THE TRAVEL BUG EPISODE 29: MAGICAL MOROCCO part 2

The Travel Bug

The Moroccan adventure continues with Ash who in the first post, described why Morocco has been on his Bucketlist for years, then proceeded to guide us through the old cities of Rabat, Tangier and Chefchaoen.  

Let’s continue our travel with our man Ash..


Chefchaoen

My hotel in Chefchaoen was a family run boutique hotel owned by an Italian man and his local wife, with quirky and individually designed bedrooms at multiple levels linked by narrow and winding stairs. They also owned an adjoining handicraft store which serves to support their income from their hotel business. 

Innkeeper smoking kif

Being Friday afternoon, most of the stalls in the Medina were closed for prayers. This did not deter several people who approached me trying to sell “kif” (marijuana).

I walked through the Kasbah, the main square and did “window shopping” admiring the variety of wool garments, woven blankets, and trinkets for sale. 

Laneway in Chef

Later in the evening, I joined groups of young Chinese and Spanish tourists, walked uphill to a look-out point, site of the Spanish mosque and a spectacular aerial view of the city and a glorious sunset. 

On the way back, I stopped at several shops including an art gallery owned by a Berber/Tuareg who wore his traditional blue garb for maximum effect.

He had a remarkable collection of paintings and sculptures covering all facets of Moroccan life. 

It was getting late and I realised how much the town depended on the tourist trade for its existence. Dinner was at a popular restaurant in the main square facing the Kasbah and consisted of a tagine of goat meat with dried fruits (tahliya), followed by a superb dessert of local fruit salad. It was past 11.00pm and even at this late hour, the hustle and bustle continue unabated, no mean achievement for a small town not noted for its nightlife.

Chefchaoen to Fes

In keeping with the laid-back atmosphere in this blue rinsed town, life does not start until noon.  An early breakfast at the hotel was therefore out of the question. The hotel keeper reluctantly agreed to a 10 am breakfast prepared by hired help who only start work at 9 am. After breakfast, I walked through the local Artisan Centre where I saw artisans at work making rugs, clothes, ceramics and other goods for sale. Next, I headed for the bus station for my trip to Fes. At the station, I met an Aussie couple from Gosford (1 hour north of Sydney) who have lived in their own house in Chefchaoen for more than twenty years. They were seeing off an Aussie friend who was on her way back from Ireland.

The four-hour bus trip was made more bearable by the interesting conversations I had sitting next to an American couple who were studying Arabic language and culture in Fes for a year and a pious Muslim woman who spoke about the virtues of her religion. It was getting dark by the time the bus pulled into the station in Fes and I made my way to my Riad (traditional house with courtyard now converted to a hotel) in the 1200-year-old Medina. I was met by the helpful Nordin (a “Sahrawi”: a black guy who comes from the western Sahara Desert) who tried to sell me a 3-day desert tour conducted by his “brother”.  Instead, I settled for a day tour to the Imperial city of Meknes and the Roman ruins at Volubilis the next day. Dinner was at a restaurant near the ancient Blue Gate (Bab Bou Jeloud) and consisted of a vegetarian couscous washed down by a yogurt based drink.

Fes (also spelt Fes) is the second largest city in Morocco, with a population of 1.1 million and was the capital of modern Morocco until 1925. The city has two old Medinas, the larger of which is Fes el Bali. It is listed as a World Heritage Site and is believed to be one of the world’s largest urban pedestrian zones. The city has also been called the “Mecca of the West” and the “Athens of Africa”. It has the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, University of Al Quaraouiyine (also spelt Kairaouine), founded in 859 AD.

Fes to Meknes

The next morning I joined a small group of seven for a day tour to Volubilis, Moulay Ismail and Meknes. The group comprised a French couple, three European medical students on internship in Casablanca and a young English guy who saved up enough money from working in MacDonald’s to travel. The first stop was Volubilis, a partly excavated Berber and Roman city near Meknes, founded around 3rd century BC and commonly considered as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania. 

The UNESCO heritage listed site covers an area of 42 hectares, showing the interface between the Roman and indigenous cultures at the frontiers of the Roman Empire.

The sun was blazing hot as we explored the ruins on this well-preserved archaeological site.

Aerial view of Moulay Idriss town

We then made a brief stop at the town of Moulay Idriss, an Islamic pilgrimage site. Moulay Idriss founded Morocco’s first Arab dynasty and came to power in Volubilis. He also began construction work on the city of Fes. 

Tajin for sale alongside restaurants

The group then decided to stop for a late lunch in the market square (Pl el Hadim) of Meknes at the entrance to the Medina. 

Meknes saw its golden age as the imperial capital of Moulay Ismail following his accession to the Sultanate of Morocco (1672–1727) and is  over-shadowed by its grand neighbour Fes. After a bit of more sightseeing, we decided to call it a day and made our way back to Fes.

Feeling inspired by the remains of the various civilisations we had witnessed earlier in the day, the French couple and I decided it was time to celebrate life. On our return to Fes , we went to a French inspired restaurant to taste the local wine over a long discussions on the meaning of life and related matters. Yves was an engineer and had worked in South Africa for many years. He and his wife were able to travel now that their children had grown up. We ended up with a late tajin dinner in the Medina, after which I made my way back to my Riad.  As I approached my hotel, I encountered my first experience of physical intimidation by two local guys who demanded money for some perceived wrong action on my part. I was told later that this was quite “normal” in Fes as I was to find out over the next couple of days.

Fes

After the excitement of the previous day, I decided to sleep in and had a late breakfast. Running short of cash, I went looking for a money changer (remembering that Aussie dollars were not accepted in Morocco and neither were credit cards) and rationing my USD as I had many more days to go.

I decided to do a bit of sightseeing in Fes on my own although most travel guide books discourage this due to the complex web of alleys and laneways which are almost certain to get you lost. I found out that even the GPS on my smart phone was not working normally as it constantly ended up in a circle of probable locations each time I typed in an address. 

Fes Medina

The Fes Medina has two main “thoroughfares” running its full length; I was in a hotel in a laneway off the one. I decided to explore the other and walk down its entire length. I had only walked a short while when I heard a shout and the next thing I knew I was run over by a heavily laden donkey cart driven by a crazy guy. The cart wheels ran over the toes of my left foot and my watch was ripped off and fell to the ground. A few shopkeepers came to my aid but I wasn’t hurt although it was painful to walk. This was my firsthand experience of the dangers of the ancient Medina, apart from pickpockets, fraudsters and trouble makers of various sorts.

I continued to walk and window shop, gazing at small shops selling spices, leather and brass goods, carpets, clothes and other knickknacks. After a few brief stops and turns, I realised that I was no longer on the original pathway and sought the assistance of shopkeepers. A young local guy appeared out of nowhere and speaking in English, pointed out the direction I should take. He ended up as my unplanned “tour guide” and over the course of the next hour, showed me a tannery which also sold expensive leather goods, shops selling musical instruments, Berber carpets and rugs, and Argon oil based cosmetic products. 

Tannery

Naturally, at all of these places, I was the subject of high-pressure sales techniques which I resisted, but was compelled to give tips to those who made the time to show me their products! My guide then proceeded to negotiate his tip, even though he had said at the outset that he was doing it for free and wanted to practice his English! I guess he was entitled to it as he did not get any sales commission from the shops we visited.   

One of the most iconic sights in Fes is the sights and smells of the Chaouwara tanneries that produce world class leather goods using techniques that haven’t changed since medieval times. I was, however, satisfied with the smaller tanneries I had just visited. I next proceeded to the spiritual heart of Fes to view the Mederasa el-Attarine (religious school), the Kairaouine Mosque and University (which are not opened to non-Muslims). It was getting much hotter as I proceed back to the hotel after a quick snack and drink made of avocado and milk. Dinner at the tourist complex of the Blue Gate was a tajin of meat balls, eggs and tomato sauce with mint tea.

The last day

I was heading off to Marrakesh the next day and decided to make the most of my last full day in Fes, catching up on sights that I had missed. I walked down to Batha Square intending to visit the Batha Museum which has a collection of traditional Moroccan arts and crafts, ceramics, carpets and antique instruments. Unfortunately, it was closed. I then walked down to the Royal Palace (not open to the public) and the nearby Bou Jeloud Gardens. I ended up at the Kasbah which at this time of the day, was an open-air fruit and vegetable market interspaced with food stalls. I stopped along the way back to the hotel at a brassware shop, engaging with the artisans working onsite, who persuaded me to buy various trinkets. 

Brassware artisan

After a quick lunch and short siesta away from the sweltering sun, I decided to head to Borj Nord, a lookout that offers panoramic views of the city and spectacular sunsets. As it was early, I explored the mysterious skeletal remains of the Merenid Tombs (built in the 14th century); saw sheep grazing on the hill sides and vendor selling souvenirs. 

aerial view of Fes

Merenid tombs

As we approached dusk, the number of spectators and tourists increased dramatically. The sunset was not as dramatic as I had anticipated.

I needed a beer after being out in the sun for so long so I headed for Batha Hotel which was noted as a local “watering hole”. Unfortunately, the restaurant-cum-bar was closed (not my day!) but the helpful hotel keeper directed one of his staff to escort me to alternative close by. I could get a drink at this elegant place but I had to have their set dinner (degustation menu) as well. It was too late to back out now and I agreed. The restaurant was full of well-heeled American and Japanese tourists with a few locals. It was a delightful dining experience with a significant price tag that I hadn’t planned for. Service was impeccable but the food was not outstanding, although plentiful.

On my return to the hotel, Nordin (the inn keeper) took the opportunity to share with me his frustrations of running the Riad by himself as he could not afford hired help. He was locked into a longish lease on the high rent property and given the seasonality of the tourist trade and ever-increasing competition, he was forced to match room rates even if these were below his costs. His personal life was in shambles and he was looking for a way out of his misery. I couldn’t do much but offer him my willing ear and consoling words.


The Travel Bug

This Travel Bug is a collaboration with Ash, a long-time friend and culture fan who is always up for discovering old worlds and their people. I live a little through his stories and I hope that you do too!

We have one more part to go through which will be coming up shortly.

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