Bluewash front door Moulay Idriss Zerhoun
The colours along the streets in this town were the result of a high school student project. Mainly blue but also some purples, greens and pinks.
Our decision to visit Morocco was made late. This trip is about Ireland and Greece, with a side trip to the UK to chase down a few long dead relatives and some very much alive friends. But we did need to spend at least 24 days out of the Shengen area so that we didn't overstay our 90 days in 180 visa waiver allowance – again. Where to spend that time? Why not some of it in Morocco?
Morocco – and the rest of the Arab world – has always been on our agenda. I started to learn some Arabic in preparation some years ago, but that intention slipped away as the workload establishing our new home increased. Travelling through Morocco without Arabic as independent travellers – researching the country to work out which places would be best to visit, making bookings for accommodation and transport and finding good local guides in key places – seemed likely to be difficult. Also, from what we knew about Morocco it was going to take us more that a couple of weeks to have a decent look around. The two weeks we had available wasn't enough.
The obvious answer, of course, was
Waiting for work in Moulay Idriss Zerhoun
Because the streets are narrow and often stepped, donkeys are the main carriers of all sorts of heavy items, including building materials.
to have someone else do all of the work and organise our time efficiently and effectively. We just pay out some money and sit back and enjoy. So that is what we did.
We have been on 2 Intrepid trips before. First, through China in 2001 and then in 2003 from St Petersburg along the Silk Road, so we had a fair idea what to expect. The company operates with ethics and principles that we appreciate and they have been offering trips in Morocco for sufficient time to have established a network of local guides and to have tested their itineraries. We did check out a couple of the other companies but decided to go with the one that had done well by us in the past.
There were a couple of options for trips at, or about, the time we wanted to go. We picked the 'Real Food Adventure' trip. It wasn't the most active available and it didn't do some of the things we would like to do but, at this time and in the amount of time we had, it made sense to focus on food and such for 10 days rather than try to
Clock tower, Medina ,Casablanca
A handy landmark when trying to find your way in the medina.
do a longer and more active trip. This way there will be plenty to do when we return.
We decided to arrive in Casablanca a full day before the trip and stay a full day after it concluded in Marrakesh to give ourselves a little more time to have a look around those two cities. We probably shouldn't have bothered that much about Casablanca. The city left us with the impression that tourists are ok but not really necessary.
We arrived at the airport, 33 kilometres from the city, one evening following a significant thunderstorm that had wreaked havoc in other parts of the country and dumped an impressive quantity of rain in Casablanca. There were no difficulties for us though, apart from a little confusion in the baggage area of the airport where it wasn't immediately obvious where the bags from our flight had been deposited, and this was totally unrelated to the rain. Taxis were organised at the airport into a queue and there was a man providing assistance. We needed to agree on the price for the trip – recommended at 250MAD during the day and 300MAD evening and night – and there was no
Juice shop display, Casablanca
The plastic buckets contain jerky which is cured in the meat's own fat, not dried.
problem doing so.
Perhaps it was due to the storm or perhaps it was normal but the centre of the city was a bit more of a mess than we expected. The closer we came to our hotel the more paper, plastic and cardboard seemed to be strewn around. We went out to find food and had to pick our way through. It was just litter and nothing more serious but it seemed strange. Came out next morning and 'voila' it was all gone. The place was as clean as it could have been. We came to the conclusion, after watching the way things worked during the next day, that there must have been a lot more street market activity on the day we arrived and, therefore, a lot more rubbish around. The storm possibly prevented some of the clean up earlier. We concluded it was an aberration. It didn't happen the next day.
Casablanca is a working city and is known as the economic capital of the country. Major companies have their offices there and there is clearly money about in the housing market. In the centre where we spent most of our time there was enough
Home for 12000 horses in Meknes
Now roofless, these stables were built by Moulay Ismail.
for tourists to do for a day or two. The Ancient Medina kept us busy for much of one day, largely because we found it easy to get ourselves lost and spent just a bit longer than we intended finding our way back to the point we started.
The city has a tram system that apparently extends 30 kilometres through the city. It shifts a lot of commuters and tourists. For us it was a very handy navigation point. It is hard to find a useful map of the city area so we used the tram line, which ran for a considerable distance along Mohammed V Boulevard, as a means of keeping our bearings as we moved around the city.
The street one back and parallel with Mohammed V, on the side closest to the Ancient Medina, has a variety of eating establishments, and just a few dedicated to drinking. The City Market sits behind a gate/arch decorated in green mosaic tiles. There are a number of reasonable eating establishments in the area that seem to focus mainly on tourists. Because it was Friday we didn't get to visit the Hassan II Mosque. This is a very impressive
Entering the medina at Casablanca
It was quite a while before we exited.
building and hailed as one of the great mosques.
The Intrepid tour commenced, as they typically do, with a briefing session at 6.00pm followed by a dinner. There we met Tarik who would be our guide for the next 10 days. Tarik ran through the itinerary, talked through the way we would travel and picked out some key messages. He didn't overload us with detail but we finished the briefing with the feeling that what was to come would be more interesting and enjoyable that we had been anticipating. The troop of 11 travellers were from South Africa, England/France, Canada, USA, Mexico and, of course, Australia.
The trip is about food so, appropriately, we started out with dinner in a good local restaurant. Most started with tagines but there were some who opted for pastillo (we were due to learn to cook these at some point and some of us weren't too sure what they should look and taste like) and others went for cous cous. We would learn to cook all of these dishes.
It is possible to become tired of hotel breakfasts so when we were told that we would be going out on the
Display in the Meknes medina.
street for breakfast that was good. We had eyed off some of the juice shops during the last couple of days but hadn't tried one. Tarik insisted that we needed to be in place 10 minutes before the rush. He was right. We came to realise that he normally was right. The juice stores have an extensive menu that I could never remember. Suffice to say that the one we did try for breakfast with the group was impressive. These shops prepare their juices from fresh ingredients on the spot. They also provide bread – everyone provides bread – and omelettes. The juice was very good and excellent value for money.
There are other options around the area on a variety of wheeled trolleys. You can always find mint tea. Just be sure to settle on how much sugar you want before you order. There is a vegetable mix wrapped in pastry, a little like a Malaysian murtabak, a piece of fried fish in a thick slice of bread or boiled eggs spread on bread. You would probably need to be a little careful with some of the products that are mixed with water but the street sellers we
Cookware stall Meknes
Don't think you'd be allowed to buy anything from the bottom row.
encountered were offering food with little chance of contamination.
Our first experience of a Moroccan train was in first class. Very flash for us. Pretty much the same as any other train though except that the recent rain had caused mud drips over the windows – bad news for photos on the journey. Later in the trip we travelled second class: that is also comfortable but without allocated seats
The train went through Rabat, the political capital of the country and the main home of the king. King Mohammed V1 is currently in place and appears to be very popular. He is a constitutional monarch who operates with a democratically elected parliament but still seems to have at least strong influence, if not some reasonably strong powers. The King has clearly modernised his role and this seems to have been favourably received by the majority of the populace.
Flying into Casablanca we remarked on the pattern of rural agricultural land. The area around Casablanca is clearly very productive but we couldn't really tell what was actually growing. The train from Casablanca to Rabat and Meknes passed through similarly productive country. Grapes, olives, onions, carrots and more olives
Indoor trees effect
The dining room of our hotel in Casablanca.
were among the products being grown, at least in the immediate vicinity of the railway tracks.
One of the more curious crops for us was the prickly pear. The same type of prickly pear that famously was introduced to Queensland in Australia with disastrous results many years ago. Cactoblastis is famous in Australia for eating out the prickly pear that had covered thousands of hectares of land. They don't want cactoblastis in Morocco. They are farming prickly pear here using the fruit for jams that are becoming an important export market, using the prickly pear as boundary fencing and the leaves for medicines.
We travelled to Meknes and immediately leapt into the colour coordinated taxis to travel to Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. (Taxis in each of the Moroccan cities are a different colour – red, blue, beige, yellow etc – I guess so if you happen to have over indulged in something and climb off the train in the wrong city your mistake will become immediately apparent. Also a nice branding arrangement.)
Our taxi ride to Moulay Idriss was interesting. Our particular taxi was an old Mercedes. Built like a tank and seemed to handle in much the
Camel kofta and camel burger
Lunch in Meknes - very tasty too.
same way. Our driver wasn't overly concerned with the handling. The brakes were clearly there but the suspension was loose, to put not too fine a point on it. Our driver informed us that the government had given the taxis in Meknes 4 years to upgrade. They had been given a list of acceptable vehicles and are required to purchase one of those and put their current machines off the road. The new ones will be prettier but I rather liked the Mercedes tank and I share the taxi driver's concerns that the new models won't last as long or take the punishment of the vehicles they replace.
Moulay Idriss is Morocco's holiest city, a town that is important to Moroccans and to others of the Moslem faith because the great, great grandson of the prophet Mohammed had travelled here to further the establishment of the Islamic faith in Morocco. He is buried here in the area of the mosque. This is an important pilgrimage site for many Moslems.
Moulay Idriss is also the place where we received instruction in the proper way to prepare couscous from scratch. No packets purchased at the local supermarket here. Everything prepared
Alongside the Royal Palace in Meknes
The king has access to a lot of palaces (all owned by the nation, not the royal family) and this one includes a golf course.
quickly and efficiently right there in front of us by the lady of the riad that we were staying in.
Meknes, 30 or so kms from Moulay Idriss, owes its fame to Moulay Ismail who was ruler of Morocco at the time of Napoleon. Moulay Ismail had an ambition to be a major player on the world stage in the late 18th
century. He created a city that was capable of defence against substantial armies and established a massive army, part of which was a cavalry. The royal stables, which still, exist although without a roof, housed 12,000 horses on site. The granaries, established to allow the city to withstand a 10 year seige, are very well worth a tour by anyone interested in construction methods and climate control.
The Meknes old city, or medina, is the first one that we have been in with a guide. This may not seem to be something worth comment. It was, however, the first time that I have ventured into one of these places without wondering just how long it would be before we emerged. We have tried a few strategies – keep turning left worked for a while but then
Boulevard toward port of Casablanca
We saw a photo of this street taken when the trees were less than a metre high and the buildings new.
we ended up coming across more than enough gates in to the place. Medinas tend to divide into districts and each will tend to have a bath house, bakery, mosque and water source. This is useful to know but for it to be really useful as a navigation tool you need to be able to recognise the different districts. There are ways of doing so but it is not so easy. Trust me, the best way of getting around in a medina is to either know the place really well or get yourself someone who does. A good guide is worth a lot.
Meknes is also well known for damascene and embroidery. It is hard to get out of the place without a sample or two, and we were no more successful than most others in achieving that objective. And our bargaining skills definitely need work.
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