Kent’s Morocco Trip Report – Part I

November 19, 2012  By: Kent

Sipping my delicious and much needed coffee in the Twilight Zone-inspired domestic terminal at the Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca, Morocco, I heard a little voice in the back of my head. “Do you really want to get on that flight to Marrakesh?  Didn’t that itinerary start in Casablanca?”

I tried to enjoy my coffee, but the thought kept nagging at me and I remembered that if I’ve learned one thing from living and working in Africa and traveling around the world, it’s that you should always head those nagging voices and uneasy feelings in your gut.

So, I put down my coffee and dug through my overstuffed backpack and found my itinerary, which did indicate that although I had booked a flight from Denver to Newark to Lisbon to Casablanca to Marrakesh my tour really started in Casablanca. I didn’t need the Casablanca to Marrakesh flight I had paid for. And further more, I would certainly miss my tour since my guide was most likely waiting for me, about 500 yards away holding a signboard with my name on it.

So, I huffed it back through the domestic terminal, back past rows of eerily empty VIP lounges and offices, back through two security checkpoints (the guards were really friendly and had minutes ago let me transit from an international arrival to the domestic terminal without going through immigration or stamping my passport), back to the international terminal, through immigration and out of the arrivals hall and to Hossine, who was waiting for me with a signboard with my name on it.

After a friendly greeting, I changed some dollars into dirham and we walked to our Land Cruiser passing by throngs of jubilant Moroccans, celebrating their return from pilgrimages in Mecca for the haj, their relatives’ cars decorated with brightly colored streamers. There were so many of the faithful, it took us about an hour to get out of the parking lot. But once on the road, it was smooth sailing through town and beyond.

Morocco is amazingly green at this time of year, at least in the central coastal areas from Casablanca north. Word on the street is that Casablanca doesn’t have a lot to offer visitors and I have to agree. Due to it’s incredible size and impressive artistry, the Hassan II Mosque is an exception worth seeing. The young mosque, completed in 1989, is perched, in part, over the Atlantic, and can hold 25,000 worshipers. It has the world’s tallest minaret at 210 meters and cost at least $800 million to build.

While Casablanca is the economic capital of Morocco, Rabat is the official government capital. Also on the Atlantic, it’s a pleasant small city filled with government and university folks. With little time to spare, we pushed on to Meknes to tour its impressive Casbah, a fortified palace, built by 10,000+ African and European slaves (the latter being sailors captured at sea!) and complete with stables for thousands of horses, a granary to provide food for a 10-year siege, and numerous nods to King Louis XIV, who was a pal and ally of the then Sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail, who made this his imperial capital while ruling from 1672-1724.

Next stop, the surprisingly (at least to me) impressive Roman ruins at Volubilis, which the United Nations has designated the site a World Heritage Site. The mosaics depicting gods and demigods such as Jupiter and Hercules were impressive as were the city’s organization and wealth–hot tubs, decorative fish ponds, sewage systems, temples and arches, etc.

On the way to Fes we were pulled over at a police checkpoint. Turns out, the policeman was buddies with my guide “back home.” They greeted each other like long lost brothers and after a short chat, we were on our way. (Greetings between friends here are very enthusiastic.) Upon arrival in Fes, we walked a few hundred yards down a narrow, twisting alleyway, which brought us to what appeared to be a large Moroccan U-Store-It unit, with bare light bulb and electric wires looming over the large wooden door. The only thing distinguishing it from a closet was a heavy knocker and bronze plaque–Riad Myra. “We like to use this place because it’s not so deep in the Medina where you can get easily lost,” said Hussein. Great, I thought. (Turns our Fes has the world’s largest “living” Medina. A Medina could be called a city center, but is probably more accurately described as a giant maze!) But as soon as we knocked and the door opened, it was like walking into a hidden oasis. Here, I enjoyed a hot shower, delicious dinner of Chicken tagine (stewed with lemon and onions), and a great night’s sleep.

Riad Myra is one of many riads–restored homes with incredibly high ceilings, peaceful inner courtyards, lots of steep stairs and loads of charm–in Fes and throughout Morocco. Most have 5-20 rooms and are often located in the heart of the action. They are great places to rest your head and serve as a base for exploring, and I highly recommend giving one a try for part or all of your stay here.

After a comfortable night’s sleep I had a full day tour of Fes, focusing on the huge Medina which encompasses 2,500 acres of low-lying valley surrounded by hills and small mountains. Here, 350,000 people live densely packed with assorted cats, dogs and donkeys, which provide the only method of moving goods in and out of many areas. The people effortlessly navigate narrow alleyways and paths to go about their daily lives, which seem to have changed little over the centuries, save the addition of cell phones and a few other modernities.  You name it and you can probably find it in one of the stalls–almonds, snails, ceremonial wedding chairs adorned with sequins, books, televisions, T-shirts, eels, oranges, gum, cigarettes and, of course, the odd camel head. Although a feast for the eyes and ears, parts can be a bit smelly and those suffering from claustrophobia should pick their path wisely.

Fes is known as the birthplace of Islam in Morocco and there is no shortage of Islamic sites including the mausoleum and shrine to Moulay Idriss II, and the University of Kairouine, founded in 859, making it the oldest continuously operating institution of higher learning in the world, according to my guide. Moroccans pride themselves on their moderate practice of Islam and religious inclusiveness and Jews have played an important part in Moroccan culture for centuries. There are many Jewish sites to visit here in the Jewish mellah, or quarters. They include a synagogue and the Jewish cemetery which features the tomb of Solica, who was killed for reusing to convert to Islam and was later declared a saint. Secular points of interest include the smelly but impressive tannery and sections filled with metal workers, carpenters and weavers. I enjoyed a stop at a nearby ceramics cooperative, where potters create bowls, decorative plates, tile tables and much more. Samples are for sale, of course. We finished our visit atop a high hill overlooking the Medina, and I returned to my riad tired but happy I’d made the journey.

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