Date of Trip: March 2007
My boyfriend and I decided to visit Morocco in a rather haphazard way — we were trolling for our next vacation destination by browsing online image galleries, hoping to be inspired. We were open to pretty much anything, but nothing was jumping out at us. Croatia? “Pretty…” Peru? “Intriguing…” The Faroe Islands? “The who? Hmm, kinda cool, but way too remote…”
And then we clicked on some images of Morocco, and we both had the same reaction — this was it. The exotic kasbahs, medinas and desert landscapes were unlike anything we’d seen in our previous travels, so we immediately started researching.
We decided on a springtime visit to avoid the heat and crowds of the summer, and we found pretty good airfares in March (prices made a definite jump in April). We wanted to visit at least one imperial city — we picked Fes — and spend some time in the desert in the southern part of the country as well. I also really wanted to visit Chefchaouen, a town up in the Rif Mountains known for its blue doors and alleyways. (Unfortunately, we ended up cutting this town out of our itinerary at the last minute due to time constraints and a bus strike across Morocco. We went to Meknes instead.) We flew into Casablanca, hoping to visit its famous Hassan II Mosque — one of the only mosques in the country that are open to non-Muslims.
We’d never been to Africa before, or to any Third World country, or to a country where the native language was in a whole different alphabet (Arabic looked like a series of squiggles and dots to our ignorant eyes!). So we knew we were in for an eye-opening experience…
We traveled for 21 hours door to door to get from our Philadelphia apartment to the Hotel Guynemer in Casablanca. Our initial flight was delayed due to snow in Philly, and then we had a five-hour layover in Heathrow before our three-hour flight to Casablanca took off. It was pretty amazing to have the window seat on that flight — I saw the Pyrenees in Spain and then the Rif Mountains near Tangier as we made the turn toward Casablanca.
Once we landed we went through an incredibly sloooooow customs check and then took some Moroccan dirhams out of the airport ATM before meeting our driver from the hotel. He took us there for 230 dirhams (about $25) and taught us how to say “welcome” in Arabic … which I promptly forgot. Hey, I was jetlagged!
The Hotel Guynemer bills itself as a three-star property, which I’m not so sure about, but it was perfectly fine for our purposes. It cost about $64 a night (booked by emailing the hotel directly), including breakfast, hot water and free Internet access in the lobby. The room had matching duvets and curtains that looked rather historic (and not in the good way), and there was quite a bit of noise from the street below; the hotel is located right downtown in an area that supposedly isn’t the safest at night. (We stayed in, so it wasn’t an issue.)
We slept okay until I was awakened in the middle of the night to the sounds of a loud verbal altercation going on down below. I couldn’t understand a word, of course, but one man was growing increasingly belligerent, shouting back and forth with what sounded like several other men until he finally roared off on a motorbike. That nuisance aside, the hotel was fine, and the breakfast the next day (croissants, baguettes, yogurt, hardboiled eggs, tea and coffee) was okay too.
After breakfast we headed out to see a bit of Casablanca. In an incredibly boneheaded move, we had scheduled ourselves here on a Friday, which is the one day of the week that the Hassan II Mosque is closed. (We discovered this with great chagrin as we were studying the guidebook on the plane ride over.) This was a big deal because Casablanca is quite a large, modern city and doesn’t have very many “sights” — so we weren’t quite sure how we were going to fill our day.
On a tip from a fellow guest at breakfast, we started by walking toward the cathedral (that’s something we weren’t expecting to see in Morocco!), where we could apparently climb into the tower and get a nice view over the city. Before we got there, though, we ran into a nice little park near the post office and decided to just chill out and people-watch for a while. It was about 9 a.m. and the weather was perfect: upper 60’s, sunny and breezy. We noticed a lot of locals in jackets and sweaters, reminding us that this weather is still kind of wintry to them. In fact, there was quite a wide variety of clothing — there were women in traditional robes and head scarves, but also some with modern dresses/pants and uncovered hair. The men wore everything from jeans or business suits to traditional robes and fes hats. Clearly the European influence has been strong here, in Morocco’s largest and most modern city.
We left our comfy bench after a bit and snapped a few photos of the nearby Ancienne Prefecture and the Palais du Justice, two imposing buildings on Place Mohammed V. The former has some lovely mosaics on the facade while the other boasts a tall clock tower. We weren’t the only tourists there; my SO and I shared a laugh over a group of Japanese tourists who were getting their picture taken with several men in bizarre red outfits and pompom hats — water sellers, according to our guidebook. We passed on the photo, knowing we’d have to pay the water sellers for it.
We finally made our way to the cathedral, which was completely empty inside; we wondered whether it had ever been used. Sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows, leaving colorful, shimmering reflections on the bare floor. To get the promised panoramic view, we headed for the steps leading up to the bell tower. The staircase got increasingly narrow as we ascended, and we had to step around huge clumps of feathers and dung from the pigeons that live here.
Incredibly (at least to my American eyes), at one point you could actually walk out onto the cathedral’s roof and look out — with no railing! I could only imagine how lawyers in America would react to that. A little higher, we came to a landing in the staircase where there was an open hole right in the middle of the floor, leading down hundreds of feet to the very bottom of the staircase. There were a couple of beams of wood surrounding the hole, but they didn’t serve as any kind of barrier — seemed like a lawsuit waiting to happen! But I guess that’s not how things work here…
At the very top of the tower we got a great panoramic view of the city. We could see the Hassan II Mosque in the distance, as well as wide boulevards lined with palm trees closer in. Nearly every building was white and modern and topped with a satellite dish.
We headed back down and set out for the Hassan II mosque, hoping to at least take pictures from the outside even if we couldn’t get in. On our way we stumbled upon a really neat street market, offering bananas, enormous oranges, tomatoes, apples, fresh meat, eggs, spices, live chickens, etc. Definitely fun to browse.
We did eventually find the mosque, which was breathtaking — huge and clean and brilliantly decorated with exquisite blue and green mosaics. Perched on the edge of the Atlantic, it was built in 1993 at the behest of King Hassan II, paid for by an involuntary tax on every Moroccan citizen — even those who were too poor or who lived too far away to ever visit this enormous monument. Our guidebook told us that a crowded slum was razed to make space for the mosque and that the residents were turned out without compensation, a fact that tempered my admiration of the place just a bit.
Hunger was calling, so we went to a French seafood restaurant called Taverne du Dauphin, about a 15-minute walk away. The menu was in French, which we don’t speak, so we squeaked by. I got an omelet with ham and cheese, and a side of cauliflower; SO got some sort of fish in a cream sauce. Delicious! It cost about $30, including the tip, for our meals plus sorbet for dessert, a large bottle of water and a beer for SO.
After lunch we had somewhat grand plans to explore Casablanca’s medina and check out a few mosques there, but the streets we chose once we got into the medina actually led us right back out again about 15 minutes later. Hmmm. The medina honestly wasn’t all that exciting except in its very ordinariness — locals going about their day, a group of old men playing some sort of game I couldn’t see, women sharing a communal plate of fruit.
We didn’t have much time left in the afternoon, so we headed back to the park where we’d sat that morning to relax a bit and enjoy the nice weather. We were sitting comfortably for no more than five minutes before a local approached us and started asking us in English how we liked Morocco, where we were going next, where we were from, etc. He seemed friendly enough and didn’t immediately ask for anything, so I was almost starting to think he was just being hospitable to the nice foreigners when suddenly the sob stories came out. His daughter died in Spain, his wife died somewhere else, blah blah blah, and eventually he wanted us to give him the equivalent of $2 for … gas? I have no idea. We gave him about $1 just to make him go away and then walked off as quickly as we could. He was just the first of many Moroccans to approach us that way during our trip. We quickly got better about spotting them and not being taken advantage of as we were this time!
We went back to Hotel Guynemer to pick up our bags and catch a cab to the airport for our Royal Air Maroc flight to Errachidia, a town in the southeastern part of Morocco. This was my first prop plane experience — fun! There was a big, rowdy group of about 10 Spanish tourists on the plane with us, and they applauded when our captain successfully landed the aircraft.
Errachidia, Erg Chebbi and the Desert
We hadn’t booked a hotel ahead of time in Errachidia, but fortunately there was plenty of room at the Kenzi Rissani, just five minutes by cab from the airport. This was one of the nicest (read: most expensive) hotels in town, supposedly, though to be honest the rooms weren’t anything special and it took ages to get anything but tepid water in the shower. The rate was about $90 a night with breakfast, which is ridiculously pricey for this part of Morocco. In retrospect I wish we’d chosen somewhere else to save a few bucks, but this place was certainly clean and nice enough, and the English-speaking man at the front desk was incredibly helpful and patient with our many questions. It was through him that we arranged to hire a driver/guide and 4×4 vehicle to take us around for the next two days.
Our guide, Youssef (sp?), picked us up in a clean, well-maintained Toyota Prado — with seatbelts, no less! — and began driving west toward Todra Gorge. This was my first time in a desert, and I found it beautiful in a very barren sort of way. The ground was nothing but sagebrush and rocky reddish sand, with a backdrop of mountains in brown and rose and green. As we approached the various villages, the landscape got lusher, with palm trees and the occasional pockets of greenery, thanks to whatever wells or water systems the locals had in place.
As we drove, Youssef pointed out a number of Berber nomads tending their herds of sheep and goats, grazing on the sagebrush. It looked like an incredibly lonely life to me.
We broke up our long trip to the gorge with a stop at an amazing little museum of Berber culture (I’m not sure of the name). It included samples of Berber dress and jewelry, pottery and tools, weapons, calligraphy, etc. We also saw samples of the kinds of wells the locals use to get water in the desert. It was a really neat place, with the various indoor exhibits surrounding an open courtyard with several nomadic tents and a pen with sheep. The owner was friendly and enthusiastic, capably switching between French for the two other tourists visiting and English for me and SO. He was also a calligrapher, and we bought a small piece of his featuring the words of Kahlil Gibran (written in Arabic): “The earth is my country; humanity is my family.”
Back on the road to the Todra Gorge, we passed through increasingly dramatic scenery as we approached the town of Tinerhir, located in a huge valley blanketed with palm trees and flanked by high rocky cliffs. We wound up behind a tour bus right before we got to the gorge, which was a pretty good indicator of what we’d find there. Sure enough, Youssef dropped us off at the same time as a few big tour buses spewed out a flock of older European tourists sporting cameras and knee-high socks. Oy. The gorge itself was incredible, the cliffs stretching upward on both sides to an almost dizzying height, but the tourist hordes and the hotels right at the base took away from the experience a bit.
We’d hoped to do a 30-minute hike mentioned in our guidebook, but Youssef told us we didn’t have time with everything else we wanted to do that day, so it was back into the car for us. I was a little bummed — we basically drove a long way to stand at the bottom of a gorge for 10 minutes. It was a nice gorge, but … ah well.
It was a fairly sleepy drive back along the same roads to a little town called Tinejdad, where we stopped at a teeny roadside joint for lunch. SO and I shared a big bottle of water, lamb kebabs, a basket of bread, an enormous orange and a plate of fries for about $10. We ate out on the front porch, watching the very small town go by. Bicycle seemed to be the preferred mode of travel, although there were also cars, motorscooters and even donkeys. A bunch of kids played games on a dusty side street, while a tiny older lady hunched by under an enormous burden of some sort of grass/straw — it looked as big as she was. (Now she could’ve used a donkey!)
Back on the road, we made our way toward Erfoud, where we were going to visit a fossil “museum” (I figured “shop” was probably more accurate). SO is a geologist, and he was really excited to see the various fossils to be found in this part of the world. But first we were waylaid by a rather odd detour.
“Do you see the constructions?” Youssef asked us, pointing toward some mountains in the distance. We squinted obediently, not sure what we were looking for. “You see?”
I finally acknowledged that maybe I saw some brown, desert-y buildings way off in the distance. Youssef began talking about a place to “see stars” and a place shaped like a goniatite (one of the fossils found in abundance here). We were all, “okay, okay,” which we said a lot throughout our tour to indicate that we understood whatever he was telling us. Then he said we could go see the constructions, it would only be a half-hour detour, etc. We still didn’t get it, but figured he’d only take us there if it were worth it in some way.
So off we went — off-road, that is. I felt like I was in a truck commercial, where the vehicle is flexing its muscles on the kind of mountainous off-road course that most American vehicles never actually experience. We were bounced around like rag dolls and tilted at various scary angles as we careened up and down the dunes. I was gritting my teeth to prevent them from flying out of my head (and to ward off motion sickness) until we reached flatter, rockier ground and approached the buildings we were seeking.
The goniatite-shaped thing was a dark building that apparently “spiraled around and around until water,” according to Youssef. So … it was some sort of well? The other thing was a cluster of buildings that could have been … a planetarium? We never did figure it out. We did spot a big group of camels, including some babies, on the way back to the main road, but otherwise? Not the best use of 30 minutes. Oh well.
We pressed onward, taking note of quite a few dirt devils kicking up around the desert. (Youssef charmingly called them “tor-nye-does.”) As we approached Erfoud, we began to see a few women on the roads in full black veils, with only their eyes peeking out. I found it chilling — I hadn’t even realized that we hadn’t seen it yet, but everywhere else we’d been, the women had only had their hair covered (if anything). I’ve heard that many Muslim women feel safer behind the veil, but I still found it jarring to see. Youssef pointed out that this was part of Arabic culture and was not a custom among the local Berber women.
In Erfoud, we stopped at the fossil museum, which sure enough was actually a shop — Fossiles et Ceramiques du Sahara — but what a shop! Even I was impressed by the fossils there, which ranged from itty-bitty unpolished clymenids like the ones SO has at home to huge thick tabletops made of slabs of limestone teeming with fossils.
Then it was off to see the real thing in a nearby quarry. There were so many fossils there that even my untrained eyes could spot them. SO was the proverbial kid in the candy store, grabbing up a ton of rocks in the 10 – 15 minutes we had there. (No wonder our bags were so heavy on the way home!) I had a nice time too, just sitting there peacefully staring out at the desert. In the distance I could see the rosy dunes of Erg Chebbi, where we’d be spending the night, and the dark mountains beyond that marked the border with Algeria. I had the same feeling of quiet peace that I often do sitting on the beach in the evening looking out at the ocean — the desert has the same sort of power and beauty.
All too soon we were back on the road again, this time on a piste road to the town of Hassi Labied, where we found our hotel, the Kasbah Tombouctou. Along the way we had a constant view of the dunes, which were magnificently rose-red in the setting sun. We had enough daylight after check-in to walk up some of the lower dunes and catch the end of sunrise, which was amazing. We had to pass by the camels parked out back of the hotel first though — which meant that we picked up two camel wranglers who started following us up the dunes. SO was pretty good about giving them a consistent “No,” but they continued to follow us silently for a few minutes — to the point where I thought I’d be sharing a romantic sunset with both SO and the two camel wranglers. We finally lost them when we walked past two other poor tourists who were trying to enjoy their own little patch of dune; the camel guys stopped to harass them while we walked quickly to the top of another dune. We enjoyed about 20 minutes of peace and quiet as the sun slowly set.
We headed back to our room to chill a bit before dinner. Kasbah Tombouctou was essentially a desert resort — not the kind of place we’d necessarily have chosen for ourselves (about $105 a night with breakfast and dinner) but pretty cool nonetheless.
It was built in kasbah style right on the edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes, and our room was right out of Arabian Nights — with a sweeping blue canopy over the beds, faux-adobe walls, a tombstone-shaped window and brightly colored duvets. In a nod to our location, the sink basin was a limestone slab with fossils embedded in it. The rooms were arranged around an open courtyard that included a nice covered patio.
Dinner, which started around 7:30 or 8:00, was a lavish buffet affair. There was a whole table of hot dishes like tajine (a meat/vegetable stew that’s a staple of the Moroccan diet), chicken, beef, spicy meatballs and various root vegetables. The other table had fabulous-looking salads and raw vegetables, which we both really wanted but reluctantly decided to skip. (To avoid the infamous traveler’s tummy, we generally only ate cooked foods or fruits that we could peel — and though I hated feeling like every meal was a ticking time bomb, we actually went the whole week without getting sick at all!)
The next morning we got up bright and very early to catch sunrise over the dunes. We crept gingerly past the area where all the camels were tied, fully expecting to be accosted and roped into a camel tour. But no one was stirring, so we gratefully headed up to one of the lower dunes not far from the hotel. It was about then that the sun crested over the high dunes in front of us; several groups of tourists had clearly arisen earlier than we did and were standing atop the highest dunes, forming black silhouettes against the sunlight.
We didn’t have time to get all the way up there, but we did make it to the top of another, fairly tall dune and just hung out for a while, enjoying the breeze and the incredible view. The dunes were worn so smooth by the wind in many places that they reminded me of the curves of a woman’s body. In other places they were furrowed or folded, the low angle of light creating long shadows. The colors were amazing too, ranging from tawny to orange-rose. Breathtaking.
We had to meet Youssef at 9 a.m., so we headed back to the hotel for breakfast around 7:30 or so. It was another buffet, and on the menu this time were carbs, carbs and more carbs: various types of bread and sweets, oranges, bananas, etc. There were also some meat, cheese and hardboiled eggs.
We checked out and headed off with Youssef, who drove us through his hometown of Merzouga, a small, somewhat rundown-looking village that apparently was flooded (!) about a year or two ago — you could see water marks about 6 – 12 inches up the sides of the houses. There was a friendly feeling as we drove through the town, with Youssef greeting many locals through his rolled-down window and children waving to us from the side of the road. It’s obviously a pretty poor town, though, and much of its livelihood seems to revolve around the tourists that come here to see the dunes. A little outside of town we saw folks riding on donkeys with big jugs; they were going to fill up on water from the local wells.
The best part of the day (for me) was our first stop at the village of Khamlia, where we were welcomed into a small home and given a private musical performance by a group of six men from Mali. They were dressed all in white and played drums, castanets and a squarish guitar-looking instrument. Their singing was the kind of repetitive chanting that’s almost hypnotizing. We were front and center, sitting on mats on the floor and sipping the delicious, sweet mint tea that’s a staple in Morocco. The men did some formal choreographed dancing (moving up and back, turning, bending, all while clicking the castanets and singing) and then came forward during the final song and offered their hands to me and SO. We were both a little self-conscious, but it was a real thrill to get to dance with them a little. Afterward we bought a CD/DVD of their music, which pretty much covered the price of admission. It was definitely worth it — even though I know it’s show staged for tourists, I felt like I got at least a little insight to some local life; plus, we got a private concert!
After that we drove over to a mineral quarry where SO got to look for more rocks. The quarry had a huge fault line cutting through the hill that had been pretty much mined dry by the locals, and then left as a deep gash in the earth — another liability nightmare!
On our way out of the quarry, surprise! Youssef had a “friend” giving away minerals and serving mint tea (for a small tip, of course). We had absolutely no change in dirhams, so we ended up giving him a couple of American dollars. He seemed pleased to see us and eager to share a quick up of tea with us and our driver — and SO got a few good samples of lead/galena out of the deal.
The off-roading started up again on the other side of the dunes, and I got a little white-knuckled. The scenery was cool — reddish dunes on the left, distant purple mountains on the right, with camels and nomadic tents in between — so I tried to focus on that rather than the up/down/up/down. At one point I got a little relief when our Toyota stalled out at the top of a big dune. Oops! The right rear wheel was entirely off the ground, and the front wheels mired in the sand. It took some pushing on our part and some digging on Youssef’s before we got going again. We were delayed no longer than 10 minutes or so, but Youssef seemed quite apologetic, and ended up giving us a slightly longer tour that day to make up for it.
Our next stop was Lake Yasmina, a shallow basin of water right at the base of the dunes. Apparently this is a seasonal lake that only appears in the spring. The dunes were reflected in the water, and birds chirped and circled the area above our heads. Youssef wrote our names in Arabic on the sand and then drew an arrow under them to signify reproduction. Under the arrow was the number 8. When I expressed alarm at the very thought of having eight children, he added a 1 to make 18 — even worse!
Once we’d snapped a picture of this prolific horoscope, we drove onward to another fossil quarry, much to SO’s delight. We had about 45 minutes here, and SO was thrilled to be able to break out his rock hammer and pound away.
Ten tons of rock later, we were off to Erfoud, our last stop. We ate lunch at the Hotel Xaluca, another resort-y place that’s actually owned by the same folks as the Tombouctou one we’d stayed at the night before. We ate on the pool deck (!); I had an omelet with cheese (snooze), while SO had kalia, a local tajine with some sort of meat, onions, tomatoes, egg and various spices. I couldn’t resist trying his, and it was awesome! Those dishes plus a big bottle of water only came to about $11, which impressed me because this was clearly a pretty high-end resort for Morocco. (There’s something obscene about a swimming pool in the middle of the desert.)
We had wanted to take a bus from Erfoud back to Errachidia, but the buses were on strike so we ended up in a grand taxi instead. It was about $25 for an hour-long ride — kind of pricey for here, but there was high demand with the buses on strike so we didn’t have much choice. The ride back was pretty; we passed through the Ziz Valley, blanketed with palms, and could see mountains in the distance. As we drove we passed quite a few games of pickup soccer in makeshift fields along the road, as well as women washing clothes in rivers, and men tending their goats on the barren hillsides.
The taxi dropped us off back at the Kenzi Rissani, where we grabbed a quick dinner and then went to bed early in preparation for our flight back to Casablanca and our onward journey to Fes. But that’s another trip report…so stay tuned for part two!
After an uneventful flight from Errachidia to Casablanca with the same ebullient group of Spaniards we’d met on the flight down, we grabbed breakfast at the Casablanca airport and caught the train to the Casa Voyageurs station, where we would transfer to Fes. We found quite a crowd — apparently the buses up here were on strike too. An English-speaking tour guide came up to us and advised us that we’d be much likelier to get a seat if we upgraded our second-class tickets to first class. We were naturally a little skeptical — what does this guy get out of this? we had to wonder — but we figured we’d just see how much the upgrade would cost since there were an awful lot of people around. He and SO went into the station to see what could be done while I waited out on the platform with our bags.
I waited by myself for about 15 minutes, during which I progressed from sanguine (“what a pretty day!”) to suspicious (“this guy must be trying to rip us off!”) to paranoid (“where the heck is SO? What if they kidnap him?” — this last in a voice eerily reminiscent of SO’s mother). They did come back, of course, saying that we’d have to upgrade on the train. Long story short, we went straight to the first-class cabin and were able to buy the upgrade from the conductor — and the tour guide walked away before we’d even tipped him, so I guess he didn’t get anything out of it after all.
We arrived four and a half hours later in a busy Fes train station, where we were immediately greeted with numerous offers of taxis and tours. One guy found us a petit taxi and told us he’d walk us to our hotel, Dar Seffarine, which was just inside one of the gates of the medina. We knew how difficult it would be to navigate within the medina (the original walled city, consisting of several thousand twisting streets and alleys), so we figured it wouldn’t hurt to have someone help us find our way.
However, our would-be guide actually seemed to sprint more than walk — we could barely keep up, laden down as we were with our bags. We learned later that Fes has been cracking down on so-called “faux” guides, or non-licensed guides, over the past few years. If this guy were caught leading us around, he could go to jail for three months. So he was trying to stay far enough ahead of us that it wouldn’t look like he was actually leading us. We passed through only the briefest bit of the medina before the guide turned down a rather dark alley and left us at the nondescript door of the hotel.
Inside we discovered an exquisite little riad, or restored palace home, with a truly breathtaking central courtyard — every inch was tiled or carved or painted. All the rooms had doors or windows opening onto this courtyard and were furnished with handcrafted wooden beds/chairs/desks, heavy wood doors with traditional metal bolts, and intricately detailed metal lanterns. There are no locks on the doors, just the sliding bolts, and with everything opening onto the courtyard we really felt like we were in someone’s home (or palace, really) rather than a hotel.
We dropped off our stuff and took a cab to the Dar Batha Museum, which our guidebook indicated would be open. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case — so instead we decided to get an early dinner at Le Kasbah, right near the Bab El-Jeloud gate of the medina. Talk about a tourist trap — everyone in there had a medina map, the same Lonely Planet guidebook we had, or both — but the food was good and cheap. SO had a beef tajine, while I had couscous with chicken and vegetables. Delicious, and only about $13 for both of us including a shared bottle of water and the tip.
We wandered our way back toward our guesthouse through the narrow streets of the medina. It was an overwhelming feast for the senses; my eyes were actually tired at the end of the night from trying to take it all in. In the souqs were wares and handicrafts of all kinds — pottery, metalwork, leather handbags and belts, a dizzying array of shoes and slippers, cell phones, spices, pastries, candy, mirrors, ancient-looking televisions … you name it. Interesting smells wafted from the food stalls and side streets, and traffic streamed in both directions — women in headscarves, men in jeans, camera-toting tourists, stray cats, and sad-eyed donkeys laden down with soda cases. A couple of mosques had their doors cracked open, allowing us brief, tantalizing glimpses of the mosaics inside.
We had every intention of sticking to the main byways and going straight back to the guesthouse, but we inadvertently made a left instead of a right and ended up winding along an unexpected side street. I got a little concerned after a bit because night was falling fast, but we did eventually find the right path to the Seffarine square, just a minute’s walk from our guesthouse.
Back at Dar Seffarine, we headed up to the rooftop terrace to watch evening fall over the ancient roofs and minarets of the medina. While we were there, we heard the evening call to prayer echo over the rooftops from mosques around the city — one of the most eerily beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. Just then, sitting on top of the world in one of the earth’s oldest cities, I had one of those moments where you really realize why you go through all the hassles and expenses of travel. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be there.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of roosters crowing and cats squalling. We were early for communal breakfast, so we went back to the rooftop terrace to enjoy the morning sunshine and watch the city wake up. Then we had a nice breakfast with the riad’s other guests — who hailed from Britain, Australia, Libya and Sri Lanka. Made for some interesting discussion! The meal was good too — breads, fried eggs, orange slices with cinnamon, and a tomato/pepper dish.
After breakfast SO and I joined three other guests for a full-day tour of the medina with Hassan, a guide we hired through our guesthouse. Only a few minutes into the tour I lost track of where we were; we never would have found half the sights we did without Hassan, so I was glad we’d made the decision to do the tour. We started with a quick peek into the Kairaouine Mosque/University, which is one of the biggest universities in the Arab world (second only to one in Cairo, I believe). As non-Muslims we could only see the courtyard and a bit of the enormous library, but again there were lovely mosaics (in blue, the imperial color of Fes, and green, the color of Islam).
We also visited the Medersa Sahrij, which was once a theological school. The medersa was set up a bit like the inner courtyard of our guesthouse — and indeed, it seemed that this design was a staple of architecture within the medina. This courtyard had a rectangular pool in the center and a very small mosque toward the back (so that students could pray without having to leave the school). Throughout the courtyard were the magnificent mosaics and cedar woodwork that we’d see over and over again during our day in Fes. We were also able to climb to the second level and take a peek into the tiny rooms (cells, really) where the students once lived.
Several twisty, turny lanes later and we were at the Nejjarine Museum, which offered wooden handicrafts and tools, including some ornately decorated doors and chests. It also had a lovely central courtyard, which Hassan explained was a converted “funduq” — a place where caravans once stopped to rest for the night. The travelers would trade their goods on the lower level and then take a room on the second or third floor overlooking the courtyard. We realized then that this was what our riad was modeled after — cool! Besides the museum, we saw several other old funduqs around the medina, many of them looking rather dilapidated; clearly, there isn’t money available to restore them all.
Other stops along the tour included a quick peek inside Zawiya Moulay Idriss II, a mosque and mausoleum where Moulay Idriss II (a major figure in Moroccan history) is buried. As usual, we could glance inside the mausoleum but not enter; ditto for the mosque next door, where we saw one man repeatedly bathing his face and hands at a central fountain while other folks sat or prayed on mats around the tiled floor. It felt a bit invasive to peer into these sacred places, but our Libyan companion pointed out that there’s no place in the Koran that bans non-Muslims from mosques — and that in places like Tunisia, non-Muslims are permitted into the mosques. He also told us that he was actually kicked out of a Moroccan mosque himself even though he is Muslim, just because he was looking around rather than praying. (His argument that the mosques wouldn’t be so beautifully decorated if they weren’t meant to be looked at didn’t go over too well.)
We also stopped at a traditional riad, now (I believe) a school of handicrafts. This place was ridiculously ornate — you had to pass through about eight different gates/doors before you even got to the main room, which was carved and mosaic-ed from floor to ceiling. It overlooked a double-terraced garden with orange trees, a well and a courtyard with a fountain. We went down to the garden and were showered with a sudden fall of oranges from the trees, but when we tried one it proved dreadfully sour — our punishment for stealing fruit, I suppose!
One of our more intriguing stops of the day was the city’s famous tanneries, which were smelly but not as bad as I’d feared. (Pigeon droppings are one of the ingredients in the dyes.) It’s an area filled with large round pits, some containing variously colored dyes, others containing lye and bleach to strip the hair off the animal skins. I could only imagine what a miserable job this must be in the summertime — baking in the hot sun and literally going up to your bare knees in these smelly dyes.
We also checked out a few other craft-y places, including one place selling Berber carpets and another peddling woven fabrics. It was at this latter place that I did my first real haggling, over a vibrant red and orange bit of silk I wanted for my mother. The shopkeeper started us off: “Normally this would be 1,200 dirhams, but for you, 1,100.” That’s over $120 — I love you, Mom, but no way was I paying that! He started tossing around numbers like 700, 800, still way too much. My tour companions asked how much I was willing to pay, and I said 300 (about $33 or so) — at which point the shopkeeper put down my colorful fabric sample and held up a plain white piece, implying that that’s all I could get for that price. It took a group effort among all five of us on our tour (and a mass exodus from the shop at one point), but we did finally get the price down around 350 dirhams (about $40), which felt about right to me. (And Mom loved the fabric when I got it home, so it was all worth it!)
In between our various stops, Hassan gave us a thorough education on the medina. He pointed out little details like the wooden, barrel-shaped windows with little peepholes in the sides, through which women centuries ago could watch the goings-on on the streets below without compromising their modesty. He also told us that the medina used to be divided into dozens of little districts/neighborhoods, divided by gates (most of them now missing) and each possessing five key elements: a mosque, hammam (steam bath), Koranic school, fountain and wood-fired bread oven (where folks could bring their dough to be cooked).
The rest of the day was an overwhelming haze of sensory impressions. We wandered through all sorts of souqs, selling slippers, copperware, fruits, spices, vegetables, pottery and meat (including sheep and camel heads! Eek!). We also saw kids playing soccer in a dirty lot and a man panning for jewelry in the filthy, trash-strewn river that divides the two parts of the medina. We walked past dozens of alleys leading off to homes hidden deep in the heart of the medina, and peeked into mosques and hammams that only hinted at the secrets within.
We felt very much like outsiders here; though there’s a bustling public life in the souqs, much of the private life really goes on behind the walls of the medina — walls that have very few windows to the outside. I guess when these buildings were constructed privacy was a really high priority, so folks have a central courtyard inside rather than a facade on the front of their house — very different from the front lawns and bay windows in America. I got the impression that there’s a whole world in Fes that you can’t see, except through glimpses into tiled entryways and down shadowy alleyways.
That’s why it was a valuable experience to have our Libyan companion along for the tour; because he spoke Arabic, he was able to understand much more of what was going on than we could. For example, at one point we walked past an elderly woman crouching on the side of the street with her hand outstretched. I’m ashamed to say that I barely noticed her, but suddenly our companion was asking the guide to stop the tour so he could go back and give her some money. He told us that he’d overheard her praying to God in Arabic that these people (us) would give her some money so that she could eat that night. I hope that she did.
That was an eye-opening moment for me. The poverty here wasn’t as overt as I’d been expecting, but I think it might be more apt to say that I simply wasn’t paying as much attention to it as I should have been in the beginning of the trip. It was easy to get annoyed over the fact that we were constantly being approached for money, or that we were almost certainly paying inflated tourist prices for various things, but the truth is that most Moroccans make about $4 or $5 a day — so who were we to quibble over a few bucks for a taxi ride when those same few bucks could feed a family for a day?
We left Fes the next morning and took a one-hour train ride to Meknes, another of Morocco’s four imperial cities (the other two are Marrakech and Rabat). Our home for the next two nights would be the Ibis Moussafir, located between the medina and the modern ville nouvelle (new town). Unlike the other places we stayed, this one seemed largely geared toward the business traveler crowd and made little effort to seem “Moroccan” other than the vaguely kasbah-esque exterior and a 1930’s vintage Meknes poster on the wall of our room. Otherwise it had the vaguely bland feeling of just about any Western chain, which was actually sort of relaxing after some of the overwhelming things we’d seen in Fes.
We decided to spend the afternoon with our Libyan friend at Volubilis, an ancient Roman city about a half-hour outside of Meknes. We teamed up with two German guys to share a grand taxi, which made for a bit of a squeeze with four of us in the back seat. It was a bit warm at first, so we asked if we could roll the windows down. There was no handle on either of the back doors, but the driver did have a spare handle that we passed among ourselves (and had a pretty good laugh over).
Volubilis is a large site with an impressive basilica andtriumphal arch. There were also many well-preserved mosaics. The rest, sadly, looked a bit like one pile of rock after another; I always have trouble visualizing what a city would have looked like based on just its foundations. The setting was lovely though, a green plain surrounded by olive trees and farmland. Several donkeys roamed freely among the stones, eating the orange and yellow flowers that grew there.
Near Volubilis is the little mountain town of Moulay Idriss, so we took a little time to explore that a bit. We mostly followed our taxi driver, who seemed to know everybody. The main attraction here was a mosque/mausoleum where Moulay Idriss I is buried. As usual, it was closed to non-Muslims. We were able to approach and see a bit of the mosaic tiling in the massive entrance hall, but otherwise not much until we climbed (and climbed and climbed) up to a nearby terrace to get a view over the city. From there we could see the green roof of the mosque and even get a peek at the prayer mats in the courtyard.
On our way back down all the stairs we’d climbed, a couple of young local women came out of a side street and made as though to pass us — though they seemed to be in no great hurry. They did eventually move on, but our cabbie said they were actually prostitutes who were interested in the German guys. Ha! I never would’ve realized that on my own — wonder how you can tell? Their appearance didn’t seem that different from that of any of the other local women.
We headed back to Meknes and split with the German guys, and then SO, our Libyan companion and I headed into the medina to explore a bit. The medina here definitely felt different than the one in Fes — it was much quieter, and the merchandise seemed quite a bit newer. (Picture stall after stall of sneakers and jeans — I felt like I was in a mall at one point.) There was a lot less hassle there too; shopkeepers happily gave us directions without angling for a purchase or a tip.
We spent a little time at Place el-Hedim, an enormous square surrounded by souvenir shops and tea salons. Street performers drew almost exclusively male audiences in the center of the square, while a number of women were sitting way out under an archway on the fringes. I couldn’t help wondering what sort of rules governed the places women are and aren’t allowed to go in Morocco…
We wanted to eat dinner at Restaurant Zitouna, a palace restaurant serving the usual Moroccan favorites (couscous, tajine), but it wasn’t open yet, so we settled down on a step in front of a nearby mosque to wait it out. It was peaceful enough until a group of local boys — maybe 10 years old or so — came up and started giggling and staring, obviously quite curious about us. One smaller boy, probably no older than 5, came right up and sat on the step next to me. There was some back and forth in Arabic between our companion and the older boys until a local woman walked by and shooed them away. The youngest boy, however, seemed quite reluctant to leave. He was adorable, and I was feeling rather charmed by his big, innocent smile — until he said something in Arabic that really upset our friend. Apparently the kid was trying to prostitute himself. I can only hope he didn’t actually understand what he was saying, that he was simply repeating something he’d heard elsewhere, but either way I found this to be one of the most shocking experiences of the trip.
The boy finally ducked off into a nearby doorway, and the door of the mosque behind us opened for evening prayers, so we headed over to the restaurant for dinner. We decided to share several plates: vegetarian couscous, chicken tajine and a dish of various local salads (the herbed carrot salad was my favorite). These were followed by coconut cookies and a truly enormous plate of fruit (bananas, oranges, strawberries, apples) — plus the requisite mint tea. We had a good laugh when our friend got his English and Arabic mixed up, telling us “You can just take those cookies home in your bag” in Arabic within earshot of the waiter. Oops! (We did sneak a banana, an orange and two cookies out, since they’d end up in the trash otherwise.)
The next day, SO and I explored Meknes a bit on our own. We found the medina to be less interesting than the one in Fes, since much of what was for sale there was modern and quite cheap-looking. There was a lot of European-looking clothing, gadgets (cell phones, TV’s), shoes (both traditional leather slippers and brilliant white Nikes), plastic junk, etc. Parts of it felt like a mall, while others felt more like a flea market. That stuff was in Fes too, but Fes had more traditional handicrafts as well. The funny thing is that the merchandise for sale in Meknes is probably much more useful to the locals, while I got the feeling that the folks in Fes would never buy a lot of the beautiful, traditional (read: expensive) goods for sale in parts of the Fes medina.
One good thing about Meknes was that because it was less touristy, the locals really seemed to just want to go about their business rather than hassle the visitors. We had several people greet us with “Bonjour” on the street as they passed, just to be friendly and not because they wanted anything from us. We were approached a few times by hustlers, but in general were left alone; it was pretty nice.
We started our day with a visit to the Dar Jemai Museum, just off Place el-Hedim. The building itself is beautiful, with the usual richly tiled inner courtyard and a peaceful garden populated by random swarms of mosquitoes and a very friendly cat. We’d actually seen dozens of cats by this point, and though I wanted to pet them all, I hadn’t — you never know whether they’ll be friendly or healthy. But this one wouldn’t take no for an answer — he leapt right up onto the bench where we were sitting and started nuzzling up to us, eventually climbing into my lap! Even SO gave in and scratched his head a little.
Other than the cat and the courtyards, the museum also had a number of traditional local artifacts (jewelry, weapons, clothing, cedar chests, etc.). But the piece de resistance was the second floor, where we found an exquisite stained glass window, some beautiful calligraphy (mostly Koranic verses, it appeared) and an amazing salon decked out in colorful pillows and Oriental rugs — it looked like a receiving room for a sultan! Every inch was decorated with mosaics and painted carvings.
After we got out of the museum we crossed over Place el-Hedim to visit the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, a 17th-century sultan who made Meknes his capital city. We were excited to learn that not only were we allowed in, but the visit was also free — although we couldn’t get all that close to his actual grave. There were several herds of tourists already there, and the area where we all had to take off our shoes before entering the area where M.I. was buried stank to high heaven with the odor of all those feet! It smelled worse than any locker room I’ve ever been in. No wonder the local attendant was burning incense. Odor aside, the mausoleum was gorgeous and well worth seeing despite the tourist crowds.
We had lunch at Restaurant Oumnia, which we’d never have even noticed, much less tried, had it not been mentioned in our guidebook. It was actually part of a family home — the whole gang was eating lunch together in another room when we left. We shared a plate of couscous and topped it off with bottled water, mint tea and cookies for about $7 total.
After lunch we walked to the granaries of Moulay Ismail, Heri es-Souani. These enormous stone vaults apparently stored grain and hay for the sultan’s 12,000 horses. Today they’re partially restored, so we were able to walk around the cavernous chambers and marvel at how cool they felt; the stone walls and tiny windows work to keep the heat out. Beyond the restored vaults were quite a few in ruins, which had their own sort of haunting beauty. Beside the granaries was a large lake (manmade, I believe), where both tourists and locals were hanging out.
We walked back to the hotel to rest a bit before dinner at La Coupole, a pretty fancy French restaurant in the new area of the city (the waiters were in tuxes). We both got seafood and enjoyed the classy white tablecloths and candles (though we could’ve done without the music — sappy instrumental versions of pop songs and show tunes).
Back to Casablanca
On our last full day in Morocco, we took a 3.5-hour train ride back to Casablanca and checked back into the Hotel Guynemer. We ate lunch at Restaurant Al-Mounia — yet another palace restaurant. There was one local dish we hadn’t had a chance to try, so we ordered the chicken pastilla to see what it was like. It was tasty — a flaky pastry thing with ground-up chicken and almonds, and cinnamon on top. We decided we liked it but preferred the tajines and couscous.
Then we walked down to the Quartier Habbous, which was a “new” medina built by the French in the 1930’s. This was our last chance for souvenir-hunting, and it was actually quite a relaxed place to do it, with less hassle than we’d found in either of the other medinas. We took an interest in a display of colorful ceramic bowls in one shop, and were thrilled to hear an opening price of 30 dirhams (only about $3.50) for one — so we grabbed a few more bowls for our families plus a plate for ourselves. Then began a rather sad round of haggling, in which we started too high and gave in too easily. The shopkeeper was very friendly (his initial offer was $5 million) and his English was excellent, so even if we overpaid a bit I can’t begrudge him the profit — especially since the total price for all four pieces was only $12.
That night we ate in the hotel’s restaurant — one last tajine and couscous for good measure — and ended up meeting Chef Wan, a celebrity chef from Malaysia! (I admit that I had no idea who he was, but I googled him after we got home and sure enough, he was who he claimed to be.) After 10 minutes of rapid-fire conversation I could easily see how he could be a celebrity — he had charisma and enthusiasm to spare, and he looked much younger than his 50 years.
We came home from this trip with many souvenirs and the aforementioned ton of rocks, but more importantly with a sense of how fortunate we are to live in America, to have enough to eat, and to not have to worry about where our next dollar is coming from. To see the poverty in Morocco was a sobering experience, and inspired us to consider a volunteer vacation on our next trip — perhaps Central America?
I also left with a series of vivid sense memories — the haunting strains of the muezzins’ call to prayer, the delicious scents of the Fes medina, the palatial courtyards adorned with mosaics, the henna on the hand of a beggar woman, a 5-year-old prostitute’s smile, the windswept Erg Chebbi dunes at sunset, and the ancient rooftops of Fes in twilight. Inshallah, we will be back someday.
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