One of the strangest public spaces I've seen in the Arab world, Place Mechouar is the showpiece of Moroccan Laayoune. Four salmon pink towers with tiles stand in the corners, connected by what are supposed to be tented walkways (a nod to Sahraoui culture?) but look more like some sort of modern airport terminal architecture. At night, the place is lit up for people to come and enjoy the space, but very few do. In fact, most of the time, the square is completely deserted. Oddly, for a grand square that has been constructed fairly recently, the middle has more than its fair share of potholes.
I quite liked the square for being bizarre and quirky. What were the towers supposed to be? Were they meant to look like spacecraft landed from Mars? And if the tented bits were supposed to provide shade, how did they manage to fail so miserably and leave every single bench in full sunlight for most of the day?
At night, the place becomes a little busier, as Laayoune's young come out to parade up and down the main street, some carrying on into the square. there's a tiny skateboarding fraternity who meet up here to show off, as well as a group of students who play drums and sing under one of the towers. Under another tower, there was always a little old man on a seat, half asleep...not sure what he was doing, but as it was very close to the Palais de Congres, I guess he was some sort of security man.
On another side, a salmon pink housing development looks quite picturesque in some lights. The other two sides are surrounded by small palm trees, hinting at other parks...indeed there are some huge parks around the square, but for some reason they are locked and forbidden to all. Looking through the gates, I saw well maintained palms and fountains, benches under shade and potential viewpoints, but all the gates were firmly padlocked. Very odd.
These two water towers just off Place Mechouar aren't exactly monuments, but they're strangely picturesque with green designs on a pink background. I'm not entirely sure if I was meant to photograph these or not, as there were a few soldiers standing guard around the bottom, but what's the point in having a good zoom if you don't use it?!
In 1975, as the Spanish pulled out of the Sahara, the Moroccan government organized a march of civilians from just over the border in the tiny village of Tah. 300,000 civilians poured into Laayoune and the surrounding area to settle and claim it for Morocco. If you take the road north of Laayoune towards Tarfaya and Tan Tan, you'll pass through Tah which is tiny but has a huge monument to the Green March, but if you can't be bothered to trek all the way out there, look out for a smaller monument across the road from Place Mechouar. It looks strangely like a bus shelter, but take a closer look, and you'll see a stone with a Saharan map carved into it, with pink pillars all around it.
wander around Souk ez-zaj, and it won't take you long to find the old Spanish cathedral. It's on a little square opposite the old town hall, which is now something to do with the police, explaining the many policemen who hang around the park on the square looking at everyone with suspicion. There's nothing to stop you sitting down and taking photos of the cathedral, just don't turn round and point your camera in the opposite direction!
The cathedral, like most Spanish buildings in laayoune, has a distinctive domed roof and is painted pink and white. I assumed it was unusued and would be left to crumble away like other Spanish relics, but in my hotel room in Dakhla, I watched a programme on the history of Laayoune which included a piece about the cathedral. The Spanish priest looks after a small congregation of Spaniards who never left, as well as a larger UN contingent, for Sunday mass, so if you wanted to have a look inside, that would be the time to go.
Most afternoons, a local football team uses a patch of flat hard sand in the Seguia as a training ground, and this is the most obvious place to head for, as there is a path across to the dunes. The football teams use the dunes in their training...running on sand is one of the hardest activities, but combining that with climbing up a hill and you have a very good exercise for strengthening legs.
If you're feeling energetic, head past the makeshift football ground and climb the dunes. It is hard work in the heat (I was there in January, and it was still hot enough to make me sweat), and don't forget to buy some water before you set off. The dunes immediately behind the football ground are great to climb, but for somewhere a bit more isolated, you can walk along the bottom of the valley alongside the lakes and climb some of the more impressive dunes you can see in the distance. The views from the top are stunning.
The tallest building in Laayoune is the minaret of the new Great Mosque, just off Place Mechouar. Not much to say about it really, as it looks just like all the other huge mosques the Moroccan government is buidling at the moment (Smara has one, as does Dakhla). In keeping with much of Laayoune, it has been painted salmon pink, which, as a colour for the city, seems to work pretty well.
On Fridays, the place is packed with people heading to midday prayers, and even though non-muslims aren't allowed to enter, the sermon is broadcast through loudspeakers, so I was able to sit the other side of Place Mechouar and hear every word perfectly. I always thought sermons in mosque were usually religious, although this one did seem to be all about how amazing the Moroccan king was. It wasn't so surprising, then, that shortly after prayers, there was a demonstration by Sahraoui men in blue robes, and the whole area was cordoned off, foreigners like me ushered in the opposite direction.
All Saharan towns have an Ensemble Artisanal, which basically means a collection of workshops where jewellery and artwork is made by local artists. In Smara, I enjoyed my trip to the ensemble artisanal, as it was with a local friend who knew a lot of people working there, so the artists were very welcoming and friendly. In Laayoune, the workshops are found in two locations, a row opposite Place Mechouar and a few more in a building behind the Great Mosque, and I think that makes it a bit disjointed. The ones by the square are more like shops, and I didn't feel particularly welcome to have a look inside the few that had bothered to open as I had no intention of buying anything. The ones behind the mosque stayed closed for the few days I was there. Might be worth investigating if you're in Laayoune on a souvenir hunt though.
The architecture is interesting though, with a dome above each shop, in typiucal Spanish-Saharan style.
The oldest part of town (don't expect anything medieval, as Laayoune was only founded in the 1930s), Souk ez Zaj is an interesting place to wander round. It is quite a poor district, and a lot of the houses are crumbling away from neglect, although the city planners have got certain roads and squares blocked off for renovation...I'm not sure if that means complete redevelopment, but I hope they are going to preserve the unique Spanish influence. Backstreets of single storey pink houses, each with a white dome on the roof to stop sand from building up on top. Occasionally you spot a sign for a Calle or a Plaza on an ornamental tile, but this sort of thing is fast being replaced.
If you're willing to clamber over rubble and rubbish, prehaps fend off a stray dog in the process, there are some fantastic views of the desert dunes and Saguiat al-Hamra, the river that is the reason for Laayoune's existence. Look carefully, and you can find a way down to the dunes, but watch your footing.
I'm told this is supposed to be the liveliest part of town, but I think the area south of Place Dchira is probably livelier after dark. Anyway, this part of town is almost like an extension of Souk ez Zaj, a few old spanish relics dotted around but mainly new apartment blocks and lots of shops, small cafes and grills. A few fruit and vegetable stalls stand in the old Spanish market building, and close by are some of the weirder Spanish leftovers...what used to be military barracks I'm told, although most have now been converted into private homes, these look like corrugated iron cylinders sliced in half and planted in the ground. I don't have any pictures, but on my Smara page there will be some very similar ones.
Laayoune is a city for walking, and it is quite a relaxed place just to wander off on your own and explore. certain areas are potentially off limits, such as the slums on the very edge and some military areas, but you're pretty much free to go wherever you want, despite the claims of a handful of kids. Be careful what you photograph though...Laayoune has a heavy military presence, and it isn't always obvious what belongs to the military and what doesn't, especially as a lot of the old Spanish army buildings are now private houses.
A good walk starts in Place Mechouar. Walk away from the mosque in the direction of the brand new stadium, and take the road heading below the stadium. Following this round takes you through a suburb of modern domed housing to a pretty square with a new mosque. Continuing downhill, you'll come across some of the strangest houses you'll ever see...they look like some sort of space station on Mars, and I've tried three times to describe them, but can't, so have a look at the photo below. Carrying on down this road will bring you back into Souk el Djemal and eventually Souk ez Zaj.
Another huge Moroccan square, this one during the week can seem a bit pointless. The size of several football fields, Place Oum Saad has a semi-covered walkway all the way round, something that actually looks quite striking from a distance. Apart from a small funfair in one corner, the rest is just sandy wasteland...or so I thought.
Heading back to Oum Saad on a Saturday afternoon to find out bus times (Supratours buses have an office on the square), it was a hive of activity, with several football games being played and lots of spectators. The spectators were mainly men, but there were several groups of Sahraoui girls in colourful malahfas giggling and flirting with boys. I'm not that into football...actually, I'll rephrase that...I hate football...but walking around the square was interesting people-watching territory!
Place Dchira is a lively square of cafes and restaurants. At night, the place is heaving with people, and is the start of the nightly parade up and down the main street. the centre of the square has been taken over by a cafe complex called Las Dunas, quite an upmarket place, but I preferred the streetside cafes with tables on the pavement as a place to watch the crowds.
South of the square, past a hotel called the Assahel, a handful of grill carts set up after dark. Keep walking, following the many cars and people, and afew blocks later, you should see a busy souk off to the left, lit up by many small lamps. By day, there's not a lot here, but at night, the number of stalls multiplies, making the roads so narrow that only one person can pass through at a time. It's mainly food and clothes for sale, but it is the liveliest part of Laayoune, nowhere near as sterile or as neglected as the other areas of town. It's your typical Moroccan souk, only one that goes on well into the night, perhaps to avoid the heat of the day.
No photos, I'm afraid. I'm not good at photographing at night, and anyway I always feel a bit awkward taking photos in markets.
It's easy to forget that Laayoune is in the desert. All the best viewpoints are hidden away in locked parks, and the few visitors who find their way to Souk ez Zaj are put off admiring the views by the piles of rubbish. A shame, as this is the city's backyard, an area well worth exploring. between the sand dunes and the city is the Laayoune's reason for existence, the Seguiat al-Hamra, a trickle of a river that has been dammed to form several small lakes. It's like a sort of oasis, with palms and other trees attracting a lot of birds.
Access can be tricky, as you have to pick your way down a slope of rubble and rubbish to the bottom of the valley, then find a way across the irrigation channels. But the effort is worth it.
The water gathers in pools at the foot of the dunes, giving the impression of a desert lake. Some pools are blue, others pink and salt encrusted. You can walk for miles around the lakes and not see a single other person.
I'm surprised the city authorities haven't done something about the rubbish. This area is quite beautiful, certainly a highlight of Laayoune, yet there is nowhere really for visitors to view the Seguia other than to stand on a heap of rubbish. One day someone will cotton on to the potential for tourism in Laayoune, and build a cafe with a view...but for now, it is a well kept secret.
Things to look out for on the dunes are the lakes in the distance, flamingoes (apparently...I didn't see any), swimming dogs, snakes (I was told by one person that these can be deadly, but several others told me there were no snakes in that area...who to trust?), military installations (be careful when up on the ridge...there is a large army camp, and while they didn't seem too bothered by my presence, I decided not to push my luck and photograph them), and little Spanish forts (probably military owned too, but they look pretty...). From the top of the ridge, you can also see dunes stretching away into the distance. People pay good money in other parts of Morocco to walk the dunes with hordes of others...here you can be alone, completely alone, yet with a city just a short walk away.
A group of kids thought it would be funny to try and scare me with tales of danger. When I asked what the danger was, they seemed confused...one said snakes (possible), the second warned of dogs (again, possible, although most dogs seemed more frightened of me when I barked back), the third said Polisario and mimed a throat being slit (highly unlikely, given all the military around, and the fact that Polisario have been pushed into the remote corners of the country well away from Laayoune). Still, maybe heading off alone into the dunes was foolish...