Atlantic & Mediterranean coasts, Rif & Atlas mountains, Flash floods and the Sahara desert, unique & delightful cuisine, kind & friendly people….these are some of the things we experienced in the Kingdom of Morocco. We went there as tourists, were converted in to travelers and returned home with new found friends.
Casablanca 11/15 (pictures)
Morocco through Casablanca caught us surprised. Though we arrived 45 minutes late through Frankfurt, and immigration took forever (I think they get rewarded by the length of time passengers have to wait!), our bags arrived as we exit which I have learnt to count as a blessing. Perhaps expectations were low but what we first see walking out of the airport is bliss. The weather is a perfect 65° with a light breeze combined with a nice welcoming ambiance We are going to love this country & some of us may not leave it….or so I like to think.
Driving into downtown Casablanca we notice that the roads are wide and traffic is light, perhaps a function of Saturday. The vegetation on either side of the road is particularly green making me wonder if we are indeed in Morocco which is predominantly a desert nation. We will soon learn the diversity of this wonderful country’s vegetation and landscape is one of envy.
We check into our hotel in downtown Casablanca and then head out for a quick tour of the city. We drive through various different neighborhoods admiring the architecture which are a combination of the Moors and the Berbers (initial settlers to Morocco who came from Yemen through Somalia) and more recently the French. The neighborhoods are beautiful with a lot of Bougainville and Hibiscus. We head up the coast to the Corniche which is a boulevard on the Atlantic with a lot of restaurants and cafés…it is where Casablancan's wants to be seen and we see a lot of good looking Moroccans.
Dinner is at a restaurant frequented only by the locals. It consists of a variety of fish and shrimp with interesting local sauces and lentils. These are bread eating people, but it is the kind that we are going to have to learn to like, made often with semolina.
The following day starts with a visit to the Hassan II or Grande Mosquée Hassan II mosque, perhaps the only true tourist attraction in Casablanca. This is a fairly recent addition and was completed in 1992 at a cost that is officially unknown but suspected to be anywhere from €500 to €800M....go figure! The previous king (Hassan II) built it in memory of his father (Mohammed V) but named it after himself. The mosque owns a variety of statistics in size, 3rd to the 7th largest depending upon your source, tallest minaret, capacity of 25,000 and a floor that is heated and ceiling that opens during the hot months. The mosque also boasts of a Hamam that is yet to be opened to the public and may never be based on what the worlds arguably worst guide tell us. While the structure is large and one that Moroccans are proud of, one has to wonder about the priorities of the government in a poor country…but then keeping peace in the Arab world transcends the western thinking of cost and benefits and is defined by faith in the lord… Insha'Allah as they would say.
The Corniche on a Sunday morning is bustling with health enthusiasts of all ages and women in particular are in large numbers with the latest European fashion in athletic wear...the cafes overlooking the Atlantic are filled with breakfast/brunch goers and we join the later for the freshest orange juice. Apparently oranges were first grown here in Morocco and amongst other firsts….Morocco was the first to recognize independent United States of America in 1776.
Rabat 11/16 (pictures)
About 60 miles north of Casablanca is the kingdom’s capital and we split the drive between the highway and the back road next to the ocean. We stop at a service station for a snack....yes very European of the Moroccans to fill gas and tummy at the same time. We sample their famous mint tea and semolina bread,
the later holds promise compared to the former for me. Snack is followed by lunch at a roadside barbecue a little outside Rabat that validates taste is inversely proportional to hygiene. That said the Mechoui (baked lamb meat) is spectacular for its tenderness as are the Kafta’s, the lamb chops we could skip but the warm bread and olives are wonderful compliments as we are joined by hundreds of fly’s and cats that wander around courageously. Now this is family style as in everybody eats of the same plate...so get cozy already. We tear a piece of the lamb and bread, dip it is some salt and cumin before eating. It took a few bites before we start appreciating this rather unique treat. This place is packed to capacity with families enjoying a Sunday treat and once you eat the Mechoui you know why.
Fortified we visit the Mohammad V mausoleum where next to him is buried his son Hassan II. Since the Kings brother was recently married, the city is celebrating the event and that is reflected with guards in colorful uniforms around the mausoleum and the Quran being read in the mausoleum that is rather grand. The mausoleum stands in infront of a courtyard that had a mosque that was destroyed in the 17th century Lisbon earthquake. However one can still tens of pillars as well as the minaret from the previous structure.
We then wander the Kasba Chella (Fort Chella) that has the roman ruins from 250BC and a garden with oranges, grapefruits, lemons, olives, dates, pomegranates and some very large storks in even larger nests.
Rebat is a lot more organized and calm compared to Casablanca however is lacking in charm. We also see a lot of police and paramilary station quite literally every hundred yards along the major thoroughfares. We understand that there is royalty from other kingdoms who came for the wedding and so there is extra security. However to overcome the lack of charm we are going to stay in a riad (a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) that has been converted in to a B&B. This particular riad (Kalaa) is in the 17th century medina (city). Getting through the alleyways to the riad is interesting and so is the riad which is a dated structure and though does not look much from outside is spectacular inside with an oasis like feel to it. We learn over and over again that riads in medina’s all over Morocco are like this, not much to look from the outside but once you step inside they transform in to luxury.
One more tourist attraction to cover here in Rabat before we exit is the Khasba Udaya, a 12th century fort with interesting blue colored alleyways. It has a minaret that is also 12th-century but only Muslims are allowed to enter. Apparently this is a practice developed in the middle ages when soldiers would enter mosques disrupting prayers. In order to prevent that, a law was passed that forbid non-Muslims to enter mosques. Inertia appears to have helped keep it to this day.
Tangier 11/16 (pictures)
Tangier again is very unexpected as we enter a rather large city. There is a lot of new construction going on, apartments, offices and a new port that will streamline trading between the Americas, Europe and Africa.
We visit Cap Spartle where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic ocean marked by a lighthouse. The visual is not unique but the feeling is. The light house is maintained by Morocco, US and 10 European nations given it influence over a strategic location at the opening of the Strait of Gibraltar with access to EU, North Africa and Asia without having to go around South Africa. Control the roads and you control the economies and the US certainly knows all about that. Beneath the light house are the grottos of Hercules which we are forced to skip due to renovations. Also apparently there is a sunken island across the lighthouse which legend has is the lost continent of Atlantis....must be one tiny continent.
We then head to the medina which I am looking forward to seeing given its prominence in the movie thriller Bourne Ultimatum. However it does seem rather different as in it is not crowded and not as congested as I expected it to be. Like any other Arab medina it is a maze of shops and homes but the alleys are named making it easier to navigate. The shops are not particularly inviting but on the flipside given they don't cater to tourists, we are mercifully not bothered. We do get to the top of one of the shops/homes to view the intricate network of the homes from the top that allow you to go from one house to the other without having to get down to the ground. The medina backs to the Kasbah (fort) where our riad (La Tangerina) is located on top of the cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
Tangier dining options are mostly non Moroccan and western, so it is a chore to find something that is local. We find a place by the water that serves crepes which are fairly decent though it can be challenging to place customized orders…my “je ne veux pas fromage” (I don’t want cheese) translated in to crepe’s with lots of meat and cheese for my wonderful waiter. Moroccans speak Arabic and French fluently given they were most recently a protectorate of the French and still maintain close ties with France.
The city is building a large new port (Tangier Med) that will connect Europe, Asia and the Americas. The stats reflect the size of the port that sits north east of the city from where one can see the rock of Gibraltar, though it is hazy this morning and not very clear. Still Tarifa across the 8miles of the Mediterranean in Spain is seen clearly. I hear an interesting story of how Gibraltar got its name. Tariq bin Ziayd a Muslim general in 711 who led an Islamic conquest from the north of Morocco consolidated his troops on rock of Gibraltar…that he called Jabal Tariq (mountain of Tariq) and the Spanish translation of that is Gibraltar.
We continue to drive further north east of Tangier along the coast and towards Sebta, a Spanish city on mainland Morocco, one of 2 such cities. It is not clear why that arrangement exists in these times short of inertia on the part of both the Spanish and the Moroccans. Entry in to the city is entering Spain and Europe, so the city is fortified and immigration controls are in place. Along the way we see plenty of west and central Africans by the road, who we are led to understand are looking for ways to either enter Sebta or sneak in to the port of Tangier to stowaway across to Europe. It is a very sad sight to see young men in such desperate fashion. The Moroccans on their part ignore their illegal status and turn a blind eye to them in an effort to help. Given the poor state of the European economy, apparently more of these youth are choosing to work in Morocco which is clearly growing. Furthermore the Moroccans have invested significantly in the towns along the Mediterranean like Midiq, Martil as well as Tetouan to build out summer resort towns attracting folks away from Europe. While the idea is good, we notice that these towns are fairly dead during the winter months….they will need to think of something else to make these all year long towns.
We are staying in riads most of the times, which are ancient homes some as old as 300 years that have been converted in to luxury (of varying degrees depending upon the city) B&B. These are charming structures with friendly owners who are hospitable and provide a peek in to Moroccan homes. Moroccans are not big on breakfast; quite European of them however the freshly squeezed local orange juice (is there any other kind?), mint tea and the various preserves they lay out are very very good.
Chefchaouen 11/17 (pictures)
Along the Mediterranean and over the Rif mountains that are spectacular we reach Chefchaouen. The mountains are majestic with the valleys rich with vegetation that included oranges, olives, eucalyptus and various fruits while the weather continues to be a delightful 65 degrees F. The Rifs are not as high as the Atlas but perhaps more picturesque we find as we see several waterfalls and gorges.
This town is known for its blue lime washed walls that gives it a moonlit feel all the time. The color is for a few reasons I gather; a. Jews who escaped persecution in Cordoba used blue to represent the sky, b. Keeps the Mosquitos at bay and c. Muslims used to live here prior to the 15th century and painted the city green, however when the Jews got here they painted it yellow to get the blue…..no one really knows since Chefchaouen did not allow foreigners till independence in 1956 and there is limited written history, so this is all perhaps imaginative speculation. The medina is small comparatively and easy to navigate. It is anchored around the main square that has a mosque and a Fonduk (hotel in Arabic for travelers and their animals to rest on their journey) and several restaurants given this is now a tourist attraction. The food is a big let down and would set perhaps the lowest expectations when it comes to gastronomy in Morocco. The riad we stayed at (Casa Prelata) is very cute and the people very nice & friendly, hospitality in Morocco is defined by genuine kindness vs. a cultivated approach to customer service. I think this could be a differentiator for their tourism though I wonder if it can scale when more people arrive.
The walk through the medina will take you through several interesting alleys with attractive doors, walls washed in blue and arbors with grape vines that actually have grapes hanging of them. It feels like a cross between Greece and Italy. People are very easy going given shops were still opening 10am and few bothered to hawk their goods which was welcoming given I have a special talent to attract harassment in these kinds of settings. While the day starts of on the chilly side it gets warm very fast by 10am and it is time for us to move along.
Volubilis is the setting for Roman ruins from 250BC, a city that was abandoned for no known reasons in some 25AD and the Berbers occupied it for 700 years from then on. The ruins are typical of other ruins we have visited in Ephesus and Jerash, two main streets (Cardo Maximus and Decamanus Maximus) meeting where there is an arch of some victory, some standing columns etc. however there is an opportunity for better preservation as I see tourists climbing on the walls of the ruins to take pictures. There are some well-preserved tiles depicting ancient events open to the elements which I find strange. It appears the Moroccans take the view that if the ruins survived 2000 years it will stay for another 2000 years….well none of us will be around to validate, will we?
A drive through Mekenes is lovely. This imperial city (one of 4 capitals of Morocco over the last 500 years) looks wonderful in the dusk, the roads are broad, the medina has a huge and colorful gate and people are at peace wandering the gardens. We zip on by wondering the secret of the Moroccan’s lovely lives…..olives, oranges and clear air?
Fes 11/18 & 11/19 (pictures)
We arrive late in the evening to Fes and the city already has a
busier vibe to it even before we enter its famous medina, which is where we are staying in a riad. Given the riad is some ways inside the medina which is a labyrinth that we will discover, requires the riad to send someone with a Fes hat to guide us to the medina. Like we have come to see and learn that the riad’s like other homes in a medina look very plain from the outside but are elaborate and museum like inside with the decorations, artifacts and overall ambiance. The plainness outside I am led to understand is part modesty and part to ward both the evil eye of the envious and the crooks.
The medina (city) of Fes is the largest in the world with over 9 thousand streets that are nothing but a maze that can only be navigated by the locals. The medina has plenty of dead end streets to protect from strangers and enemies in the medieval times. The city was established in the 10th century by Moulay Idriss II on the east bank of the river in 789 and then his son established another city on the West Bank of the river in 808…and the two largely autonomous cities were at conflict with each other. Both cities were established to support Muslims being prosecuted in Córdoba and Tunisia ahead of the crusades. The cities were united in the 11th century and was for a while the worlds largest city with over 200,000 people.
Having been around the Arab world and the many bazaars and medinas, I have learnt that a median includes both a market and homes while bazaar is mostly a market. So here in the Fes medina we see all kinds of structures and people. The narrow streets are shared by people, donkeys, horses, push carts and more. No vehicular traffic is allowed in the medina but every now and then we see the rebel with his scooter zipping through.....younger people have no respect for rules and traditions!
The medina is lacking in the type of energy I have come to expect in these sorts of places with traders hustling for your attention and money, kids running around and other sundry activities. The medina is less touristic and more catering to the local population and so we get to experience their way’s better which includes the artisans and the famous tanneries. The tannery is smelly to say the least and we climb up to a handful of terraces from which one can see the tannery operate. The terraces belong to stores that sell leather products…part of their fees is to allow you to watch the tannery from the safety of the terrace before they hustle you….classic. However they are kind in that they give us a bunch mint to mask the stench which helps for a while before you begin to stink of the leather that the stench is now you. Still interesting experience as Saritha shops for a few items here before I am successful in getting out of there.
Our next stop is where they make pottery, however the roads are blocked as the King is heading there too. So as we drive back to the riad we see the locals lining up the street to see their king and it appears there is genuine liking for him and as I am pondering if that is indeed the case or they suffer from a case of disappearance if they don’t show a certain level of love for the king….the king himself drives by in a convey of dozens of cars. I think I may have seen him or not as he sped by….still long live the king nevermind it’s the 21st century.
Of the two nights we spend in Fes, one night we dine at a nameless barbecue restaurant, where you select the meat and quantity you want and they will barbecue it for you and then serve it with a few sides like eggplant, lentils and off-course the ubiquitous semolina bread you can never escape. While there are several such establishments next to each other, they are all relatively filled up with the locals and some French expats and there is a lot of friendly energy. The second night we dine at Tripadvisor's #1 rated restaurant "Dar Tajine". It is rather small (20 patrons max) family run establishment deep in the medina. Once we made the reservation, the restaurant owner sent his 15 year old son to our riad to fetch us, a process repeated at the end of our dinner. The menu is dictated by the owner and the time of your seating. While the owner is very friendly and humble, the food reasonable, I would not rate it #1 in town....the Couscous and Tajine we ate at lunch was perhaps more delicious. In any case checking the box that we eat the #1 restaurant in Fez.
Sahara Desert 11/20-11/23 (pictures)
We are now heading to the worlds largest desert and will touch but a pinch of its vastness. Marzuga is a desert outpost that was recently connected by roads which is at the edge of Erg Chabbi (the sand dunes of Chabbi). The road from Fes to the desert is about 300 miles and will take about 8 hour, crossing the Atlas mountains which has the 2nd highest peak (Toubkal, 4.2K meters) in Africa after Kilamanjaro (5.8K meters). The Atlas are majestic as are all mountains, however what we are unaware is the danger we are heading in to. It has begun to rain and the Atlas is rocky which brings down the water fast and furious towards the desert. While it is not yet dangerous, we have to be cautious as we drive through the mountains. During the few breaks in the rain, we are able to capture the beauty of the Atlas, the gorges, the water falls and just being in the midst of an awe-inspiring setting.
By the time we arrive in Marzuga and settle in the hotel for the night, there are reports of fatalities due to the floods and destruction to roads and bridges, it is not good at all. We are praying things will improve soon.
The following day we visit Khamlia, a village short ways away where we meet some of the locals who entertain us with their Gnawa music. While enjoying their hospitality and music, one of the rather young hosts, who is perhaps 3-4 years old decides he wants to use my iPad which is not that unique for a curious child. But what struck me was that this child was adept at using the iPad....he went straight to the games & having found none, returned it to me and went on his way...clearly technology is everywhere including this back-country Sahara.
We drive up to Errachidia for lunch and see first hand the impact of the rains and floods. Lunch is a local delicacy called Medfuna...vegetable or meat stuffed bread that is real tasty.
We are now going to head to the desert to spend the night there in Erg Chebbi amongst the dunes. The camp is about 15 miles in to the desert and we find ourselves the only ones here this evening. The rains, floods and the low season have kept the others away....and we are thrilled at being able to enjoy the deserts solitude. We climb up and down the very high dunes but are unable to catch the sun given it is behind the clouds. The night is extremely cold and so our bed has 5 blankets to keep us warm. Dinner is spectacular with Harira, the local soup with Tajine and Couscous with a host of other sides. We rise early to catch the sun but the clouds are still out but thankfully the rains have abated so we wander the desert for a while. While not particularly adventurous, a night in the desert does wonders to your soul.
Now we are going to drive out of the desert and begin to head west towards Marrakech. Normally its a 8-10 hour drive, however with the roads in the state they are and more rain predicated, we are going to spend the evening in Boumalne Dades another outback town between the desert and Marrakech. The hotel we are staying at is the only trick in town, so we enjoy that as best we can...they have a bar, internet & TV!
We were planning on hiking in the famous Todra Gorges in the High Atlas...again the rains have put a cramp in those plans. So after some deliberations we have decided to drive to Marrakech taking a longer route around the mountains via Egadir vs. through the mountains. This circuitous journey gives us more of the country we had not planned to see.
Ait Benhaddou is an interesting stop we make. This is a fortified village along the ancient caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. While nobody lives in here anymore, it is being protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. As was happening when we visited, it continues to be damaged by the rains given it is built with mud. The fort is large and intricate and we can only imagine how it might have been used. It certainly has the vibe of being an important trading post in its days. This fort has been used as the setting in many movies including the Bond thriller of Living Daylights as well as the Jewel of the Nile and dozens more, both French and English. It was a little disappointing that we were not allowed in to the kasbah due to the rains. I also found it interesting that authorities chose not to make a public announcement that the kasbah was closed temporarily fearing it might impact tourism...however me trekking over to find it apparently does not!
Saffron is another pit stop we make along the way, a town famous for producing the "Best" Saffron in the world. There is nothing to the town except for buying some Saffron from the cooperative for a good price which Saritha does promptly.
Marrakech 11/24-11/28 (pictures)
Our drive to Marrackech while not particularly eventful was nonetheless interesting given the weather and round-about way we got there. We drove through scores of one road towns, where the
one school they had was shared by students of all grades following a shift schedule (younger ones started early and the older started later). So when we arrive in Marrakech, we are struck immediately by the cosmopolitan nature of the city. People, women in particularly are dressed more like in the west with very few choosing to cover their heads, while there is a large population of young people who seem like anywhere else in the world...except for having their heads buried in their smart phones. Additionally they have wide boulevards, lots of parks and gardens and great vibe to the city.
Like in other cities, we have chosen to stay at another riad (La Maison Arabe) which is in the medina, but thankful at the edge of it allowing easier access. Marrakech has a few tourist attractions aside from the medina, which we decide to visit starting with the Saadian tombs. The tombs are from the 16th century but were only discovered at the turn of the 20th century. The real attractions are the decorations on the stucco walls and cedar ceilings all of which are surrounded by a typical Moroccan garden with oranges and olives. Majorelle gardens is next; these were taken over by Yves Saint Laurent, who is also buried here, and developed further. It is certainly an oasis in a busy city but not worth the steep entrance. We then head to another roadside eatery near where the town scrapyard used to be to eat Mechoui (baked lamb). It is barely lunch hour, yet the lines are long...lines in Morocco mean people crowding together in an organized manner and it is a miracle how it all gets sorted out on a first come first serve basis. We tell the butcher the amount of Mechouo we want and he hacks it with an axe! Never had a meal hacked and served with an axe before. We carry the meat and bread inside, seat down with flies buzzing and cats crawling up your backside, pick the lamb and bread, dip it in salt and the ever present cumin and eat. As unappetizing all this seems....strangely enough it was not, we really enjoyed the meal. We spend some time in the Menara gardens where the king in the days gone by would bring his concubine of the night past and dump her in the pool...clearly not something that happens today. We end the evening hanging out at the Jamaa el Fna, the famous square in town. We decide to walk to the square on our own from our riad, however we are soon accosted by a man who claims he works at the riad and is going to help us get to the square. Now the riad folks had left a note in our room indicating such fraudsters and so we immediately chase him away. No more than 10 steps later, another man is about to accost us, but we are "saved" by the tourist police. Now this tourist police is also part of this fraud network as he very quickly suggests that he can guide us around and again we chase him away...you have to be on the lookout all the time here. So of to the square that has been in this location and active since 10AD, over thousand years. It is populated with water sellers in colorful costumes, snake charmers, monkey dancers and all kinds of other artists. They sell the freshest orange juice squeezed right infront of you for 8MAD = $0.50, now that is what I call a miracle, especially when you taste it. There are food stalls and while the food looks inviting we choose not to indulge since it has been sitting out there for god knows when...yeah this from those who eat with the fly's! There are cafe's around the square with views of it and so we go up and spend time watching the square and the setting sun behind the Koutoubia, the central mosque and minaret.
The following day we visit the medina to do some shoping as well as visit the Bahaia palace. We had heard that one has to bargain for everything here and so that is exactly what Saritha does...winning most of her battles while I carry the spoils.
The Bahaia palace is fairly new, built only in the 19th century for the grand vazir of the sultan. Given it does not enjoy royal lineage, the public are allowed inside. Typical of the time it was built the cedar ceilings are very artful as are the ceramic inlay work.
While in Marrakech we visit the city's expensive neighborhood, dine in some of their upscale restaurants and experience life as the locals do. It certainly has the vibe of a city I can live in and would consider returning to spend more time here.
Essaouria 11/27 (pictures)
There is a little quaint town on the Atlantic coast about 3 hours west of Marrakech we visit. We drive parallel to the High Atlas and get to see the snow peeked mountains while on the plains we see groves of Oranges, Olives and Argan trees.
The Argan trees are part of an UNESCO Biosphere reserve to protect these rather unique and rare trees. Unfortunately despite these efforts, the tree volumes have shrunk due to charcoal making and goats grazing. The goat herders infact take my money before I am allowed to take pictures of the goats climbing these trees but I am led to understand that this practice is limited to tourists....well anything we can do to help keep the trees going which produce oil for both cosmetic and food purposes.
It is another rainy day that is dampening the outing, still we press on to walk through another medina which has its own set of stories, not un-remarkably different from the other. The difference they point out to us is that this medina was planned, in that there is some kind of a grid and the alleyways are not particularly convoluted. The litmus test is the ability to find your way back if you were to lost, one that we did not try despite it being easier. Being on the water they had to develop ways to protect themselves from pirates and invaders and they did that by building a fort with two towers and a row of guns. Additionally the acoustics in the fort amplify the boom created by the guns to alleviate the threat to the attackers. Essouria is also a fairly prosperous fishing town, with both large deep sea fishing as well the smaller boats that catch the shrimp and small fish. Whilst we were there, the fishermen were collaborating with each other to bring their boats on land to mitigate risks from the incoming storm.
This was also where we ate our first fish Tagine which I thought was fairly ordinary given the fish was added to the Tagine as an after thought vs. cooking it in the Tagine...yeah I am an expert now!
Morocco has been a wonderfully pleasant surprise (more pictures). We made friends, ate delicious foods, soaked in natures un-varnished beauty, experienced the adventures of that very natures tribulations and most importantly found it all very peaceful.
But before I end I have to recognize our new friend Mohamed El Mouwahidi, who runs Colours of Morocco. Mohamed was our guide, driver and friend these past two weeks. He allowed us to experience Morocco like a local...we ate with him where he ate, we debated issues that mattered to him, learnt about Islam, the Arabs, Berbers, Moroccans and their history. Mohamed artfully balanced honoring a business contract of guiding us and being a friend in a foreign country. While his service delivery, be it the reservations of riads, meeting travel schedules, transitioning to local guides in some locations was exceptional, what struck me the most was his management of our itinerary and expectations in the trying times imposed by the floods is a lesson in managing clients. Mohamed has pride in what he does and believes in it...and that showed. We were fortunate to meet with his family, visit with them in his home and dine with them...such wonderful folks. Wishing them and Morocco the very best.