Morocco 2017

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.

The route of our two week trip

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.

OAT travel group
Our travel group. To Jenny’s dismay, the men included 4 engineers, a geologist (who could pass as a civil engineer) and a retired airline pilot.

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.

Rabat Royal Palace
Royal Palace in Rabat. The guards in white are the honor guards (secret service); the others are representatives of several military services.

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.

Lots of cats
Lots of cats were around villages and sites.

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.

Roman side
The Roman side of the site. Note the city wall in the background behind the trees
Arab side
The Arab side of the site.  That is a stork nest on the top of the Minaret

Through the doorway on the right we entered the mosque, still in remarkable condition after 7 centuries.

Arab Mosque
The Mosque is in remarkable condition despite being 7 centuries old.
There were stork nests everywhere you looked.

On to the next site, protected by honor guards.

Honor Guard at the Mausoleum of King Mohamed V (grandfather of the current king)

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.

Hassan Tower
Hassan Tower and pillars for a mosque, construction suspended in 1150 AD

In the other direction on the same plaza was the Mausoleum of King Mohamed V, grandfather of the current king.

Mausoleum of King Mohamed V
If you thought the outside was fancy, try the inside! The center is the late King, the back have the King’s brother and wife

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.

Pirate fortress along the sea.

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.

Arab Cemetery with traditional headstones.  Remember this when we see a Berber cemetery later.

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 cell tower is well disguised.

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.

Arab guide though 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!

Cork trees, with their bark stripped up to about 7-8 feet high. The trees thrive and regrow the bark
cork bark
This is a scrap of cork bark found on the ground. Notice that the thickness of the bark is the length of the cork – if the wine corks were taken directly from the tree (they are not) it would be a hole punched in the bark from the outside toward the center of the tree
Cork trees also produce an edible nut, like a large acorn. These were in a market. Tasty, but I wouldn’t spend a lot of effort searching for them.

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)

Berber sign
The new Berber alphabet is rather unique, appearing below the Arabic name of this school

As we got into the more rural areas the number of donkey carts increased, but they were still some on the city expressways.

Donkey Cart
Donkey Cart, not far from our Riad

We passed a local market, and couldn’t resist stopping (this is where I got the cork nut picture).

The market was a forest of tarps for shade and rain protection. Stalls are free unless you want to leave your goods overnight, when you make a contribution to the night watchman.
Lots of fresh vegetables, for which you must haggle the price.
Every market seems to have a character!

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.

Riad Sign

The owner of the Riad Marajana welcomed us to his home.
Interior of Riad Marjana
Riad Pool
Looking the other way in the “living room” was a pool available to the guests. An exercise room was next to the pool.
The Riad food was hard to consume as well. This was the pre-dinner salad for the 7 people at our table.

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.

This gentleman painted complex designs on plates, freehand, without a pattern. The brown spot on his forehead is the mark of a devout Muslim, who presses his forehead on the floor 5 times per day in his prayers.
painted pottery
This is a portion of the pottery this expert paints in a day.
Mosaic Fountain
One of the many fountains, tables, etc. on display (for sale) at the ceramic factory.

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.

Tile cuutter
The first workman cuts out the required shape with a hammer on an anvil. He is teamed with another worker who tapers the back, away from the cut on the colored surface. Apparently different skills are required.

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.

craftsman placing mosaic tiles
Craftsman placing colored tiles, upside down, with the pattern only in his mind.

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.

Mosaid Cemented Tiles
Mosaic Cemented Tiles. Only after the cement has dried can the piece be lifted and viewed.

And this is the final result.  Every piece was placed based on the artist’s memory of the pattern

mosaid result
The result of this mosaic process.  Could you have found the 8 yellow tiles 1/4 of the way in from the edge, looking only at the back?

Can they do this again?  All day, every day.  This is only a tiny part of their show room of finished tables.

Mosaic Tables
Mosaic Tables

Thursday September 21

There is another royal palace in Fez, merely covering 200 acres.  The entrance has 7 gates.

7 Gates
The 7 gates to the Fez Royal Palace

Even though I knocked politely, the King did not invite us in.

Fez Palace Gate
Fez Royal Palace Gate

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.

Jewish Balconies
The Jewish architecture features lots of street-side balconies.

The synagogue has been active for hundreds of years.

The Synagogue is still active

And a nearby Jewish Cemetery

Jewish Cemetery
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.

Don’t mind the occasional braces – it has been standing for many hundreds of years.

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.

The upper windows were originally student rooms
Column detail
The detail at the base and top of each column was amazing

In addition to the usual shops for clothing, food, and jewelry, the tannery is in the center of the Medina.

There were countless vats of smelly chemicals and dyes
Tannery worker
Sometimes workers would stand in the vats to mix the leather with the chemicals. They coat their skin with olive oil and shower when they get out.

There was also a cloth factory, with weavers operating manual looms

The shuttle with bobbin was shot back and forth in the wooden trough by the weaver pulling a rope. Progress was amazingly fast.

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.

Dinner hosts
Our host and hostess for the home dinner. He often works at home, and as a devout Muslim (see the spot on his forehead) he often prays (5 times per day) at home or at a nearby mosque.

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).

Map of Roman Empire
This is the southwest corner of the Roman empire. We have previously been to the northwest corner – Hadrian’s wall in Northern England. We have, of course, been to Rome. Will we ever get to the eastern extremes?

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.

Victory Arch
Notice the couple tourists in front of the arch.

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

Mosaic Floor
Our floors should look this good after 1,800+ years.  This one had been wet with water to hide the dust.
mosaic floors
There were many mosaic floors throughout the site, in amazing condition

Then we went on to Meknes…

Meknes gate
Gate to the walled city. Yes, our bus fit through the gate with at least an inch to spare.

The sultan didn’t invite us in, either.  Of course he has been dead for centuries.

Meknes entrance
Notice the group of students, on vacation, near the door
Stidents in Meknes
Our guide struck up a conversation with them. The guitar player had just learned to play, via YouTube. Nobody cared that one girl was more conservative (hajib, long sleeves, ignore the selfie-stick).  They sang a folk song for us and talked about their studies.

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.

There were at least three rooms, which extended farther behind the camera than this way (which had light), and similar long rooms, parallel to this

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.

Semi-nomad family
Our guide is in the red/blue shirt, the Nomad is with his granddaughter.
Semi-Nomad home
The large white tent is the living/dining area for the Nomad, his Daughter and son-in-law, and his granddaughter. Notice the satellite dish with solar panel and battery; inside is a modest flat screen TV. There are auxiliary smaller tents for cooking and laundry, and as the private bedrooms for the two families.

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.

Inside the corral are pens for lambs. The tent at the right is the daughter and her husband’s home (when they are not in the common area)
We stopped at Midelt for Lunch

The road over the middle Atlas mountains was exciting, especially when you consider that snow falls in this area.

This tunnel was part of the road.

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.

Oasis along the Ziz river

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

Fossils at the processing plant


Sunday September 24

As we left our Kasbah in Efroud, we drove to Rissani, a conservative Berber area

Typical dress in Rissani
This gate isolated a garden and memorial
Rissani Garden
Rissani Doorway inside the complex

From that luxurious complex, we went to visit a home

The adobe houses are popular since they are cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
We were always offered Tea, from a silver pitcher and silver tray on legs, poured from height to aerate and cool the tea.

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.

This was our camp. The open side tent was our dining room, the low black tents were our private rooms with bath (including flush toilets and showers with warm running water.

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.

That is Jenny’s foot to give a scale to the size of the fossils
Some were quite huge.  Remember that this means the Sahara desert was at the bottom of the ocean thousands of years ago.

Monday September  25

There was enough dust in the air that we didn’t see the sunrise until it was well up, with no great color show.
If there was a shortage of camels, Jenny was willing to give up her place. There were plenty of camels
Originally I was placed too far forward. Jenny got it right the first time. My doofus hat has a drop down cover for my neck.
She did well, even texting while driving
I was so high when on the hump like the others, that they had me slide back behind the hump.  I would have liked some stirrups for stability.
Camels are dramatic and fun to try, but these were our “ships of the desert.”

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.

Gnawa Musicians and Dancers
Audience participation was welcome for part of the dance

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.

He explained that he no longer had a large flock of sheep or goats, but his son took their 3 camels to work with the tourists each day. Rather than moving every few months for grazing area for their animals, he has not moved for several years. Other family members had moved to the city. He may be one of the last Nomads
And then his cell phone rang. He took the call! His grandson had joined us, with Halim, our guide, translating.

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.

It was date season and our farmer was proud of his harvest so far.

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.

Berber cemetery
Grave Markers but no headstones with names. Small graves are apparently children

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.

Author: Charlie Plesums

Retired from a teaching and consulting career in computer science, to build custom furniture and travel

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