The trip to Morocco was September 17 (Travel) through October 2. Part 1 of the travelogue was through September 25, and left us on the Sahara Desert. This “Part 2” picks up on September 26. So much to see and experience that the travelogue has been broken into two halves.
Tuesday September 26
As we left the desert we saw a Qanat – an underground tunnel to bring water from the mountains to a village miles below. A stream on the surface would run too fast and cause erosion, and the water would likely evaporate before the destination. Therefore the tunnel was built underground, back in the 14th Century, with a gradual slope. It started in the mountains, where a well was dug until it reached the water table. Then a horizontal tunnel was dug until it reached another hole to the surface, to remove construction and maintenance dirt. And another, and another.
As we were driving away from the desert towards Ouarzazate (back on our bus) we came across a local date market. There were probably over 100 farmers offering their dates from tarps on the ground.
Along the river (hundreds of miles long) were towns such as this. The desert is not as dry and barren as I expected.
In the north, where I was raised, we would have called these snow fences. Keeping the wind blown desert sand off the highway is the same issue as snow in the north. In some areas they were poured concrete, arranged in multiple rows along a curve in the road.
On the way to Ouarzazate we stopped to visit one of the walled cities and the Berber museum.
We also visited a Berber school, where the kids were learning the Arabic alphabet.
Wednesday September 27
Today we visited a home…
But one of the surprises was that the stable for the donkey and other animals were part of the same house. The animals didn’t enter or go through the residence, but the “barn” was not a separate building.
This home was part of a farming cooperative.
They also had a Salt Tree like we saw on the desert farm. By including this in the feed for the livestock they do not have to have a separate salt block. The leaves/needles taste extremely salty.
Then we visited Imik Smik Women’s Association, supported in part by our tour company. Single or divorced women have little education and work opportunity, so this cooperative teaches them skills and helps them find work; initially making couscous (a pasta, not a grain), bread, and pastry that they sell locally. They let us help them (they were better without us), making cookies and couscous.
We then went to one of their homes nearby for lunch, and they produced traditional Berber clothing for us to try
One of the ladies in the coop was an expert in Henna, the semi-permanent (days, not years) tattoos common in their culture. She applied traditional designs to all who wanted them
That night we returned to Le Berbere Palace hotel. It is located near the huge movie studios – larger than those in Hollywood. Countless movies have been made in Morocco, but not the movie “Casablanca” which was made in Hollywood. Therefore many props from movies were in the hotel, including this throne.
Thursday September 28
Three miles west of Ouarzazate are the Atlas Corporation film studios, based on acreage, the largest in the world.
We continued over the high Atlas Mountains on the way to Marrakesh
A couple times we had to wait as construction crews cut further into the mountain then cleaned the dirt off the highway. Remember this area gets snow in the winter, and there are almost no guardrails.
Once in our hotel in Marrakesh we had the opportunity to explore the market. Part is portable, set up in the Jamaa el Fna square daily, and part is permanent “souk” with alleyways between shops, providing goods for locals and tourists.
This was our guide’s (blue shirt) favorite vendor of orange juice – a large glass of fresh squeezed for about 43 cents (4dh). There are dozens of orange juice vendors in the square.
Another vendor was selling snails cooked in a mystery broth for less than a dollar for a bowl of snails.
You may recognize some of the shirts for sale in the souk.
And, of course, the Snake Charmers and other attractions of the large open Jemaa el-Fna square. One translation of the name means “assembly of the dead” which may be related to the public executions on the plaza about 1050 AD
And of course, a young boy wearing a University of Texas Austin hat
Friday September 29
One of the events of the day was exploring the huge Bahia Palace, built in the late 1900s to be the best palace in the world.
We got an overview tour of Marrakesh in a traditional horse drawn calèche.
In one of the gardens our guide found an Orange leaf. The large part of the leaf is common to all orange trees, but the two tiny leaflets near the stem are for inedible oranges – those so bitter that they can only be used to make the marmalade loved in England.
The landmark Koutoubia minaret is the tallest structure in Mirrakesh. The associated mosque was not oriented correctly (pointing towards Mecca), so a new mosque was built beside the first which was 5 degrees off. The new mosque was 10 degrees off in the other direction.
The Saadian Tombs were built in the Saadian dynasty, 1578-1603. The main mausoleum houses 60 graves of the royal family (and their close advisers), but was sealed off by their successor who didn’t want a reminder of his predecessor. They were discovered in 1910 and refurbished to their previous grandeur.
We then visited a spice market, with a tutorial by a “pharmacist” who described the advantages of various potions, and mixtures.
And a visit to a rug dealer. They showed Arab and Berber styles, with a far wider variety of colors than the largely red Syrian “oriental carpets”
Some of the rugs had designs that were not the semi-regular patterns
Saturday September 30
A free day but most of our group chose to visit the Majorelle Garden, created and maintained by artist Jacques Majorelle for about 40 years stating in 1923. By the 1980s the property was run down, and was purchased by designers Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who worked to restore it, and ultimately opened it to the public with an entrance fee to support the maintenance of the garden. The villa that was Majorelle’s home has become an Islamic Art Museum and a Berber museum.
As we left the garden we encountered some Art students, practicing their sketching. We had a delightful conversation with them.
A couple examples of sculpture encountered in a public park
Back to the Jemma el-Fna square by the market.
This trip through the souk the Spice display caught my eye
Satellite TV is having a huge impact on the Moroccan culture – for centuries few people traveled far, and did not know of the “world out there.” Now even nomads have a solar panel, satellite dish, and a flat screen TV.
Our almost final dinner for the tour was in an even finer restaurant than we had been dining in for the couple weeks. A few members of our group would depart on an extension to the tour in the morning, while the rest of us would go back to Casablanca.
Sunday October 1
We took our bus to Casablanca and drove around the city, but the highlight was the Hassan II Mosque, named after and commissioned by the father of the current king. It is the largest and most elegant mosque in Morocco, the 13th largest in the world. It’s minaret is the world’s tallest at 210 meters (689 feet). The estimated construction cost, in today’s dollars, is several Billion dollars.
It is one of very few mosques open to modestly clad tourists who carry their shoes in bags provided for the purpose. (Head cover is not required, no bare shoulders or knees.) Photography is permitted, even flash pictures.
Monday October 2
Start our return to the United States. No combination of flights would get us home on Monday, so we chose to fly Casablanca to Madrid to London and spend the night before a non-stop flight from London Heathrow to Austin Texas on British Airways on October 3.
We expression affection by saying “you warm my heart.” In the desert warming is not good, cooling is better. And there is no reason that a heart has to be a romantic organ, other than western traditions. In Morocco the romantic expression is “you cool my liver.”
We took this trip because we did not know what to expect. It took a long time to prepare this travelogue because there were so many events each day it was hard to reconstruct what we had experienced. The sights were amazing. The people were great. Our tour guide was phenomenal. We always felt safe. I recommend this tour, and OAT – Overseas Adventure Travel – to anyone.
We landed in Casablanca on Monday September 18 (Via Austin to Chicago to Madrid to Casablanca), and were met at the Casablanca airport and immediately driven to Rabat. After checking into our hotel and taking a brief walk, we had a welcome dinner and met our host for the next two weeks. Halim El mansouri is a former flight attendant for Emirate, fluent in English, French, and Arabic, and extremely knowledgeable about Morocco history and culture.
In most groups, we are considered the well traveled couple. In this group, our travels didn’t even merit consideration. Practically everyone had been to FAR more places than we have been. One of the group had even lived in Morocco for a couple years, back in Peace Corps days.
This travelogue will be as brief as I can make it, but it is hard to discard 90% of the pictures. Maybe I will come back and expand the detail and the number of pictures over time.
Tuesday September 19
Rabat is the current capital of Morocco. We stopped by the Royal Palace, but the well loved King Mohamed VI didn’t invite us in.
The Prophet Mohamed loved cats, so there was a national respect for cats, but only a few dogs, mostly as working dogs for the shepherds.
Outside Rabat is the 14th Century Arab town of Chellah, which was built on an earlier Roman town of Sala. As we looked to the left, it was Roman, as we looked to the right it was Arab.
Through the doorway on the right we entered the mosque, still in remarkable condition after 7 centuries.
On to the next site, protected by honor guards.
Across from the Mausoleum is the unfinished mosque (based on the pillars) and the Hassan Tower which was to be the Minaret. Construction was stopped in 1150.
In the other direction on the same plaza was the Mausoleum of King Mohamed V, grandfather of the current king.
The fortifications near the sea were not to protect from pirates, but to house the pirates. For years, the Europeans had pillaged the Moroccan shipping, so they were only getting even, as long as the king collected 30-50% of the pirated loot.
Outside the city wall, we passed an Arab cemetery. The funny angle is because the person is buried on his/her right side, facing Mecca. Funerals are cheap, since the body gets a free trip to the cemetery in an ambulance-like vehicle, donated for the purpose. If someone dies overnight or first thing in the morning, they are usually buried by Mid-afternoon. Only women get simple coffins for modesty.
The fairly tall tree on the left below is a palm tree. The very tall thing on the right is not a palm tree, but a cell tower in disguise.
The old section of town, inside the city wall, is called the medina. Part of the medina is the souk, or shopping area, characterized by random alleys and countless corners, laid out over the last 500 or more years, understood only to the natives. Our dinner this night was in the souk. A local (in traditional dress) met our bus and led us in and out of the Medina.
Wednesday September 20
On the way over the mountains from Rabat to Fez (or locally, Fes), we stopped at a forest of cork oaks. The trees need to grow about 20 years before the cork bark can be stripped. The trees thrive with the stripping, and are ready to be stripped again in another 9-10 years. The trees live to be 200-300 years old, and provide an environment for endangered species. The cork industry is endangered due to the competition of screw caps, but not due to the shortage of cork trees. Please help our environment – drink more wine with real corks!
As we headed towards Fez, we encountered increasing numbers of Berbers. They are an ethnic tribal group indigenous to Northwest Africa since before recorded history (recorded as early as 3000 BC), who speak the Berber language. Recently, as part of an attempt to incorporate them into Morocco, a written form of the Berber language was developed, and made one of the official languages of Morocco, which can be seen in this school sign (under the Arabic)
As we got into the more rural areas the number of donkey carts increased, but they were still some on the city expressways.
We passed a local market, and couldn’t resist stopping (this is where I got the cork nut picture).
Upon arrival in Fez, we checked into the Riad Marjana. It is an old Moroccan home that has been converted to a small elegant hotel. Rather than room numbers, the rooms have the name of the family member who last lived there.
After lunch we went to a pottery and mosaic factory. The usual folks turning clay on a potter wheel, and a kiln fired by… guess… dried olive pits, a byproduct from pressing olive oil.
How do you make something like this? Pick a color, and determine what shape the tiles need to be in that color. Draw that shape (many times) on a piece of scrap pottery of that color.
Another worker places the tiles in position, face down. There is no picture – he knows the pattern from memory, and works upside down. The only guide is a metal frame of the outside shape. He may pick pieces out with tweezers, and occasionally sands the edge to refine the fit.
When all the tiles have been placed, they are cemented in place from the back. Still nobody has seen the final design at this point… it is loose, face down, on the floor. A special cement is applied from the back.
And this is the final result. Every piece was placed based on the artist’s memory of the pattern
Can they do this again? All day, every day. This is only a tiny part of their show room of finished tables.
Thursday September 21
There is another royal palace in Fez, merely covering 200 acres. The entrance has 7 gates.
Even though I knocked politely, the King did not invite us in.
Not far from the palace was the Jewish quarter. The Jews were an important part of Moroccan culture until recently, when most migrated to Israel. The Jewish architecture features lots of balconies on the street, contrasted with Arab architecture with few openings to the street but open central courtyards.
The synagogue has been active for hundreds of years.
And a nearby Jewish Cemetery
The Fez Medina (walled city) consists of two parts. The large part was founded in 789 (8th Century), and the smaller new part merely dates back to the 14th Century. They are now a UNESCO world heritage site, as the largest no-car urban area in the world. (We won’t discuss donkey carts and bicycles). It has 10,000+ alleyways, and 270,000 residents. The reported best GPS are the kids who will help you find your way for a very small fee.
Within the Medina is the University of Al Quaraouiyine, founded in 859. In 1947 it became part of the state educational system, and has gradually modernized into a respected university. Depending on definitions, this is considered my many to be the oldest continuously operating university in the world.
In addition to the usual shops for clothing, food, and jewelry, the tannery is in the center of the Medina.
There was also a cloth factory, with weavers operating manual looms
That evening we broke into groups of 5 people and were dinner guests in private homes. Our hosts were a realtor and his wife. His mother lived with them, but did not join the dinner. Their teenage son came home during the dinner, and in English dutifully recited where where was in school and what he was studying. After dinner he was a nice kid able to converse easily in English when he was less terrified about meeting Americans. We did not meet their college age daughter who was working at a bookstore.
Their home was a spacious 3rd floor apartment, with numerous well furnished rooms and modern appliances. As foreigners we were invited to see their bedroom, something never shared among natives. She had made home-made bread as part of our dinner.
Friday September 22
We chose the optional tour of Volubilis – a Roman city since the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. At it’s peak in the late 2nd Century, it had a population of about 20,000. In my opinion this has more ruins, in better condition, than I remember from Rome (and like Rome, there is always more that can be excavated and restored).
Just a few samples from this site… it could have a complete travelogue by itself.
The victory arch – predecessor of those in Paris and many other cities.
A number of other walls had been recovered or restored
The Thermal baths had hot rooms, warm rooms, toilets, and changing facilities.
An oil press had been restored
Then we went on to Meknes…
The sultan didn’t invite us in, either. Of course he has been dead for centuries.
The sultan had as many as 12,000 horses in these stables (with a slave responsible for each horse).
One side of several huge rooms in the granary, to support people and horses.
Saturday September 23
This was a long 9-hour drive day as we crossed the Middle Atlas mountains. As we got into the mountains, the buildings switched from flat roof to sloped because of the snow. We took a break at the town of Ifrane, where there is even a ski resort near the 6,000 foot level.
Everybody has go get a picture of the Ifrane Lion, carved in 1930. Rumors that it was carved by a World War II POW are precluded by the 1930 date.
As we drove through the forests near Ifrane, we were in an area where some wild monkeys lived. Question: “Should we look for monkeys in the trees or on the ground?” Answer: “Yes.” Notice that these monkeys do not have tails.
Shortly after leaving the forest we spotted a “Semi-Nomad.” They are people who move on with their herds when they cannot graze any more (there is snow in this area), but they leave the frames for their tents, etc. so that they can return later. When a “full” nomad moves on, nothing is left behind – they don’t expect to return.
Halim, our guide, negotiated permission to visit his family and home.
They have a stone corral for their 350 sheep, with pens for the lambs. The son-in-law was tending the sheep and would return every night. His bedroom is the black front tent to the right of the corral; the father’s bedroom is a separate tent to the left of the main tent.
The road over the middle Atlas mountains was exciting, especially when you consider that snow falls in this area.
In cartoons an oasis is often portrayed as an isolated palm tree or two, with a water source, surrounded by the sand of the desert. The Ziz river provides water for an oasis hundreds of miles long. Date Palm trees are common along the oasis; with individual trees having specific owners who care for and harvest the dates from their own trees.
We visited a fossil processing factory – they make museum pieces at one extreme, and bathroom sinks at the other extreme (we had a fossil sink in our tent). This was just a first cut, not a finished product
Sunday September 24
As we left our Kasbah in Efroud, we drove to Rissani, a conservative Berber area
From that luxurious complex, we went to visit a home
Then it was on to the Sahara Desert – which starts as relatively flat gravel, the abruptly becomes sand dunes.
At this point we left our bus, and moved to three Toyota 4 wheel drive Land Cruisers which chased each other, off road, to our camp.
Sunday afternoon was very hot, so we postponed our camel ride until Monday. Many found shelter in an affiliated Hotel that offered us an air conditioned room for the afternoon.
Later that evening we drove to one of the places where fossils are visible on the surface.
Monday September 25
Gnama music is a local chant by former slaves (and their descendants) who chose to stay in Morocco rather than returning to Guinea or wherever they came from. The music and dance is becoming quite popular.
We encountered a Nomad family who invited us into his tent (and added a rug so everyone could be on the rug, not on the ground. He, of course, served us tea – even Nomads have the required silver teapot and tray.
We also visited a farm – a gentleman had a plot (probably a couple acres) with a well that he and his father had dug, so he had water to raise vegetables, feed for his family and livestock, dates to sell, and other goods. He was very clever in his management of the crops and the water. He had, for example, tried olives and taken them out since the wind interfered with pollination so the crop was too small. He had one male date tree and manually pollinated all his other dates trees. To be sure he got productive female date trees, he planted them from cuttings rather than taking the chance on gender by planting seeds.
He even grew a Tamarix – a salt tree. By feeding it’s leaves to his livestock he did not have to buy salt supplement. (I tried – the leaves tasted extremely salty). Some of his crop he harvested every few days, and only had to replant it every couple years.
We visited a Berber cemetery on the desert. There are no names on the graves – the tribal bonds are so tight that if you visit the cemetery, you know who you are visiting but should pray for everyone there. I was so intrigued, I forgot to take pictures, and had to borrow this from a fellow traveler.
In the cities the larger Berber cemeteries are not as “personal”
This was September 25. We didn’t return until October 2, so you have only seen the first half of our tremendous trip.