Our adventure in Morocco was so intense that the travelogue is in two halves. This is the first half; if you want to jump to the second half click here.
Morocco was our first ever “Tour,” rather than traveling alone, and we chose to work through Overseas Adventure Travel.
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.
When you are ready, you can jump directly to the second half.