I’ve not been good at blogging about Morocco – have I? 🙂 That’s because I’ve been pretty crook for several days and it has been hard enough just staying upright long enough every day to get to the next stop!
I’ve been planning for two years to visit Morocco and as soon as we got here I started panicking! It was mostly about the dress code – being highly conventional for women in this Muslim country. I know I’m not exactly a ‘bosom-baring’ sort of gal ( 🙂 ) but still – was a top too fitting or was I exposing too much neck? Also, as we arrived at a hotel that was quite gucci and very French, I felt my normal feelings of inadequacy (particularly in a fashion sense) were hyper-inflated and I felt I just wasn’t going to fit.
That first evening, before we had met our driver or gone outside the door of the hotel, I was saying to Eric that I just didn’t want to go anywhere the next day! Such a baby!!
The next morning we met our driver Idriss (Morocco Tours). He is our driver for the entirety of the organised tour we are on with Experience It! Tours. This group works out of the US and they do ‘private’ tours – as in your group could be 1, 2, 4, 6, 10, 20 …. people and only those people, nobody else will be added. So, we are a group of two. When I first inquired about booking I said that I would actually be a little shy about having all the attention of a driver for 10 days and would be happy if another small group wanted to join up with someone else; but they were clear that they didn’t do that. So, it is Eric and I and Driss – and for this last 7 days he has been great!
On that first morning he quickly took us on a quick drive around Casablanca and to the Hassan II Mosque – which was purpose built about 20 years ago under the direction of the King. He wanted a memorial for his father and something that would bring visitors to Casablanca. It can host 105,000 people for prayers at a time (80,000 outside and 25,000 inside); the walls are handcrafted marble and the roof retracts; the minaret (the needle point part of the building, like a cathedral’s spire) at 689 ft (210 m) is the world’s tallest. It is pretty spiffy all right!
Casablanca is not very attractive really – the buildings are very poorly maintained generally. I think it has to do with the fact that the city’s modern history only starts from the late 1950s, early 60s and the country has been busy establishing itself again with its own constitutional monarchy and without the French (thanks!). All of the Moroccan cities are divided into some combination of an old town and new town – the old town always being surrounded by a wall, often kilometres long.
Our room at Le Doge hotel was extremely nice – as my Facebook friends would have gathered!! It was the Coco Chanel room and was in black and white with photos of Coco all over the room. Drinks at the hotel were expensive – 2 drinks at 300 dirham compared to lunch in a local restaurant for three people being only 100dh (equivalent to AUD 12).
We had a walk on the promenade (Casablanca is on the Atlantic and the Mosque is built on a promontory) and a coffee then were on our way to Fes, via Rabat!
Rabat is the capital of Morocco, is approximately 1.5 hours from Casablanca, has a population of 3 million and is where King Mohammed VI has his official residence (he has palaces in each city – Casablanca, Rabat, Fes and Marrakech). We stopped at the official residence (had to show our passports) but only to take a photo of the palace entrance! WHAT? It was pouring and Driss had to park quite far away and sent us off in the rain. We got like 10 steps and went ‘this is crazy; just to take a photo of an entrance!” and went back to the car. Something we have taken pains to explain to Driss and various guides this week is that we don’t have an interest in taking photos of things that mean nothing to us – that is if we learn about it (history or a story) and have some ‘feeling’ involved then we are keen to photograph towards memory keeping. But, drive up to the palace to take a photo and then drive on? Fuhgeddaboudit!
We visited the Kasbah of Udayas in Sale (Rabat). A Kasbah is something like an enclosed small town or fortress. This Kasbah is lived in today and the colours are very similar to the Greek Islands. We were guided by a local young fellow (who volunteered himself 😛 ). It was quite interesting. A little scary because this was the first opportunity we’d had to be waylaid by someone who could help us, without actually working out a deal with us, just taking us on and it gradually turning into ‘I’m your guide’ and us deciding how to tip him! Photos below: 1. Typical street in the Kasbah 2. Gardens 3. Panoramic photo of the outside of the Kasbah
We also visited Roman ruins (Chella, Rabat-Sale) are from approximately 40 A.D. and one of the earliest identifiable settlements of man in Morocco (some evidence that a colony of Phoenician and Carthaginian explorers was on the site as early as the 3rd century B.C.. This was an interesting small site (unguided). We then visited the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, containing the tombs of this king and his two sons King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. It is a very good looking area – but we were dropped off and had a look (unguided) – which makes a difference because you admire, but don’t learn much!!
(Photos below: Rabat/Sale – 1-3 At Mausoleum 4. Outside one of the 7 gates at the King’s residence in Rabat 5. Panoramic view of Rabat/Sale from a nearby fort)
After some lunch we drove for the two hour drive to Fes.
We stayed in a Riad in the Medina in Fes (a medina is the old part of town and this one dates from the 9th century. Our Riad is at the very edge of the Medina, where cars can still drive into. After just a short way the streets are too narrow and only passable by foot or donkey. Driss parked the car out on the street – then we had to walk through a rabbit warren of streets (keep left going in) to reach our accommodation.
A Riad is original accommodation (most likely a home) that has been redeveloped for tourism – in this case an old home. It is in the Moorish (Arabic) style with ‘inside balconies’ – that is they look out over an internal courtyard, rather than out on to the street.
Our room was gorgeous – our bathroom was well appointed, but old!! I went from ‘what an incredible building and what a beautiful room’ to ‘I’m going to die’ quite quickly, because we soon realized that due to the inward facing rooms there are no external windows. I can’t sleep without the window open!! Add to that, our room was on the ground floor and close to where people passed a lot and opposite the dining area (courtyard) and the staff kept closing our big doors, to protect our privacy! Therefore when it came time to sleep I was stressed out, because I’m mildly claustrophobic and a) didn’t have a window for fresh air b) felt ‘locked’ into a room and c) didn’t see the escape route! I was amazed that I did sleep in the end, but I didn’t awake refreshed! Too bad; but not a third world problem? 🙂
Our full day in Fes was spent mostly with our guide Abdul in the Medina. About 300,000 people live there and it is very old with winding streets, fresh food markets, craftsmen (and artisans) working with metal, wood, dyeing, tannery and carpet making. We visited an old school still in its original condition, including an area for learning that doubled as the prayer area (including the niche pointing to Mecca – called the Mihrab – and is from where the teacher and Imam lead prayers. Also there was a courtyard with a fountain where the children would clean themselves before praying.
Also in the Medina we visited the oldest (believed) university in the world – and founded by a woman; we visited a museum in a building that used to accommodate travellers in caravanserai – the only one that accommodated people only, as the animals were stabled in a nearby building (as opposed to others bringing the animals inside!).
There is a woman’s co-op in the Fes Medina overseen by the government that sells handmade rugs and carpets (Berber) – made in their homes. It is housed in an original Medina home renovated to its original style, which is good because everything you see on the outside looks like crap!! I had been wondering what the insides of homes might look like – and this gave a good idea, although it had been restored to its original condition and not many homes were going to look that good!
We were given the sales spiel – didn’t feel like a hard sell until the end. They gave us mint tea while they showed us lots of beautiful rugs. We ended up buying one – small enough to carry home. These ‘original’ rugs get better with age (apparently) so hopefully it is going to age gracefully with us and become a beautiful part of the furniture!!
Many of you will have seen photos of the dye pots of the tannery in Fes – the outdoor shots of large ceramic pots with either a creamy lime-wash-type substance or colours (dye). It’s pretty smelly! As you enter they hand you a bunch of mint to put under your nose, in case it is too strong for you. It wasn’t too bad that day and is apparently a lot worse in summer (which I can imagine!). After explaining the tanning process you have the opportunity to purchase leather goods – mainly bags and jackets. Because we’d unexpectedly blown our budget by buying our ‘one of a kind’ rug, I couldn’t buy the backpack I’d been planning on – maybe in another town, when the card is recharged! (Photos below: 1. Original school 2. Tannery 3. View of the inner courtyard of Riad Myra (Fes))
Food-wise; dinner last night was vegetable soup (delicious) tagine chicken and lemon and a honey and almond iced dessert. Breakfast consists of a variety of carb choices (:)) flatbread, pancakes, cakes, porridge, yoghurt and fresh squeezed juice and coffee. Lots to choose from (at our table; not buffet).
For lunch on this day we ate in a ‘typical’ Moroccan restaurant and had a selection of Moroccan salads – cooked carrots, potatoes, cauliflower and peppers and tomatoes with lots of olives, yellow beans, green beans, zucchini (first course) shish kebabs (beef and chicken) seasonal fruits (pomegranate, oranges and some grapes finished with mint tea and a biscuit – WAY TOO MUCH FOOD! This was only the beginning and something we’ve struggled with. Quantity at every meal and richness (AKA oily) of the food – not the spices, that’s okay.
These first few days were pretty great and smelly (:)) and I was SO tired. It was a full start and when we were supposed to eat out at a local restaurant in the evening we declined. I’m a bit like that though; at the end of a busy day, once I’m in I am just not interested in going back out!
Tomorrow we are out to visit Volubilis (Roman ruins from 3 A.D.) and Meknes and the following morning we leave Fes for a couple of days based out of the desert town of Erfoud (over the middle Atlas mountains) and down to the Sahara!