Imperial Cities and Red Tape

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Africa » Morocco » Fès-Boulemane » Fes
May 9th 2012
Published: May 9th 2012
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Nador, it did not look too encouraging from the boat as we approached the harbour, a long sprawl of concrete apartment blocks and cheap hotels. The place had only been built after independence to provide Morocco with an alternative port to Spanish controlled Melilla a few kilometres to the north and the place had the look and feel of a town that had been thrown up in a hurry. After several manoeuvres the captain slotted the boat into the docking berth and powered down the engines. We felt the clunk and thud of heavy machinery and the opening of doors beneath our feet as we waiting to be allowed to return to our vehicles. This was it, we would soon be on African soil. We emerged from the bowels of the ship blinking as our eyes struggled to adjust to the glare of the Moroccan sun and drove onto the quayside.

We were directed into the huge customs shed and awaited further instructions. We were one of the last few vehicles off the boat so were sitting way back in the queue so mentally we bedded in for a long wait. Various ‘helpers’ approached us offering to assist in form filling and generally greasing the wheels of the customs procedure. We knew we had our paperwork in order so waved them off to annoy someone else. We watched from afar as the various overloaded trucks with Moroccan plates were forced to disgorge their contents onto the tarmac by the smartly dressed customs officers. In some cases it was actually quite a feat of packing to squeeze what appeared to be hundreds of old IT monitors or hundreds of mattresses into such a small space. The super hard core extreme overland adventure uber off-road expedition team parked ahead of us used their time to apply some more stickers to the doors of their 4x4s, we were clearly in the presence of off road royalty now. After waiting about 20 mins with no sign of movement we decided to go exploring to find out what was going on as there seemed be no order to who was been waved through and who was being forced to wait. We managed to collar the attention of one of the more senior customs officers who looked every part the South American dictator with his huge hat, epilates, breast of medals and obligatory pencil moustache and mirrored aviator sunglasses. He paused for a moment sizing us up and then to our pleasant surprise he took our vehicle import papers with a huge smile and signed them off and stamped them, we were free to go. We rolled out of Nador port and into Morocco proper. Well, when we say Morocco we mean the afore mentioned new town of spectacular blandness. There was absolutely nothing there of interest other than a means of entry into the country. We tapped in the co-ordinates of a campsite on the outskirts of town we had heard about into the GPS and headed off in that direction. One of the first things that strike you when you start driving in Morocco is the sheer number of old Mercedes on the road, all of them taxis, most still sporting a Deutschland sticker on the back. The second thing is the use of the horn, every driver seems to be ‘honking’ at every other driver for no apparent reason whatsoever. I decided to join in the fun and dish out my fair share of ‘honking’ to all and sundry much to the irritation of Gill. (Gill Insert: there was no reason for the honking, so it has been rationed to 5 times for each trip we do!!)

We made it to the campsite only to discover that it had closed down, this was the last thing we needed as it was beginning to get dark and the last thing we wanted was to be wandering about country lanes looking for somewhere to sleep. After several more aborted attempts to find alternative camping we bit the bullet and booked ourselves into a hotel, it almost felt like a cop out but after our journey across Europe we simply did not care anymore and wanted somewhere to rest. With Tyrone safely locked up in secure parking we took a stroll into town to find some food and stumbled across a café selling lovely shawarma kebabs. Back at the hotel we elected to have a cheeky beer before bed, it was here that Gill got a taste of things to come as the moment she walked through the door all eyes of the entirely male dominated room were piercing her.

We were up the next morning itching to get on the road and into the ‘real’ Morocco but we still had to sort out our vehicle insurance. Our bright spirits of getting this organised quickly soon started to fade as one insurance bureau after another was unable to help us. Eventually after returning to the port we finally managed to get hold of someone who specialised in the sort of cover we were looking for, we even found a friendly policemen who hopped into his car and gave us a personal escort to the insurance office. Unfortunately they too did not have the correct paperwork to hand so sent us to their sister office down the road in Oujda. We did not mind heading that way as we were just fed up with staying in Nador.

We were rather naively expecting Oujda to be some kind of dusty Wild West frontier town, an edgy staging post for fuel and cigarette smugglers making nightly dashes across the long closed Algerian border. We felt a bit silly when we found it to be a modern, clean and bustling cosmopolitan town with a vibrant medina and large university. Oujada had suffered a little bit with the closure of the Algerian border but the town was more than just a stopover point for travellers and owed much of its wealth to agriculture and mining. There were no advertised campsites in town so we opted for the easy option and found a cheapo Ibis hotel by the station. After checking in we found the insurance office with ease and within 10 minutes had our vehicle insurance too. After the ballache of the previous day it was nice to now just relax. We took a walk around the ancient walls of the medina, we did not venture inside as I was still carrying every important document that we possessed and did not want to risk losing them, and anyway, Fes was going to be our first introduction to medina life. We soon found ourselves outside one of the medieval gates where a market was in full swing, knock off watches, fresh bread, orange juice, Bollywood DVDs and slippers were all up for grabs as old women in traditional dress and young lads in designer gear haggled with exaggerated gestures and gasps of disbelief at prices being offered. Soon the smell of street food caught our attention we were drawn to a ramshackle street side café with plastic garden furniture and
Fes ClassroomFes ClassroomFes Classroom

OFSTED would have a field day
an elderly man turning over brochettes of lamb and beef on custom made BBQ grill. I don’t think the owner got many tourists in his establishment as he suddenly started to make a fuss around us setting up a table and using the morning’s paper as tablecloth. The locals looked on with wry amusement before carrying on with their conversations. While the place was not what you would call clean, it had a brisk trade with freshly cooked food flying out the door. We would rather eat there then risk some hotel buffet where food had been left to fester in perfect bacterial conditions under some hot lamp. Anyway, this place was packed with locals and that was good enough for us. We had to take the plunge and introduce our stomachs to the gauntlet of street food sooner or later and now seemed like a good an opportunity as any. We were soon offered a plate of barbequed sardines and spicy sausages as well as hunk of fresh bread and a few bottles of coke. Perfect.

The next day we made another long drive to Fes, we kind of cheated by using the brand new AutoRoute as we just wanted to get there as soon as possible and put our feet up for a few days as we felt had not really been outside the car for a week. We knew that by bypassing the small towns and villages enroute we would be missing out on seeing the local people up close but guiltily we drove on. We were reminded of Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when he describes driving in a car as just an extension of watching TV, he was kind of right.

We found a campsite about 8km outside of Fes and set up home for a few days, it was nice after all the driving to actually just do nothing, read our books and relax in the sun. Fes is the oldest of Morocco’s Imperial cities. Founded by Idris I way back in 789 and it has had a central role in the country’s turbulent history since. For most visitors though it is the medina that draws people to Fes and we spent a day exploring the labyrinth of alleys and narrow streets that make up the souks. Although it is easy to get lost the medina it is not actually that big and as it is hemmed in by its old city walls so you can’t stray too far off the beaten track.

The souk area of the medina is divided into various trades and crafts, spices, confectionary, metalwork, haberdashery and meat all have their own distinct patch. Quite often it is the same family that has been running a particular shop or stand for generations. We just went with the flow of people happy to see where it took us. Gill heard the familiar sounds of a classroom and saw an open doorway leading into a single room school. The teacher saw us peering in and she waved us in to take a look. There must have been about 25 kids squeezed into an area the size of your average kitchen, two to three children sharing a single desk. They seemed to be having fun and enjoyed the distraction of two random tourists at the front of the classroom.

We strolled past the tap-tap-tapping of the metalwork workshops and eventually found ourselves in a street lined with butchers. It soon became clear that nothing goes to waste here as brains, tongues and intestines were stacked next to traditional cuts of beef and lamb. In some places what was being served by a particular vendor that day was advertised by the severed head of the animal in question being hoisted high on a meat hook above the shop. So as we walked by you were greeted by the grisly sight of goats and camel heads slowly turning in the wind like some kind of macabre child’s mobile.

It was interesting to watch how the locals go about buying their meat, it would seem much of the produce was alive that morning, in the case of chickens they were alive till the point of purchase. You see people inspecting said chicken similarly to someone inspecting a second hand car back home. The bird was prodded, weighed, poked, wings unfolded and eyes peered into. Once satisfied the chicken was then dispatched with a knife to the throat, bled, plucked then bagged up for the customer. It makes you realise just how disconnected we are to our food back home when you pop down the local supermarket.

With the afternoon rolling on we finally found ourselves in the tannery area of the souk and it stank, hardly surprising really given the centuries old process that is still used. Basically they use pigeon poo and cows piss to soften the leather up. Add to that heady cocktail 30 plus degree temperatures it can all get a bit ripe. We managed to witness the generations old leather treatment process and marvelled at the utter lack of protective clothing as workers waded around in pools full ammonia and toxic dyes. It was time for dinner and after deftly avoiding being forced into buying a pair of lemon yellow leather slippers we found a roof terrace restaurant that provided fine views of the 100,000 satellite dishes that populated the skyline.

We shipped out of Fes to the neighbouring city of Meknes, another one of Morocco’s ‘Imperial Cities’. We picked the wrong day to be in the centre of town as it seemed there was both an agricultural festival and a horse fair so the streets were rammed. The proposed campsite we intended to use was closed for the festival weekend and the other site advertised in the increasingly unreliable Lonely Planet guide did not exist so again with light fading we headed north to the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis where we knew a campsite would be open. This camping lark was a bit of a lottery.

Volubilis itself was once the capital of the Roman province of Mauritania Tingitana and was a thriving city until it was abandoned as recently as the 18th century when much of the stone was removed to build the nearby towns of Meknes and Mouly Idris. There was a certain melancholy sadness about the place as we wandered around the ruins of the basilica, the columns of the old forum and victory arch. Some of the more grand villas still had their fully intact mosaic floors on show, unchanged from almost 2000 years ago. The next day we packed up and drove to Rabat, we arrived just in time to get caught up in the most violent of thunderstorms, the sky blackened and the rain came down in torrents causing drains to back up and flood the streets. This was not what we had envisaged when we had set off from the UK.

We joined the Mauritanian embassy queue for visas. You had to feel a bit sorry for the dirt poor Mauritanians, they could only afford an embassy on a crap side street, far away from the grand buildings that house the British and US embassies. Annoyingly we discovered that the next day was a public holiday so we would now have to wait an extra day in Rabat for our visas. We duly filled out our application forms and doffed our caps to the spectacularly rude Mauritanian official who clearly hated everyone and his job. Any sympathy we initially had for his crap place of work soon departed. We had initially stayed at campsite down the road but it was a truly awful place so we parked up Tyrone and booked ourselves into a cheap and cheerful hotel in the medina to sit out our wait for our visas. One thing that medinas have a plentiful supply of (other than kids in Barcelona shirts and the hassling efforts of faux guides) and that is mosques, something we forgot about when booking our hotel. You simply cannot get a good night’s sleep when near a mosque due to the call to prayer at some unearthly time in the morning. In the bigger medinas you can end up having a ‘Call to Prayer Off’ before sunrise as loudspeakers from two dozen mosque minarets compete with each other to gain the attention of their flock. The problem though is that they all seem to play the same scratchy distorted tape at the same time so you end up with a sort of special needs choir version of X factor or something approaching what Stephen Hawking would have come up with if asked to rerecord ‘Good Vibrations’ by the Beach Boys. Either way, it’s the last thing you need at 4.30am.

Ultimately waiting in Rabat was a bit of a chore. It’s not that there was anything wrong with Rabat but it really was a soulless place that serves an administrative function only. It does have the world’s tallest mosque minaret apparently but we simply could not be arsed to see it for ourselves and were content to while away the time in the various coffee shops watching the world go by. We dragged ourselves back to the Mauritanian embassy to have the rude official frisbee our passports back. We raced out of Rabat and headed south the Atlas Mountains and the desert dune fields beyond.


10th May 2012

Great update Dan & Gill
I've really enjoyed reading your blog so far guys, but we do need a picture of you cheesily gurning next to the most undeservingly gold-decorated petty official you can find! Keep up the good work, keep safe and have fun. Duncan, Kate & Harry x x x
10th May 2012

Sounds like you have already experienced the good the bad and the ugly!
More soon from you guys-maybe when you get to the mountains you can try out Tyrone as a hotel-with the shower too, you said
11th May 2012

Call to prayer is enjoyable
I have been to morocco 9 times and have driven all over the place. The call to prayer is very relaxing and enjoyable to me. Because it is such a part of the culture you should learn about how Moroccans use the call to prayer as guidance to there day. Many times I have had Moroccans say I will meet you at maghreb prayer, instead of saying 7 pm. I would also recommend listening to the call to prayers and see if you can pick up words and remember them. Also it might be fun to find a translation and actually see what they are saying. Enjoy morocco.. I would recommend next time going to el jadida if you have a chance.
11th May 2012

Welcome to Africa!
Great to be following your travels! If you keep this level of detail up all round I will be very impressed. Fantastic photos. Stay safe, love Sarah x
11th May 2012

Welcome to Africa!
Great to be following your travels! If you keep this level of detail up all round I will be very impressed. Fantastic photos. Stay safe, love Sarah x
13th May 2012

well done dan/gilly.. is the teacher giving you gold stars for these reports..(the ass is gas)
18th May 2012

Greetings from oz
Enjoying the blog, guys... Especially likening the adhan to a 'special needs choir'. Gold. Halfway to your first fatwah, I reckon. Now stop being so nice about everything, and start amusing me!
25th June 2012

We went to Morocco just a few months ago
Thank you for sharing your trip. You've brought back some wonderful memories. Can't wait to read more.
16th July 2012

We went to Fes last fall.
I had not thought of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance in a long time. Your blog has provided us with many pleasant memories.

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