentenced to prison.

However, this wasn’t the end of the story due to fourteen of the soldiers being Frenchmen from the province of Alsace, which had been annexed by German at the start of the war.  These soldiers had been forcibly conscripted, e.g. against their will, into the German army and an amnesty on 20th February 1953 freed all such forced conscriptees.  This action so disgusted the locals that politicians, local authorities and local state representatives were not invited to ceremonies organised by the National Association of Victims’ Families and the local council of Oradour-sur-Glane.  All other convicted soldiers were eventually released by 1958.

What isn’t clear from the information made available in the museum is what happened to the six people, one woman and five men who escaped this massacre.  I wonder why none of these people took part in the trial.

Memorial in Cemetery

Children’s Items

Memorial in the New Town

The 1983 Trial In The German Democratic Republic

Lt. Heinz Barth was in command of the 3rd Company of 1st Battalion Der Fuhrer Regiment.  It was thought that all trace of him was lost.  Could it have been that he was wounded and escaped capture by Allied forces?  Accused of taking part in the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, he was condemned in absentia by the Bordeaux military tribunal in 1953.  Later reintegrated into civilian life in East Germany, in the former zone of Soviet occupation, Barth was ‘traced’ in 1982 and put on trial in East Berlin.  Barth did not deny his involvement but claimed to remember almost nothing.

Being the only SS member involved in the Oradour massacre to have been judged, the trial seemed to be a bit of a sham showing the protection given to former SS officers on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.

The outcome of the trial was not recorded, however further research suggested he was sentenced to prison and released in 1997.  He died in 2007 at the age of 87.

The Children of Oradour-sur-Glane

Access To The Old Village

The only way into the old village during operational dates is through the superb architecturally designed building that houses the museum, which opened in 1999.  There is disability access to the old town via a lift and the town itself was built on relatively flat land making is easy to get around.  See Opening Times below for more information about access in winter.

Costs

Free entry to the Martyr Village (the name they now give this village).

Entry to the museum including two audio units cost us €19.60.  If you only speak English then it is highly recommended you make the most of the audio guide.  There is a short twelve-minute movie at the end of the museum and the audio provides extensive information not available elsewhere.

It was also thanks to the audio guide that we were able to obtain the answers regarding some of the misconceptions around this event as highlighted earlier.

My only criticism was the lack of closure on certain things.  Apparently, six adults escaped, plus one young boy.  Only one of the women who escaped from the church survived being shot, the other two perished.  There are no accounts for what became of these survivors.  Did they stay in the area, did they ever return, did they go on to live a long life?  It would have been great to have this detail filled in, as I guess we all want to cling onto some happy ending if that was even possible.  Perhaps it wasn’t.

 

Opening Times

From February 1st to 28th February: 9am5pm

From March 1st to 15th May: 9am6pm

From 16th May to 15th September: 9am to 7pm

From 16th September to 31st October: 9am to 6pm

From November 1st to 15th December: 9am5pm

Admittance is up until one hour before closing time.  Believe me, you will want to spend more than an hour here if it is your goal to try to comprehend what went on and to contemplate the many ruined buildings and relics of the lost civilisation here.

Annual closure of the Centre de la Mémoire is from 16th December to 31st January inclusive. During this closed period, the ruins are still accessible between 09:00 to 17:00 via the entrance on the road to Confolens (the D9) opposite the Centre de la Mémoire. The ruins can also be accessed during the dates when the Centre is closed, via the original entrance at the Northern and the Southern ends of the village.

Parking Nearby For Motorhomes

We stayed two nights here, on the first night we parked in the carpark overlooking the old town.  This gave easy and close walking access to the old town.  I’m not sure how busy this place becomes in the height of summer, however there is also an Aire situated 1.3kms further north past the new town.  Here you can find electricity and in the summer months water for a small fee.

Spread The Word

Please help to spread the word about the events of Oradour-sur-Glane by sharing this blog far and wide.  A brief Facebook post reached over 15,500 people in one week and many people had no knowledge of the town or what took place.  That, in my humble opinion, is a real shame.  I believe everyone should know some of the atrocities of war.

If you wish to read further, here’s an excellent link for more information https://www.oradour.info/

Please PIN this far and wide

How Finland Reduced Our Gas Consumption Part 2

How Finland Reduced Our Gas Consumption Part 2

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series LPG

If you missed Part 1, you can read it here How Finland Reduced Our Gas Consumption Part 1.

We limped on through Finland very mindful by now of our dwindling gas levels.  Anything and everything possible is being considered to make this last bottle see out the distance.  We just hope we don’t run out of gas before we run out of country.  Then there’s the looming thought of it’s getting colder and before long we may need heating (another gas guzzler).

One thing that helped to extend our gas consumption was a pre-planned, albeit quick, trip to St Petersburg, Russia for three days.  Betsy, however, still has to use gas to keep the freezer cold (we can’t bring ourselves to spend another €8 per night to be plugged into electricity while we’re away).   This does take some pressure off the gas consumption somewhat and as you will see below, every bit helps.

We leave Helsinki and head north.  The first stop about an hours drive is a place called Hyvinkaa where we located a business called Best Caravans.  Not only do they have caravans, but they also have the best, and I mean the best, free camping spot that we have ever come across, bar none.  Yes they have electricity (phew) and they also provide a washing machine, a dryer (rare to find this), a double shower (nice) and then, wait for it… they offer a sauna!  All this for free (provided you buy something in their shop and/or secure their loyalty card).  So after buying some toilet tabs, which are always needed, we take advantage of these facilities while plugging in to give our fridge a much needed break from sucking on the gas.

Whenever we are plugged in the kettle goes away and the electric jug comes out.  I prefer this as electric is much quicker (especially when in urgent need of a quick cuppa).

We venture further north and planned our route around two more Best Caravan franchises.  Neither, however, as fruitful as the first, but that’s okay because it’s electricity we’re mainly looking for and were incredibly thankful for.

We found a LPG supplier reasonably close to the Finland border in Sweden.  Alan phoned to ensure our information was accurate and that they did, in fact, have LPG.  They did.

So the original plan was to drive from Oulu to Sweden, get the gas, then back into Finland and up to Rovaniemi to see Santa.  That plan changed to driving to Rovaniemi first, then across into Sweden, back into Finland and head north.

In the end we drove to Rovaniemi from Oulu, thankful as we saw the Aurora Borealis for the first time ever (so exciting!), then decided that we could possibly make a run for Norway and drive all the way over to Tromso for LPG.

By now the second tank is oh so low and I’m sure we’re sucking fumes.  We have reduced the number of hot drinks we consume and look for meze type food for dinner.   So cheese on crackers with salami and relish, anything that doesn’t need gas becomes our dinner.  If we do choose to a warm dinner we make sure it’s using one pot that is watched carefully.

We never skip a nightly shower that is until now.  With gas levels at a critically low level, we opt to skip a night due to prioritisation, a cuppa is more important than smelling good.  We reduced our timed water heating to 15 minutes which was ample providing it wasn’t a hair washing night.

The temperature is due to drop like a lead balloon to just two degrees tomorrow night.  I’m keen to drive through to Tromsø in one go, but it’s over six hours.  When we are used to one or two hours at a stretch, a six-hour drive is a far cry for us to consider.  I reluctantly resign to one further night in Finland and think about all the clothes I can wear in bed to stay warm tonight.    Thankfully the heater in Betsy is very good, so it gets turned on in short bursts just to take the chill out of the air and assist with sleeping.

We park tonight at a layby and notice, surprisingly, there are several other motorhomes and some caravans parked here too.  All through northern Finland we seem to have been on our own at overnight stops, but not tonight.  I brave the bone-biting cold wind and knock on the doors of other travelers inviting them to come over later for a drink and chat.  I’m hoping the distraction will get my mind off the lack of gas and more bodies inside Betsy will help to keep the warmth in.

The other motorhomers must have wondered who this was knocking on their door on dusk.  Dressed in all the warm clothes I could find, hat covering the blonde hair, and a scarf wrapped around my neck to fight off that bitter cold, I brave my fear of shyness and knock away.  Most occupants open their doors, and some speak English.  I get some polite no thank you declines, some who don’t speak English soon shut their doors to Mrs Blobby, and those who do engage in conversation are delighted at the invitation and agree to valiantly brave the cold and come across after dinner.

My plan worked, we have a lovely evening meeting new and interesting people and listen to their travel tales.  The night passes quickly and the temperature inside Betsy is cozy (without the need for any gas, whoops, I mean heating).

Once the evening congregation is finished, we say goodbye to our new friends and jump into bed to stay warm.  The heater goes on briefly and we hope we are well insulated from the jaw-dropping thermometer-dropping temperatures outside.  It works.

The next day we make a run to Tromsø and oh boy are we blessed with the most glorious day.  That’s a post for another time, needless to say we arrived safe and sound, filled up with that beautiful and most precious juice, LPG, and were on our way to great food and warmth inside Betsy.

So how long did we stretch bottle number two?  Well, that’s a good question.

Let me step back to the beginning of having two fill tanks of LPG, sourced from Sweden on 7th August.  We crossed into Finland later that day and didn’t fill up again until we were in Norway on 17th September.  So that gives us a staggering 41 days of gas consumption.

The first bottle was empty by the time we left the Awesome Åland Islands on 19th August (so that bottle lasted 12 days).  Therefore we stretched, and I mean stretched thin, the second bottle to a staggering 29 days.  HOW COOL IS THAT???  Just don’t ask me to do that again, especially when the weather starts to turn cold and we are in the north of Scandinavia.

Looking back now I would not, for the life of me, have skipped Finland just due to their lack of LPG.  (I do have to ask, however, Finland why don’t you have LPG?).  Finland offers so much to see and do and it even gave us challenges that looking back now, were fun.

So if you have LPG and have discounted traveling to this part of the world because of a lack of LPG then take a leaf out of our book, put on your big boy/girl pants and grunt up.  Making our gas last for 41 days is epic and if we can do it, then so can you.  I’m throwing down the gauntlet and want you to beat our record.  I dare you….

 

From Glorious Sun to Snow Storm in One Day

From Glorious Sun to Snow Storm in One Day

by Ruth Murdoch  |  1st October 2018  | Norway
The first day of October dawned bright and clear and pretended to be just like any other day, only it wasn’t.  This was a sheep in wolf’s clothing day.

Today was a day of firsts, not only as in the date but in many things that happened along the way.  We woke in Ulsvag, Norway and by 9am were on the road.  That was the first ‘first’ as we don’t usually move too early in the morning.

We had no set destination today, again a first.  We typically make a point of plotting our destination but today was different, we just hopped on the road and started driving, south. Hmmm.

The extent of our planning, however, was to not use the coastal route due mainly to the high costs of taking ferries.  That decision was to save us €100.  In hindsight, which is a wonderful thing, we are now thinking that perhaps it wasn’t worth it.  Or maybe it was, otherwise I wouldn’t have a story to tell.

We are making our way south to leave Norway hopefully before the winter snow set in.  The surrounding hilltops have been sprinkled with snow that looks like icing sugar (powdered sugar) and makes for amazing photos, particularly in the reflective waters that can be found everywhere we look.

We don’t go far before Betsy, our motorhome, is stopped on the roadside for us to jump out and take some photos.  A two-hour trip usually turns into three or four depending upon the landscape and photographic opportunities. On route we stop at a place called Drag for this photo.

Snowcapped Mountains in Drag

Half an hour later at Innhavet, we come across the camping ground where we had expected to stop the previous night.  It was closed.  That seems to be the common thing around here after the summer season.  This one however offered a wonderful photo opportunity so we wandered over for a closer look.  The row of cabins were mirrored perfectly in the reflective water.  The golden hues of the autumn trees were resplendent in the foreground reflections of the snowcapped mountains behind.

It’s really not difficult to take wonderful shots here when the scenery is so spectacular.

Camping Ground Hut Reflections

Not a breath of wind!

By this point we continue south, to where we don’t yet know but it doesn’t matter.  We are just enjoying the ride and there is only one road south.

The opportunity for more photos presented itself, however it was more of the same, albeit still stunningly beautiful.  I made the decision that we would only stop again for different scenery and forty-five minutes later this arrived.

Engan gave us rocks of greys, blues, browns diving into the again reflective waters.  When I first saw this sight my brain couldn’t comprehend what my eyes were seeing.  The scene in front of us was one of seamless rocks in an unusual shape, until I realised it was the water playing tricks on my eyes.

We asked [the universe] for different landscapes, and Norway provided these for us unlike anything I had ever seen before.  The colours had been carefully chosen from nature’s palette by the most experienced of artists.  Should anyone care to paint this scene, it would simply look too contrived.

But here in Engan we stood with jaws dropped and eyes wide, trying our best to take it all in.  It was still morning, just, and there was not a ripple of wind on the water, and the clouds above are soft and fluffy.  The day is stunning, there’s nothing to worry about here, yet.

Engan’s Rock Formations Repeated In the Still Waters Below

After a lunch stop we are on the road again and at about 4.30pm it only took ten minutes to come across more of nature’s glory, this time a roaring waterfall.  It was as though someone had turned on a fireman’s hose, the sound was deafening and the water rushing in a hurry to find the end, wherever that may be.

Another hour or so later the surrounds had changed and changed dramatically.  We knew we were heading through Saltfjellet National Park and had been climbing for a while.  However there was nothing, and I mean nothing, to give us any warning of what was to come.

We’re in the snowline, says Alan, excited to see the white around us.  We pulled over to frolic in the snow (okay we’re from the other end of the world where snow isn’t common).  We take photos of Betsy surrounded by the snow.  Gosh it’s cold outside.  About 1 degree showing on the dashboard.  It was a quick stop.  That was 5.59pm.

We continue climbing and drinking in the sights of the beautiful white snow and the barren mountain slopes.  The beautiful autumn colours were left far behind us and it was just black on white.  What a picturesque scene before us.  Until…

Six minutes later at 6.05pm we are still climbing and then it starts to snow.  Gently at first and we are pleased to have just replaced our dashcam with a better one now so we can capture the stunning scenery here in Norway.  I also capture a video on my iPhone, and the delight of seeing snow is clearly obvious in my voice.  The roads are clear and there’s no concern about driving, yet.

The next video is taken at 6.08pm when the snow is coming in heavy and just starting to land on the roads and is staying there.  The sound in my voice has a little more concern than the previous one and I say “I hope we don’t get snowed in”.

The third video is just one minute later at 6.09pm.  We are in Rokland.  My voice is quiet and I state the obvious ‘we’ve really been caught out here today’.   The road is white, Besty has slowed right down and we’re in trouble.  We don’t have winter tyres on, nor do we have chains.  We have snow ‘socks’ but there is nowhere to pull off the road to fit them.  I look at the other vehicles on the road, what few of them there are, and notice they also haven’t put on any chains.  Phew, that’s a relief.

Driving in horizontal snow is another first for us.

The weather is really closing in now, the visibility low and I am feeling concerned.  We don’t know how far we are to safety, or how long this is likely to last.  We don’t understand the weather in Norway and we’re miles from anywhere.

It defies belief that the weather conditions in 90 seconds could deteriorate so dramatically.

Watch the dash cam video to check it out for yourself then consider putting yourself in our driving seats.  For those from Europe reading this, it’s probably second nature.  But for those from Australia, or NZ, this situation is far from normal.  In particular look at the colour of the road surface at the beginning of this video then see how quickly it changes.

I have an out of body moment and hear my quivering voice saying “I’m out Alan, I’ve had enough, I can’t do this any longer”.  Then I have the thought, what do you want him to do about it Ruth?  There’s nowhere to pull over, he’s driving slowly, and there are no options right now other than to go straight ahead.  To say I’m not feeling particularly comfortable at this point in time is somewhat of an understatement.

We continue for another ten minutes.  We see a sign for a parking area.  Upon approaching this we could see it’s a steep slope of snow down to a snow-covered carpark.  We bailed on that idea, realising that if we got Betsy down there, there was no guarantee we could get her out again.

We continue forward, now travelling at just 50km/hr.  A van passes us and Alan opts to drive in his tracks giving us a smidgen more traction, or so we hope. Ahead we can see a sign saying we’ve just crossed the Arctic Circle.  We hope there are some buildings or structures and a welcoming rest area to stop.  There is a sign pointing to something but the side road is covered with virgin white snow and we are not about to turn down there.

So we plod on forward with Besty still occasionally losing traction as her feet find it difficult to hold onto the ground through the thickening snow.  Thankfully the road is straight, it’s relatively flat and Betsy holds her line as she connects again with the road and Alan keeps her pointing forward.  Again she slips and slews a little sideways.

Keeping a 3.5-ton vehicle moving forward in these conditions is no small feat.  Alan does a sterling job of man-handling Betsy and keeping her pointing straight ahead.  He also tries to keep me calm, but I know him all too well and realise he’s managing his own concerns for our safety in these conditions.

The snow has now well and truly settled on the road and it’s not going anywhere.  The temperature has dropped from 1 degree earlier to zero and the indicator on the dashboard is flashing, which means that there is a risk of ice – no kidding Sherlock!

We often talk about how the sun follows us around, how we are lucky with the weather, and whenever we ask the universe for something, like different scenery, it delivers.   Well, today it’s delivering and I make a mental note to be more specific in my future requests.

Up ahead we spied some lights.  What was it?  Is there a village there, or some sort of life?  We nudge slowly and carefully towards the lights and see a parking spot.  By now the snow is hammering into our windscreen, the wipers are on high speed, and the snow is caking where the wipers don’t reach, making an unobscured outlook for the passenger rather difficult.  I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing by this stage.

My heart is in my throat, and I don’t mind saying that I’m more than a tad scared by now. It’s made worse by the fact that I have run out of data on my internet plan.  However, that wouldn’t help in any case because we have very little mobile service up here.  No-one knows where we are and there’s no way we can call for help. Great.

I calm myself looking at our position rationally, which isn’t easy when faced with a new situation like this.  My rational mind says that we have lots of food, we had just filled with LPG at lunchtime, meaning we have heating and can cook, we have plenty of diesel, we are safe inside Betsy and we have each other.  Plus I don’t think there are Polar Bears in this part of the world.

We turn into the lit parking lot at Storforshei, especially grateful that the entry is flat and notice a building with lights on.  It’s a toilet block and the toilets in this part of the world are always heated.  Now I know why.

I look outside and can’t help but see the beauty in the scenery.  The bare sticks in front of me have snow clinging on one side from the now horizontal snow that’s hammering them.  They stand staunchly, teaching me a lesson in humility.  If they can brave it outside, then I can toughen up inside.

We park up and decide we’re not going anywhere tonight.  On the side of the road stands tall skinny red pegs that mark where the road used to be before the snows arrived.  The odd truck continues to drive on in the snow and I figure they, the Norwegians, are used to this stuff.  We, on the other hand, are not.

Heading into Betsy’s garage Alan retrieves the snow socks that we purchased in Sweden.  They are our insurance policy should we get unexpectedly caught out.  I think this situation qualifies for the inaugural snow socks outing.  Snow socks are lighter than chains, are made of a fibrous type material, and can be used to gain traction in the snow, providing one drives at no more than fifty kilometres per hour.  According to the marketing material on the outside of the packaging, these socks are designed to ‘get you home’.  I am now thankful for the €86 investment we made during the searing 31-degree summer heat.

Alan comes back into Betsy looking like a giant snowflake.  He’s covered in snow, it’s in his hair, on his shoulders, and all over his clothing.  He is also looking rather cold.  By this time the temperature had dropped to minus one and it doesn’t look like it’s about to let up any time soon.

Alan takes a wander over to the toilet block to suss it out and I start to set up the cabin to bunker down.  The heating is turned on, the blinds are lifted to cover the windows, and the front screen covers put in place.

We check out the forecasted temperatures for tomorrow and OMG!!!!  Have a guess what it says?  Go on, you can give it a guess.  Well, we are expecting to wake to a balmy minus five, tomorrow morning.  What on earth?  Minus five, do people really live in these conditions?  And what’s more, it’s due to ‘warm up’ to minus three by mid-afternoon.

My mind runs back to an earlier conversation we had with a local chap just a few days ago who said that the snow sometimes doesn’t come in until December.  December!  Not October!  Did I really hear him correctly?  Didn’t anyone tell the weatherman this news?

Then another conversation comes to mind from not one but two locals on two different occasions.  ‘We don’t mind minus ten, it’s when it gets to minus twenty or thirty that it becomes too cold.’  Really?

By now the snow has turned to rain, which possibly means that it’s warmed up outside.  If you can call it ‘warm’!

The amount of snow on the roads has visibly decreased with the help of the rain.  Alan returns from his reconnaissance trip to the bathroom and strongly suggests that we should continue driving tonight, now!  He recommends that we’re not to stay here because with the minus five conditions tomorrow, then minus six the next day, the wet snow is likely to turn to far more treacherous black ice and the roads could be closed.  The black ice is more dangerous to drive in than the option we have now.  Black ice is the name we give it when water on the road has frozen clear and becomes invisible to see.  It acts like a skating rink for cars and I don’t think Betsy would like that. 

My mind races back a couple of years ago when my sister, travelling during winter in the South Island of New Zealand, had a head-on accident with someone who skidded on black ice and wrote off their motorhome.

Local Weather Forecast For The Next Two Days!!!

I look outside and am thankful that we can actually see the tarmac on the road again.  The couple of inches of snow that had previously been hiding the road have now melted.  It’s now or never!

I agree with Alan and we make a run for it.

So the cabin gets prepared for moving, the blinds go down, the TV is put back into place, and we are bravely on the road once more. Betsy’s feet firmly connect with the now wet tarmac and she’s much happier.

Before long a truck comes up behind us, so Alan pulls over to let him go by.  Ah, following a vehicle lit up like a Christmas tree makes for much easier driving.  Although just trying to keep pace with him proves a challenge.  He’s honking.  Before long the truck is just a distant blur ahead and we’re on our own again.

The Norwegians are prolific road builders and they are constructing a new one alongside us.  Kilometre after kilometre of workmen, excavators, and dump trucks are still working away in the pitch darkness and freezing cold.  Road barriers, temporary traffic lights, diversions, and dug up roads all try to slow our progress but after coping with the snow earlier, these are mere trifles. The snow has stopped and between the roadworks, the road is actually reasonable. The seal is in good condition and the roads provide a comfortable enough width when meeting trucks coming towards us.

We slowly and safely make our way down the mountain and arrive, relieved and happy, an hour later at the small settlement of Storforshei.

We find a cheeky parking spot outside an abandoned building and gain some shelter from the elements for the night.

It’s now the following morning as I write this and we awake to the most glorious of days, the snow is now more than just a sprinkle on the hills around us.  The beauty of Mother Nature again takes our breath away as the clear blue sky shows off the fully covered mountains with her clean crispy white snow blanket.

Our day of firsts yesterday will make for a good story in our future.

In the words of a friend ‘we know we are alive’ and are happy (now) to have had this experience.

Our lesson with this new knowledge is to never attempt driving over a high mountain range in the late afternoon if there is a risk of snowfall.  We just need to be a little more mindful of the elements and how vulnerable we can be.

When Is The Aurora Borealis In Norway?

When Is The Aurora Borealis In Norway?

by Ruth Murdoch  |  September 2018  | Tromsø, Norway

When is the Aurora Borealis in Norway?

It is with an air of anticipation, our fingers crossed, and a belief that we have the best luck in the world when it comes to all things weather related, that we head towards Norway in an attempt to fulfill my lifelong dream, to see the Aurora Borealis in person.

We drive into Norway from northern Finland and realise that we really have struck the jackpot by arriving in Norway on a perfect day.  The best part was that we didn’t actually plan for any specific date.  Whilst many said “it’s far too early in the season to see the Northern Lights in September“, other sources (the ones we chose to believe), said they could appear as early as mid-September.  We have a tight window of opportunity due to our need to avoid the winter snows, which can arrive as early as October.  Our motorhome has summer tyres and no chains, therefore, finding ourselves ‘stuck’ in the winter conditions must be avoided at all costs.

So we proceed into Norway leaving the doubters in our dust, hoping to prove them wrong.

What is the Aurora Borealis?

Also known as the Northern Lights, or Polar Lights, the magical Aurora Borealis are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights can, in the right circumstances, be seen above and close too the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres.

The Southern Lights are the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent to the Northern Lights and given the right conditions, these can be seen in the far south of New Zealand’s South Island.  I never had the pleasure of viewing these in NZ and Norway has always been my first choice of location to experience this natural phenomenon.

Planning our Trip

The entire reason for coming to Norway is to see the Aurora Borealis.  Anything and everything else would be a bonus.  This amazing night-time spectacle has been on my bucket list since before bucket lists were invented.  I’d seen photos of the Aurora Borealis somewhere along my life’s journey and I may have possibly seen a documentary about them, narrated by David Attenborough (who else?) at some point over the years.

Just those words the “Aurora Borealis” still puts butterflies in my tummy with excitement and anticipation.  For many years I couldn’t even get my tongue around the words Aurora Borealis, let alone try to spell it.  Thank goodness it was also known as The Northern Lights, which is much easier to say.  Whenever someone mentioned the words Aurora Borealis I was suitably impressed, thinking they must be highly educated to be able to pronounce such complicated words. And if they could spell them, well, I was uber impressed.  Here’s a little help for your pronunciation practice, should you need it. Aurora (Ah – Raw – Ah) and Borealis (Bore Ree Alice).  Easy eh???

So, is it possible to see the northern lights in September in Norway?

The short answer is “not usually”.

In fact, an Australian lady I recently met on our travels in Finland scoffed at me when I mentioned we were on our way to Norway to see the lights.  She informed me that she and her husband flew to Norway in February (the height of the Aurora season) on a guaranteed Northern Lights tour.  They stayed there for two weeks, braved the snow and below freezing conditions, and ventured out every night on guided tours.  Did she see the elusive lights?  No, no, NO!

Eek, perhaps I’ve over-estimated my expectations to see these elusive creatures in the off-season!

However, we somehow tend to have the luck of the Irish when it comes to these things, and other weather-related matters.

Alan, my husband, found a free app called ‘My Aurora Forecast’, which provides excellent information on the probability of seeing an Aurora, based on a particular location.  The most important factor is something called Kp.

So what is a Kp I hear you ask?

Turning to Google (because I’m not a scientist) for the official answer, here’s what I found.

“The Kp number is a system of measuring aurora strength.  It goes from 0 to 9 (0 being very weak, 9 being a major geomagnetic storm with strong auroras visible).

So when looking at the aurora forecast we want to see high numbers, and the higher the better.  Anything above (and including) Kp5 is classed as a geomagnetic storm.

Coming from the German words “Planetarische Kennziffer”, Kp is better known in English as the planetary index.” 

I hope that bit of insight helps.

Arriving into Norway

The date is Monday 17th September 2018 and we have just driven in dark gloomy conditions from northern Finland, to reach Norway.  You can imagine our delight to be bathed in sunshine as we poke our nose into Norway.  It felt like we’d just shed not only northern Finland’s cold winter coat but had also left the rain and an overcast day in our wake.  The autumn colours are once again stunning; the sun is shining on the still waters of the lakes, which reflect the fluffy clouds from the skies above. There is a small stirring deep inside of us that we might have some good days ahead.

 

The Still Water Reflects Fluffy Clouds

Stunning Autumn Colours In Norway

We check the Aurora app and are delighted to see the Kp is showing 4 for tonight!  Wow, 4! that’s awesome.  Not only that but the forecast cloud cover tonight is minimal.  Finding a prime location is the next agenda item.

We head into the township of Tromsø where I spied a ‘Light Tour’ shop and called in to glean some information.  Their Aurora hunting tours cost $1800 NOK per person including dinner cooked on an open fire and hot drinks.  So we decide to keep the €189 x 2 to ourselves and ask for advice on the best places to see the lights.  Knowing it was a bit cheeky we were surprised that the lovely lady happily showed us, on her enlarged wall map, exactly where she rates the best light viewing place around Tromsø.  It’s about a 45-minute drive away and includes, on the way, the perfect stop to watch the autumn sunset.

So we’re off to watch the sunset first and then to find the lights (hopefully).

 

A Rare Perfect Norwegian Sunset

The sunset spot was near Ersfjordbotn (GPS coordinates for those wanting to follow are 69.6966, 18.6327).  We found the perfect elevated rock with a view directly between the two headlands running down to the sea.  Between the tips of the headlands was a small stretch of water and the sun was already sliding down towards the awaiting horizon.  A lovely Dutch couple, who have made Norway their home, already occupied our chosen rock however they were happy to share.  They informed us that the sun setting on the water exactly in between the two headlands only happens two or three days per year!  Then factor in that those days need to coincide with fine weather and you realise to actually see this happen is a fairly rare occurrence.

Well, someone is looking down on us and smiling because we shared this perfect sunset experience with our new Dutch friends.

A Rare Sight of The Sun Setting Between The Headlands

Next we were off to find our vantage point for the lights, which our app was now indicating are likely to be showing tonight, yay.  Our Dutch friends tell us that they have only seen the lights once so far this season and they too are off to watch them with their friends.

 

The Elusive Aurora Borealis

We pulled into the parking area at Grøtfjord (69.7745, 18.5270), some 18 minutes, or 15.4 kilometres of narrow, lumpy, bumpy, windy roads later.  Arriving unscathed, despite having to reverse to allow a truck to pass us at one point, we parked up and cooked dinner while waiting.

We didn’t have to wait long.  Dinner wasn’t even finished being scoffed when Alan poked his head out of the motorhome and…

Guess what…

“THEY’RE HERE!!!!  RUTH, COME OUT AND SEE, THE LIGHTS ARE HERE!”

YES, to all those non-believers, WE SAW THE AURORA BOREALIS IN SEPTEMBER IN NORWAY! WOOHOO!

My heart jumps into my throat and I hold back tears of joy.  I can’t believe I am here, in Norway, seeing the most amazing scene right before my very eyes.  I’ve waited my whole life for this moment and I watch stunned in awe.  If I was to think back as a child, seeing the Aurora Borealis in Norway – well, words just don’t even start to convey what I’m feeling at this point in time.

To my delight the lights danced mystically around the sky for hours, swaying backwards and forwards, changing colour from light green to darker green, one moment they are streaking upwards, the next they are moving horizontally and low across the sky.  They would fade, then strengthen and swirl around once again.  It was difficult to stop watching in case something spectacular was about to show itself, and it never disappointed.  The night sky was alive and here we are in Norway watching, transfixed by this phenomenon.

Alan had his camera and tripod out immediately and through trial and error found the right settings to get some great shots of the action going on upstairs.  My iPhone could not even start to compete with a good quality camera in capturing Mother Nature at her best.

We continued to stand outside, in the cold 2-degree temperatures, all rugged up, our eyes peeled skyward and mesmerised for hours by this exhibition.  The cold seemed to be secondary to our excitement until we suddenly realise we can’t feel our toes anymore.

Upon reading this, it may seem quite normal that someone can just turn up in Norway and see the lights.  However, there are three things that must coincide for a good viewing experience.  The first is a reasonably high Kp number, preferably 4 or above (the further you are from the poles, the higher the Kp needs to be), the second is a clear night with minimal clouds, and thirdly, darkness, which means sometime around the winter months and away from light pollution as well as late in the evening.  Tonight we were in luck and it was probably a one in a hundred coincidence that it happened for us.  Oh and did I tell you, it’s September!  Lol.

The Aurora Borealis ARE Here, In Norway, In September!

Us Enjoying The Light Show, Check Out The Shooting Star To The Top Left

Even Betsy, Our Motorhome, Gets To Enjoy The Auroras

Click on these to enlarge the photos

Aurora in Finland

Not to rub it in or anything, but we were actually treated to a short sneak preview three nights earlier (Friday 14th September) in Finland!  We couldn’t believe our luck then either.

It was 11.30pm and we were tucked up nice and warm in bed when Alan announces the Aurora app suggested a 33% chance of seeing the Aurora NOW with a Kp score of 4.  Sceptical and not understanding what a Kp of 4 really meant back then, we climbed out of bed, clad ourselves in multiple warm layers of clothing and braved the low single digit temperatures outside.  We looked skyward and couldn’t believe what was right in front of our eyes, the Aurora Borealis, here now, in bright green colours, bopping across the entire sky for our viewing pleasure.  Wow, wow, wow was all that come out of my mouth.

Mesmerised by the beauty of Mother Nature I was leaping out of my skin with joy.  The butterflies in my tummy had taken flight and I was jumping around with them.  This was real, this was the actual Aurora Borealis and I am here, in the flesh watching this show.  I needed to pinch myself.  Being here, watching the magic unfold before my very eyes is everything and more than I expected and hoped for.  This experience heightens every sensory element of ones being.  You feel your feet firmly planted on the soil of this safe and inviting foreign country and feel privileged to be here, you look skyward while Mother Nature is inviting you to her most rehearsed show on earth, your body tingles with joy and you hope with every fibre of your being that it lasts and lasts while you drink in her glory.  It is one of those things that you must just experience in person yourself.  Oh, how fortunate am I?

What’s more is I am in Rovaniemi, Finland, watching this for the first time.  We hadn’t even reached Norway and I had no expectation of seeing the Auroras on this particular evening, but here they were, the Auroras eager to show off and eager to be seen by us.  WHAT A TREAT!

The display of dancing lights however only lasted for a few minutes before fading away.  Half an hour later a second fainter aurora appeared, which showed up well on the camera but was less obvious to the naked eye.

Therefore we were very thankful for the longer display of stunning lights as showed to us in Norway, in September.  Plus thankful that Alan had time to experiment with his camera settings.

Aurora in Finland

Aurora in Finland Taken on iPhone (not recommended)

In Summary

So, when can you see the Aurora Borealis in Norway?  Well, the official word, according to me, is that the Aurora Borealis CAN, in fact, be seen in September and not only in Norway.  Finland can also provide a lovely display.

However, if you want the best chance to see this magical show the main season to view the Aurora Borealis in Norway is from October to March.

So don’t wait any longer, elevate the Aurora Borealis on your bucket list, and make it a priority to book your trip up here to experience this sensational spectacular for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.