by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bill Chalmers, the “ringmaster” of the Global Scavenger Hunt, launches us our biggest, most ambitious and difficult leg of the trip, a par 6,in which our challenge is to get from Marrakech through four countries – Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal with scavenges in each to win points – in five days, meeting at 11:30 am in Porto, Portugal, when we will fly out to New York, our final destination of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour, and the final and decisive leg of the competition to be crowned “World’s Best Traveler”.
We have arrived at the Savoy Le Grand (a massive resort-style hotel with multiple pools, sandwiched between a major modern mall and a casino, about half-mile from the gate to the Old City) at midnight local time, about 2 am for us having come from Athens. Bill recognizes the need for a break so essentially gives us the morning off, so we can meet at 11:30 in the lobby to launch us on the challenge he has termed “our final exam.”
Bill allows certain rule changes for this part of the competition: the four teams that are in contention can team up in one country, can rent a car but only once and only in one country, can use cell phones and GPS but they are still not allowed to fly between points. There are loads of “bonus” opportunities and “experiences” among the 100 or so scavenges – there are extra points for booking an AirBnB accommodation and for booking a hotel on one of the nights for $50 or less (we have a $200 allowance per team for the three nights we have to book for ourselves).
I am not competing so have the advantage of being able to get advice from the concierge, use hotels.com. It takes from noon to about 5:30 pm to work out an outline of how we will cover the distance – set up the first train ticket from Marrakech to Fes, book hotels in Fes and Gibraltar. Margo, my teammate, decides to spend an extra day in Porto, Portugal, but I set my sights on Seville, and organize a hotel there, so we will travel together from Marrakech to Fes to Gibraltar and then travel independently until Porto.
There are some 131 scavenges in this leg (a challenge is to figure which ones to do for points and logistics), including mandatories like #51 (Within the bowels of Fes el-Bali, visit the Baab Bou Jeloud gate; the gates of Karaouine Mosque, explain the door for sacrifices, learn something about University of Al-Karaouline; ; either/or enjoy a beverage in the Jardins de la Marche Verte or atop Nejarine Museum and explain Nejarine Square; obtain from within the market a stylish zellj; locate the Chouwara Tannery for a rooftop photo (what are some of the materials used in the process you see, explain); Locate six of the over 800 registered crafts in Fes el-Bali; Visit the Dar ai-Magana, explain; In the courtyard of Fondouk Kaat Smen, there are three purveyors – sample four types of Nafis Hicham’s products. This is worth 400 points.
Also mandatory, #63: Enter Gibraltar and obtain either a passport stamp or some other 100% iron-clad proof (other than photos) that you did enter the country (300 points)
It is also mandatory to complete at least one scavenge in all four primary countries: Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal.
For a bonus: stay in hotel below 50E Tuesday (apr 30)
Bonus in Morocco: either camp out in the desert one night or stay in traditional riad
In Morocco, venture to Atlas Mountains (Day Four) to visit Berber villages, Ait Souka/Kasbah Dutoubkal, or Aghmat/Oureka.
Bonus: in Morocco visit the blue city of Chefchaouen
In Morocco visit Volubilis to see something old & Roman; visit nearby sacred village Moulay Idriss
By 5:30 pm, I am frustrated and angry not actually seeing Marrakech, and still haven’t figured out how to get from Tangier to Gibraltar or Gibraltar to Seville (answer: you have to get out of Gibraltar to the town in Spain, so I leave that for when I get to the hotel in Gibraltar), so drop everything so we go into the Old City.
We walk to the famous Koutoubia grand mosque that so dominates the city. As soon as we enter the massive square, there is a cacophony of sounds, a blur of motion. And activity – snake charmers, Berbers, musicians (who demand money for photo even if you only look at them).
Fruit stands, stalls where cooking fish, meats, kebabs, vegetables, just about everything and anything anyone would want.
Before it gets too dark, we make our way through the souks to find the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue.
We weave through – asking people who point us in a direction – a fellow leaves his stall to to lead us down narrow alleyway.
From there, we go to the Jewish cemetery which should have been closed, but the man lets us in.
Margo hails a taxi to head back, and I walk back through the markets to the square. I find a stall to have dinner – seated on a bench with others.
Next morning, we catch the 6 am train to Fes – 6 ½ hours – a beautiful ride.
We are in a first-class compartment that seats six people very comfortably. During the course of the trip, people come and go. A stop or two away from Fes, two fellows come in to the compartment and we have a pleasant conversation that ends with the one fellow saying he knows a guide for us to hire. Sure enough, by the time we get off the train, the guide has arrived.
We make our way to the Riad el Yacout (the guide has obtained a taxi as well).
The Riad (guesthouse) is absolutely enchanting – it was the home of a professor at the famous university (founded in 859 AD by a woman) in the Medina, and had remained in the family until 2000, when her father bought it and spent five years restoring it as a guesthouse (it is actually three houses that have been linked, with a pool; and there are plans to build a third floor and add a rooftop pool). The mosaics, decoration, furnishings are exquisite – all the rooms set around the most magnificent interior courtyard. (Riad is a home that inward facing, meant to maximize family interactions.)
The riad owner strongly advises hiring an approved guide from the tourism office, and a driver – we only have the afternoon and evening here to see Fez, and have been told that you absolutely need a guide to go through the Medina – the largest, with some 11,000 alleyways with no addresses.
The price seems fair and we only have the afternoon, and it proves a great way to see Fez in such a brief time.
Two other teams come after (they went on a balloon ride in Marrakech, one of the scavenes before catching the train to Fes), and hired the same guide we were introduced to by a guy on the train (turns out the second guy on the train was his son, who I spot while walking in the Medina – what are the chances? Actually it is a scam – the fellows get on the train a stop or two before Fes, find a seat in the first-class compartment and begin the grift). If you are keeping count, altogether three of our Global Scavenger Hunt teams all had either met the guide (us), used the guide or the son. And everybody was happy.
We set out with our guide, Hamid, and to hear him tell it (and this is before he makes the connection between “New York,” Jews – rendered refugees by the Spanish Inquisition which expelled them in 1492 from Spain and Portugal- were invited by the King to settle in Fes in order to develop the city, and settle the nomadic Berbers. He gave them land adjacent to the palace and promised protection – to show appreciation, the Jewish community create ornate brass doors for the palace with the Star of David surrounded by the Islamic star.
He tells us that this community continued even into World War II, when he gave Jews citizenship and protected them from the Nazis. He takes us into the Medina, starting with the Jewish Quarter, and leads me to the synagogue, which dates from the 1500s. From the roof you can see the Jewish cemetery.
During the course of the afternoon, we see weavers, embroiderers, carpet makers, the tannery (all of us follow pretty much the same itinerary). Since we have a driver, we also go to a mosaic factory.
We have a fantastic dinner at the riad – chicken tagine and chicken couscous – the food and the atmosphere cannot be beat.
Still have to get from Morocco to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto by Friday on this Par 6 leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.
Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, Lawyers Without Borders, who are the leading team, published a brilliant blog documenting how they fulfilled dozens of the scavenges: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019-from-minurets-in-morocco-to.html
Also see www.globalscavengerhunt.comhttp://www.globalscavengerhunt.com