Memories of Morocco

Like all the countries I visit, I am always left with good, bad, and sometimes puzzling memories of what I have witnessed and experienced. Morocco was no exception.

I shall begin with all the things I love about this country, the first being their food. Who could forget their savory tagine dishes for which this country is so famous? Practically every day I would order a different one. Some were better than others but my favourite was the lamb. For me the tagines were the perfect comfort food providing all the nutrition I needed.

A vegetarian tagine.

A vegetarian tagine.

Freshly squeezed orange juice was another must to start my day off right, followed by a latte or cappuccino. Orange trees grow everywhere in the northern part of Morocco making their juice available in all the restaurants and hotels. I must add that their croissants and pastries were pretty good as well.

For those who like the cafe scene (as I do) which provides excellent coffee, sweets, and a relaxed atmosphere, Morocco does this admirably. They are everywhere it seems, in the cities and larger towns and are no longer just a haven for the men to gather, but are slowly seeing women as well. They are also the perfect hangout for tired tourists and ex-pats. The legacy of the French is definitely alive and well in the present day Moroccan cuisine and cafe scene.

Second on my list of ‘most memorables’ would have to be the beautiful Moroccan architecture which has done so much to influence our Western architectural styles. The old part of any town or city  (medina)  is the best place to go and take it all in. Here you will find the narrow alleys and streets often dominated  by the beautifully tiled minaret of a mosque which, of course, points in the direction of Mecca.

The elaborately tiled and horseshoe shaped Bab Bou Jeloud gate leading to the medina in Fez.

The elaborately tiled and horseshoe-shaped Bab Bou Jeloud gate leading to the medina in Fez.

A minaret overlooking the medina in Fez.

A minaret overlooking the medina in Fez.

Unfortunately, most mosques are closed to non Muslims except for the Hassan II located in Casablanca. Erected in the early part of this century by the former King, it is now the third largest in the Islamic world.

The beautiful Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca.

The beautiful Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca.

The interior of the mosque.

The interior of the mosque.

However, those mosques that traditionally serve as a university do allow visitors to explore the medersas, the rooms where the students live and study. We observed first hand the horseshoe-shaped doorways, intricate wooden carvings, geometrically designed tile work, and calligraphy denoting quotations from the Koran at the famous medersa of Ali ben Youssef Mosque as well as the Bahia Palace in Marrakesh. Since representational art isn’t allowed by Islam as it speaks of idol worship, it’s not to be found in the mosques and public museums which explains the elaborately carved art pieces in tile and wood instead.

Wood-carved ceiling at Ali ben Youssef medersa dating back to 1565.

Wood-carved ceiling at Ali ben Youssef medersa dating back to 1565.

Couldn't resist a photo with this intricate tiled backdrop.

Couldn’t resist a photo with this intricate tiled backdrop.

More carvings in marble at the Bahia Palace in Marrakesh.

Marble carvings at the Palace in Marrakesh.

Most traditional Moroccan homes are three-story affairs with a central courtyard that may or may not be open to the sky. The rooms look inward which means the rooms are dark save for the light coming through the windows facing the central court. The larger homes of the more wealthy will have a central garden with orange trees and fountains. Many of these homes have been made into swanky hotels or B&B’s and are called riads. We stayed in a riad which we rented through AirBnB in both Fez and Marrakesh. Although happy with our modest lodgings, we did find they were rather chilly in April.

Looking down from the 3rd level of our riad in Fez to the central area where we ate our breakfast and chatted with our host and other guests.

Looking down from the 3rd level of our riad in Fez to the central area where we ate our breakfast and chatted with our host and other guests.

Out host pouring us some mint tea.

Out host pouring us some mint tea.

Not everyone would agree with me, but I must admit I liked waking up to the call of the muezzins every morning summoning the faithful to prayer. I realized this call to prayer explained why at one or four o’clock in the afternoon stores were often deserted, or why the merchant we had been talking to a few minutes before had suddenly disappeared. It wasn’t unusual to spot a man hauling out his prayer mat in a park, for instance, and kneeling down to say a quick prayer to Allah.

The various modes of dress exhibited by both the men and women were not just a source of fascination for me but also one of puzzlement. Clothing is probably the most visible way of expressing the mix of the traditional with the modern for which Morocco is famous. Most men dress in the western style resorting to the traditional for certain occasions. In the medinas it is common to see them dressed in a jellaba, a wool or cotton garment with a hood, especially in the early mornings for warmth. Babouches or leather slippers with long pointed toes and an open backs are also popular. The fashion styles for women, however, are a very mixed bag. Except for Casablanca, a more modern city, most of them wear a scarf or head covering which can be black or any other colour or design. From the neck down it might be a long dress of any colour or jeans. Those dressed from head to toe in black were rare in the cities but more common in the rural areas. The kids, however, all wore western dress. Apparently the choice to wear traditional or modern dress comes later in life and is a personal decision. To quote one young woman with impeccable English, dressed in jeans and no scarf of any kind who told us when we asked her how she had made her decision, she replied: “It’s a choice I will make to wear a veil or scarf based on my relationship with my God.” She has not ruled out the possibility of adopting the scarf in the future. Does this suggest that as women mature they are likely to become more religious, or perhaps it’s simply a way for them to express their freedom in an area which they haven’t had much say in the past. Traditionally, the mosques have always been dominated by the men while the women kept their beliefs hidden and focussed on their families.

Young women at the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, who asked me to take this photo, dressed in a fashionable but traditional style.

Young women at the Hassan II mosque, who asked me to take this photo, dressed in a fashionable but traditional style.

Another mix of style.

Mixing the traditional with the more modern.

The ultra traditional style in small desert village in the south.

The ultra traditional style in small desert village in the south.

A man in the traditional dress of the Berber, the original natives of Morocco.

A man in the traditional dress of the Berber, the original natives of Morocco.

Throughout our month of travel which took us from Casablanca in the north-western part of the country, to Fez and Marakesh in the interior, up through the Middle Atlas mountains to the desert in the south, and finally out to the Atlantic coast, I could not help but be awed by the beauty and diversity of which this country has been blessed. Snow-capped mountains, long sandy beaches, rolling sand dunes, and lush oases are a photographers delight. Add to this the rich Moroccan culture which easily reflects the old and the new and a traveller will be tempted to stay much longer than planned to see it all. I must mention that such diversity yields a mixture of climates which overall are not too extreme especially in April when we were there. The nights were cool in the north but the days were mostly sunny and warm – a comfortable Mediterranean climate. The desert was hotter but not unbearable at this time of the year. However, there is a risk of sand storms which we encountered while on our camel trek which you can read about in my last post – A Saharan Adventure. The winds also prevented us from spending much time on the beaches so we didn’t get that anticipated tan we hoped for. If you want to avoid the winds it’s best to go in the fall.

Our bus ride through the Middle Atlas Mountains.

Our bus ride through the Middle Atlas Mountains.

The beach at Agadir.

The beach at Agadir.

Sand storm coming up in the desert.

Sand storm coming up in the desert.

There really was very little to not like about Morocco. We had some minor annoyances from some pushy taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and fake guides who just couldn’t take “no” for an answer. When people in a poor country like Morocco with a high illiteracy rate see hoards of tourists, they wrongly assume that all of us have tons of money to throw around. The best way to deal with this is to brush up on your reading before entering the country and be prepared for the hassle. Know the rate of currency, understand where the people are coming from, and be prepared to bargain for just about everything. Once you get to know how taxis operate and what you should be paying, it gives you a bit of leverage to bargain for a fair price. Hubby got to be quite an expert at handling the taxi drivers which pleased me to no end as I am sure being a woman on my own I would not have done so well. Unfortunately, even in Morocco female travellers travelling solo have to be ready for more hassle. Not to be outdone by hubby, I have to admit I became an expert in handling the pesky shop keepers by forcing myself to walk right past them, giving little eye contact and just a simple la shoqran which is the Arabic for “no thank you”. If you smile and let them engage you in conversation, then you are in for trouble.

Shops in the crowded medina in Marrakesh.

Shops in the crowded medina in Marrakesh.

The medina in Fez.

The medina in Fez.

To the tourist, Morocco is seen as one of the more successful Arab countries where we can visit and still feel accepted and safe. As I wrote in my previous posts on Morocco, most people we met were friendly and very open to offering their own special brand of hospitality to us. Since its independence from France, Spain and Portugal, who all established their power over this country in the last few centuries, Morocco has been successfully governed by an absolute monarchy along with a moderate elected government which was founded in 1998. It has readily opened its doors to the Western World and has so far managed to escape the Arab Spring uprisings while its neighbours, Egypt and Libya are in turmoil. The present day King, the son of the infamous Hassan II, is more visionary than his autocratic father and is making such necessary reforms as building schools providing a free education to all children and successfully passing a law in 2004 which gave women the right to divorce. There are some social services, such as health care,but to just what extent, it was difficult to determine. A government official we spoke to was positive about their system, but a poor teacher of high school English was not so happy about it.

The country is 99 per cent Muslim with no division between church and state. Civil law is provided by the sharia, the religious law as stated in the Koran. Most higher education is still being provided by universities which are controlled by the mosques. I do wonder how this can work in a world which is changing so quickly? In some ways, I can see it is working at present, but for how long? The people seem to be satisfied with the direction the government is taking based on information we gathered on our train and bus trips where we met some young, well-educated young people of both sexes. They accept with some resignation on how their government is keeping a close eye on any terrorist activity by having very visible army personnel guarding special buildings and tourist areas.

Standing guard at the Hassan II mosque.

Standing guard at the Hassan II mosque.

They vehemently denounce all terrorist activities in other Arab countries placing peace and sharing high on their list of priorities. One of the young tour guides on our camel trek told us about his efforts in working with a peace group in Senegal, a war-torn country to south of Morocco.

Some of my friends and acquaintances have asked me if I would return to Morocco again, and my answer is always “yes”. There is still much more I could see and do. It’s still a safe country with something to offer all types of travellers. With the help of friendly people who speak French and some English and an efficient transportation system, it is very easy to move around. Most important, it’s still affordable for all budgets. Let us hope that they can maintain peace in their country and remain a beacon for the rest of the Arab world.

Doorway to a home in Chefchouan - the blue city in Northern Morocco.

Doorway to a home in Chefchouan – the blue city in Northern Morocco.

 

 

Northern Morocco- Mosques, Medinas, and Mountains

Morocco is just a little larger than California in area but its huge diversity in geography makes it difficult for a first time visitor like me to get a handle on its culture, the people, and just which parts to visit in a month. My husband and I met up in Casablanca marking the beginning of our journey where I quickly realised having him as my travelling companion again was a huge asset, not only because he was here over forty years ago, but because he speaks French, Morocco’s second language.  However, handling my solo travel status to travelling with “hubby” as well as adjusting to the Moroccan culture has allowed little time for blogging.

It was thanks to our travel  agent in Montreal who helped me with my flights to Bangkok and back with a planned detour to Morocco  which “hubby” and I decided would be a great country to visit on our way home to Nova Scotia, that we found ourselves in the city of Casablanca. I booked us into a comfortable AirBnB where we caught up on our four months apart, and I tried to recoup from the little bit of jet lag  I had acquired crossing the time zones from Thailand. We discovered there isn’t much to see in Casablanca other than the Hassan II Mosque which was built by the late king and is the largest in the Islamic world. It is also one of the few mosques which is open to non-Muslims. It has a gorgeous setting right on the Atlantic coast. It’s the largest and most modern city in Morocco so is of more interest to the world of commerce rather than tourism. Most people are intrigued with it because of the movie by the same name with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall which depicted the dark side of the city. The past is almost all gone except for Rick’s Bar opened up and run by an American for those romantics who want to perpetuate the myth since there never was a Rick’s Bar in Casablanca. It existed only on the Hollywood set where the film was made.

From Casablanca on the Atlantic coast, we took the train to the inland city of Fes, one of Morocco’s Royal cities. Fes is not only a spiritual and cultural centre for Morocco, but is also one of the world’s oldest inhabited medieval cities. It was made a UNESCO site in the mid ’90’s. Our arrival here was the real beginning of our Moroccan experience!

I used AirBnB once again so we stayed in a small riad which is a traditional Moroccan home with a central courtyard surrounded by the smaller rooms for guests and family. Dar Warda, the name of our house, was smack in the Medina or old part of Fes about a five minute walk from BabBou Jeloud, the main gate. The medina in Fes is a maze of 9000 narrow lanes going in all directions so we were grateful that our host met us at the gate to escort us to our place which we would never have found on our own! Before we could unpack and settle in, we were served mint tea the traditional greeting or mode for doing any kind of transaction in Morocco.

Although Fes is a beautiful city spread out over a large area surrounded by the Middle Atlas Mountains with a river meandering through it, we found it difficult to navigate. Although we were able to walk the old part of the city without the hindrance of cars, we had difficulty finding our way around the maze of alleys which  did not go unnoticed by the numerous ‘fake’ guides who would appear miraculously to save us. We knew their game but hubby found it hard to simply ignore them so we found ourselves in situations where we were expected to pay even though we didn’t want their help. Being new at this game, as well as too kindhearted, we managed to get suckered in a couple of times. When we ventured too far away from the old town to the new town, we would have to rely on a taxi where here again we had to be very assertive and demand the price we learned was a fair one. Once you discover these scams and learn how to bargain then getting around becomes a lot easier. Taxis, tours, and just about everything sold in the Medina should be bargained, but not so in the new town where sophisticated shops and cafes are to be found. This premise holds true for most cities and towns frequented by tourists in Morocco.

Fes presented us with our first real taste of Moroccan food. Thanks to our host at DarWarda who recommended a restaurant near by, we ate most of our meals at Chez Rachid. This place was small and always full so we knew it had to be good and it was. I had my first tagine with lamb and a vegetarian couscous here, all served with the warm hospitality and service that Moroccans are famous for.

While in Fes, we made two daytrips to places nearby. The first was to the Royal city of Meknes and the ancient site of Volubilis, a Roman city which was once a trading centre for the province of Mauretania. Menkes was created over a thousand years ago by a Moroccan ruler who employed more than 3000 enslaved Christians to build its palaces, mosques, gardens and souks. It ended up as a sultan’s great dream never completed. Today it’s a bustling city of ruins and souks (markets) with its medina and new town. We took this trip with Johanna Reid, a fellow Canadian and aspiring travel writer, who has a successful blog named Travel Eaters. Her site will have many pictures of Morocco which, unfortunately, I still can’t incorporate into my blogs.

Our second day trip was up north to the town of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains. Although we had to take a very early bus ride of about eight hours there and back on the same day, it was well worth it. Chefchaouen has to be the prettiest town I have ever seen as most of its buildings are painted with a blue wash which is especially effective in the medina where everything including the houses and alleys are so close together. The pace here was noticeably quieter where the shop keepers were not so anxious to make a sale. I could actually look at some of the beautiful handmade woolen clothing and rugs for which the artisans are noted. The town is over 3,300 ft. above sea level so has a cooler climate although the day we were there was just a nice temperature with an incredibly blue sky. It has a beautiful waterfall where we sat and enjoyed a refreshing cold orange juice. If there had been time, I would have taken a path which led further up the mountain to get a better look over the whole city. However, we did manage to get a lovely view from the top of the old casbah (a walled village or large home) just at the entrance to the medina.

After five days in Fes, we took the train south to Marrakesh which is undoubtedly the most popular city to visit and on the list of every tourist. It sits on a fertile plain with a beautiful backdrop provided by the High Atlas Mountains which greeted us with their snow-capped peaks as we approached the train station. It is definitely a magical city with its pink coloured buildings, its many minarets, stately palm trees, lovely gardens, and labyrinth of narrow alleys, all overlooked by the peaks of the High Atlas. This is the old part of Marrakesh but there is also the Ville Nouvelle or new city with its wide boulevards and beautifully landscaped gardens.

For eight nights we made our resting spot in another typical Moroccan home on the perimeter of Marrakesh’s medina next to the mullah where the Jewish population once lived. After Morocco gained its independence from France, most Jews moved to Isreal. We found our place on AirBnB with hosts, Annie and Karim, who unfailingly helped us to adjust to life in the medina. We even had a delicious tagine and Moroccan salad prepared by Karim, on our last night there. Annie had her parents and sister visiting from Holland which created for us a large family. We also met two lovely young girls from Germany while there. With them we shared an Easter service at a vibrant Catholic church which managed to lift all our spirits to a new high with the exuberance of the mostly black choir from Senegal.

One of the sites which can’t be ignored by any visitor to Marrakesh is the huge square, the Jemima el- Fna or ‘Square of the Dead’ in English, where there is entertainment galore both day and night. Here you can wander around or simply sit at one of the many cafes and restaurants taking in the sights and sounds of the musicians, snake charmers, jugglars, or whatever other performer happens to be there. This place which is a meeting point for the main alleys leading into the souks is always abuzz with activity and hustlers so short visits were more than enough for me. My preference was to watch it all from a cafe rooftop with a mint tea or orange juice. I should mention that alcohol is forbidden by the Muslims so since Morocco is about 99 percent Muslim, there are few places that serve it. We did find a place called the Cozy Cafe where hubby could get a glass of wine.

Our location put us never very far from all the interesting places to see in the old part of the city. Very close by was the Palais Bahia once the home of a French governor. This was such a tranquil place in the midst of the medina with its traditional tiled mosaics and gardens offering a close up view of Moroccan life.  Also nearby we had a much older palace, the Palais Bardia, built by one of Marrakesh’s greatest sultans and completed in 1602. Much of the original structure is gone except for some crumbling ramparts among the orange trees; however, there is a wonderful photography museum in one of the newer buildings which we were happy to find.

Marrakesh has numerous mosques with the most prominent being the Koutoubia which towers over the medina. It has beautiful gardens with lots of rose bushes but the mosque itself is not open to the public. We also visited the oldest and largest Mosque, the Ali Ben Yourself and its medersa or learning centre,  displaying the small cells where students studied and lived. Built in the 1200’s and reconstructed in the 1900’s, we witnessed wonderful examples of mosaic and carved wood for which Morocco is famous. Again since it is a Muslim country, you won’t see any models or pictures of people in their artistic creations, just intricate and beautiful designs.

Tiring of the constant activity and clatter of the medina, we took a few trips to the new part of Marrakesh to shop and to visit the Jardin Marjorelle, a gift to the city from Yves St.Laurant, the famous designer. He and a business friend bought the property from an obscure French painter, Jacques Morelle, who could never keep this beautiful place maintained to what it is today. With its vivid, blue-painted mansion, colourful plants in brightly painted ceramic pots, every kind of cactus in the world, and proliferation of trees and birds, it’s a welcome oasis in the city. It also has an interesting Berber museum on the premises displaying pottery, clothing, and jewellery from the many craftsmen who represent the original inhabitants of the country.

Morocco is divided by the Atlas Mountains which run from the northeast to the southwest of the country separating it geographically  as well as culturally. After leaving Marrakesh on the edge of the north face of the mountains, we had to cross over to the other side to get to the south and the Sahara desert. We had three ways to do this: by bus, Grand taxi, or rental car. We chose the bus and were fortunate to get front row seats. The views were jaw dropping spectacular but at times teeth clenching scary. However, the road is good and contrary to any of the reports we might have had on crazy driving, we had a modern up-to-date bus with a good driver. To see the snow capped Mountains as we passed through them is an unforgettable experience.

There is so much more to see and do in northern Morocco that I feel I have just scratched its surface. Perhaps I will have to come back? It’s a fairly easy country to visit once you master their culture and get used to it. The Moroccans willingly go out of their way to welcome tourists to ensure they have a good time. Some might say they are too eager, but you can easily adjust to it with a smile and a sense of humour. They are genuine people. I especially like the way they have managed to maintain their culture yet still live with the modern world. I have only met one solo traveller so far, my travel writer friend, Johanna Reid, who seemed to be making out very well on her own. It has always been and still is a destination point for mostly European travellers who now are coming with young families. The Moroccan mystic is still alive for many of us which I fervently hope will continue no matter what the future might bring.

I am posting some pictures on Facebook for anyone who wishes to see what I have been writing about. You can find me at facebook.com/people/Betty-Wright.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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