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Published: November 1st 2018
The Blue CityGet some sleep on the plane,
Chefchaouen was a quaint little reflection of years gone by
I said. Take your Dukoral,
I said. Go easy on the street food
, I said. All my travel advice goes unheeded by my neophyte travel buddy from Winnipeg. We Rock the Kasbah…and then she falls horribly ill.
I will call her Winnie the Pooh. Because, well, you can imagine.
My Sahara trek, scrapped.
Rather than get seriously bummed, I rally. I already know I’ll return to Marrakech. Those shifting sands of the great Sahara will just have to wait.
Winnie too, perks up, after a hospital visit and a few days of bedrest. So, with Marrakech in our rearview mirror, we head straight for the station to catch a train to Casablanca.
Trains in Morocco are very decent, our carriage is piled high with older women who are friendly but aloof as they transition back and forth between Arabic and French. I offer the oldest a snack, she takes one peanut and holds it in her hand for the rest of the trip. Her grandson catches my uber-amused expression and explains she considers my offering a gift, so she won’t eat it.
We roll into Casablanca midday, and take
Mooshie, the Donkey
Poor little guy was in charge of hauling my luggage up the hill - I bought him a bag of carrots
their modern tram through the city. A complete contrast to Marrakech, the white city glitters as is teeters alongside the Atlantic coast.
Eager to explore the souk, but first we have a scheduled tour of the Hassan II mosque.
What a spectacular marvel it is. Sitting on a turbulent breakwater, the build was finished in 1993 for the King of Morocco, it fits 105,000 worshipers inside and out, with the roof retracting to reveal the heavens. Inside, the finest decor and wood carvings, even the minaret is a whopping 210 meters, tallest in the world.
You can't help but feel enveloped by its intense tranquility, the smooth marble wonderfully cool underfoot. Being an outsider, there is a feeling of intense pride within these walls and its showcased prominently throughout, all in the lovely green of Islam.
Loitering outside are cheeky boys in speedos, baked brown by the sun, living their best life as they jump into the crashing sea before a security guard nabs them. This is where the differences in cultural expectations glare most intensely for me.
In Canada, it would be both teenage girls and boys sunning themselves, showing off, and daring each
Stunning little town up in the hills. We stayed with locals and merged with their culture
other. I wonder where all the girls are. Right. At home, where they belong.
It just doesn't seem fair.
We take a petite taxi to the Casablanca medina and have a confusing misadventure of smells and sights within this, our second Souk. We got in, we got out.
Winnie then somehow convinces me, over tiny glasses of “Moroccan Whisky” at a nearby café, that it would be in both our best interest to partake in a public bathhouse.
I said yes, solely out of naivety. Had I known what I was in for...
Hidden in a rundown part of town, we are shown into a dank, drippy white dungeon and stripped of our undergarments. After a lengthy lobster steam, large scantily clad masseuses smear us with a slick of essential oils and stinky seaweed, then wrap us up in plastic tarps. We are left to fester on cold marble slabs.
I look over at Winnie after a few minutes and realize we both look like dead corpses in a morgue. Minus the toe tags
. I start to laugh. But my masseuse believes I’m choking on something and tries to
The crazy markets of Fes
A completely confusing medina complex of 10,000 alleyways
help me up. I slide right off the slab like a tuna off a fishmongers table. Splat. It wasn’t my finest naked moment.
Without skipping a beat, my masseuse starts in with an aggressive yet invasive massage. To be fair, she was a former body builder and competitive food eater in her native Moscow. Not really.
But at one point, my feet are made to touch the back of my head. To add insult to injury, a comb is raked through my long hair, angrily. I almost tapped out.
But everywhere around me, there are naked local women getting beat up and hosed down. It seems weirdly acceptable, so I too endure the same. During the fire hose treatment, I try to respectfully cover my bits. But the masseuse doesn't have time for my modesty. I get water in places water shouldn’t be.
Surprisingly, we both came out of that Hammam feeling super invigorated, about 30 Euros lighter, and smelling like oily roses.
I proclaim we deserve to treat ourselves to an expensive candlelit dinner at Rick's Café Américain. Winnie, who is suffering from some form of detox from a weeklong prohibition
holiday, is hoping they serve alcohol. Negatory.
With a bit of a pout, we dine on delicious western fair while we playfully quote as many famous lines from the movie as we can remember. Even the waiter gets in on it. “Of all the gin joints in this town…” "Here's looking at you, kid..." "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship..." "We'll always have Paris..." "What's your nationality? I'm a drunkard..."
Halfway through our meal, the piano player starts up with As Time Goes By.
I fight the urge to shout, “Play it again, Issam.”
Groan. I'm sure he's heard that one before.
As usual, my latest travel adventure is just whizzing by. Morocco is so rich with culture and experiences, it should be savored. I envy those who can travel without time restraints. That too is my goal in this life.
The following day has us taking another delightful Moroccan train to the metropolitan city of Rabat. It was only supposed to be a quick stopover but instead we spent the rest of our day wandering around the blue and white Jewish quarter, the super touristy Souk,
Dead carcass bathes
You need smell o vision to get the whole affect
and the fortress waterfront, Instagramming and getting lost.
Winnie befriends a helpful local, and he immediately starts in with his flirty tour guide spiel, all the while offering to help us find our way out. I walk by Winnie and mutter, I hope you realize you’ll have to pay him, right?
She is horrified. Her scorecard is now 3 out of 8 scams. I’m still zero for 8.
We hop back on the train to Fes that evening.
Apparently, Fes has the oldest Souk in Morocco. Something like 10,000 alleyways all hidden within a massive Medina. The next day we meet up with our local fixer who is going to help us navigate inside the walls. But first, he insists we go to a hilltop fort to get a birds-eye view of the grandeur of the Medina. It's unbelievable!
I'm a bit terrified. As we make our way deep into the heart of this ancient town, community life buzzes around us like a hive. The exchange of goods, stuff bubbling away in cauldrons, camel heads hanging in shop windows, thick crowds all shuffling in a purposeful directions, vendors shouting back and forth. Overflowing displays of
Friendly fleabitten kitties, wanting to eat your bread if you are willing to part with it.
olives and dried fruits, gigantic bees swarming blocks of Turkish delight, women in bright scarves whispering gossip in doorways, school children jumping and playing around old men huddled together, concentrating intently on their board game. It feels like a home, with a family of 158,000 people.
Each section of the Souk is orderly, and obvious. We transition through the metals and brass section into the leather dying, dead carcass section. Gah. Why are my eyes watering?
It's over 30 degrees today, and the wafting ammonia smell somehow softens that fleshy, death smell. We are handed sprigs of pungent mint to sniff. Doesn't help.
Winnie and I watch from the balcony of a 3rd floor leather store as men take the rotting hides and dip them into vats of camel piss. The men then get into the vats to mimic a washing machine with their feet. Gross and gross.
The process continues with the individual dye lots in a maze of honeycomb vats. Blues, reds, browns, yellows, pinks.
The shop owner attempts to extort us with unbelievably inflated prices. We haggle but he won’t budge. He’s asking for prices we wouldn’t even pay back in
boy and his ball.
Family fun at the mosque
Canada. Our fixer gets wind of it and starts a fight with the guy. We bug out. That’s okay, anything made of leather smells like that vomit pit to me now anyways.
Back out in the crowds, the streets narrow. I mean really
narrow. The clay walls are held apart by shaky scaffolding.
I can see the headlines now. Tourists pancaked between two walls in a Moroccan medina, crews struggle to find them in maze of 10,000 alleys. News at six.
We need to move faster through here.
I look back to see Winnie being hennaed. Oh, for Christs sakes.
To be fair, these ninjas in niqabs are superfast, they will grab your arm and start decorating before you know what’s happening. Of course, they prey upon the tourist’s politeness but turn nasty when their demands to be paid are ignored. Winnie is quietly negotiating with her, but she eye pleads with me to intervene. I scrum in and shame the henna assailant. Her eyes dart back and forth at us from behind her veil before she reaches out and wipes the big glob of henna off Winnie and puts it back in her tube.
Fantastic these wonders of nature, weighing heavily in the trees
She then floats off into the crowd abyss in search for her next victim. That's 4 out of 8 scams for Winnie. I'm still zero for 8.
We climbed yet another 20 narrow staircases to the rooftop of a family home and ate a traditional tagine lunch while overlooking the entire Medina, a breezy break from the festering swelter of the alleyways below.
The entire Fes souk experience was nice but highly overrated. As expected, the fixer took us to 'his' stores, but even they wouldn't haggle reasonably. When we tried to veer off the agenda and go into another store, he'd get mad at us.
Winnie and I concluded that if we ditched him, we'd never get out of the Medina alive.
That night in Fes proper, we strolled through the suburbs and stumbled upon a family run Tajine restaurant with live music. The place was packed with locals having a celebration, they waved us in. I had a chicken pastilla, Winnie had a vegetarian tagine and we tasted the harira soup and choukchouka salad brought to our table for free, plus endless bread and mint tea.
I have to say, I feel
Grand palaces and fortresses in Rabat excellent places to explore
so safe in Morocco, even at night. No one bothers us. We'd go into a local store to buy snacks and drinks and everyone was unobtrusive, yet curious. It probably helped that we dress respectfully and act respectfully. It probably also helped Winnie speaks fluent French, whereas my grade school French consists of pointing and saying oeuf, or eau.
Both Winnie the Pooh and I talked it over and decided we are craving a more authentic Moroccan experience, so we will be staying in a family Riyadh in the steep hillside town of Moulay Idriss. Our private car hire takes us as far as he can, but the streets are far too narrow for vehicles. Donkeys are the preferred method of hauling your stuff up the hill.
Adorable Mooshie carries our backpacks up like a seasoned pro. I buy him a bag of carrots for his troubles. His owner gracefully accepts them but looks at me like I’m a lunatic.
After we get settled in our rooftop cabana, our car hire returns to take us to the ancient ruins of Volubilis. This is my first Roman Empire ruins situation, so forgive me if I seem too excitable
Miles of red net left to sort out before the evenings fishing trip.
over what looks like piles of rubble in a dusty wasteland.
Volubilis was considered the capital of the kingdom of Maurentania.
Abandoned around the 11th
century when the entire population was moved to Moulay Idriss, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is quote, “marveled as an exceptionally preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire". These ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the 18th century, and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone to build Meknes. It was not until the latter part of the 19th century that the site was positively identified as Volubilis.
When the French ruled Morocco, they began excavating the floor mosaics and restoring the prominent public buildings.
It’s a gigantic site, and you need someone to point at the piles of rubble and explain what you are looking at. Our guide hams it up with Winnie for pictures, and under an overcast sky, walking about the parched yellow landscape full of star burdocks makes for a perfect day.
We enjoy the hospitality of our homestay family. The owner speaks a weird mix of languages all at once and socializes
Middle Aged Men of Moulay Idriss
All facing towards the street, enjoying the day with coffee and gossip.
in the courtyard lounge of his six story Riyadh. The women of the house are segregated to the kitchen and cook up way too much food. We are treated to several local dishes, most delicious and memorable was the Kefta, meatballs in a savory tomato sauce with piles of couscous.
During our stay, we did a little hiking around the hills of Moulay. Such a beautiful valley with olive groves that dot the dry countryside. It rained a bit, nothing too annoying, the area around Mount Zerhoun has a special significance for the Moroccan people, as does the mausoleum for Idriss I in the heart of the city, which we discovered is for Muslims only.
Apparently, six pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss is equivalent to one Hajj to Mecca. Seems reasonable
. We found ourselves hanging out with the sea of men in the cafes all facing one direction, while planning where to go to next.
Instead of Meknes, we decided on Chefchaouen, a city with a distinctive blue hue.
I didn’t know anything about it, except I recognized the name from some French goat cheese I bought once. It has become a trendy stop for authentic handicrafts
The Fes ancient Medina as seen from the fort above the city
and Instas. They also have a rebellious reputation for being the main producer in Morocco of kief, otherwise known as cannabis, so I expect to see expat hippies at every turn.
I wondered why everything is painted blue, so I ask this guy selling sweet melons out of the back of his van. He said it was to keep the mosquitoes away. I left with half a melon cut up in a bag, confused. Winnie found later in our guidebook that the Jews introduced the blue after they took refuge from Hitler in the 1930s. The blue is said to symbolize the sky and heaven and serve as a reminder to lead a spiritual life. The truth is, I highly suspect it’s probably just for tourism. You have to admit, it’s pretty spectacular.
While the quality of fabrics and jewelry were piss poor, the woolen textiles seem amazing, so I finally break down and buy myself a throw carpet. The store owner haggles with me to a price I can live with, but I feel like he’s more agreeable to our final sale than he should be. I’m tired of bartering so I give in and he’s beaming
Winnie and I dressed for success
at me with a toothless grin while he wraps up my purchase. I know something is up, but I let it slide.
Little did I know, he had swapped out my carpet for a ratty, shit-stained one. It wasn’t until I got home to Canada I realized I’d be duped. My scam score of a perfect zero of out 8, obliterated.
Our last day in Morocco and we make our way to the port city of Tangier by public bus. The neatly trimmed palm boulevards and old colonial buildings have that definite French vibe. Endless construction projects indicate a modernizing and developing Moroccan port. We aren’t staying here long because we have ferry reservations tomorrow morning for Tarifa. Enough time to take an evening stroll around the downtown core medina, ending at the waterfront.
I like how there are swaths of hillside grassy areas scattered about the city, a nice gathering point for families and lovers. However, Tangier is end of the road for many African migrants trying to find a safe passage to Europe, and I expected the city to resemble a gigantic remand center of displaced people. But it wasn’t like that at
Death by Dying
The honeycomb network of Dye vats used in leatherwork. Fes medina
all. Just a real melting pot of civilizations, as it’s been since the 5th century BC.
From the ferry, I look back at the Tangier skyline and I'm already sad. Goodbye Morocco. You were amazing! Winnie says something about seasickness, so I go and get her a hot cuppa. I hardly noticed the steep roll and pitch in these mild seas.
When I return, she has turned a funny shade of green. I just have time to say, “You aren’t going to puke, are you?” and she explodes like a sprinkler. I move away and pretend I don’t know her. Just kidding.
Spain, here we come!
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