Transit to Chefchaouen

This morning we left Fez behind and set off in a private bus (thank fuck for that – the original itinerary said we’d be on public transport!) for Chefchaouen. The private bus was so we could stop here and there and check out a few things on the way, have a picnic lunch somewhere and take our time… it’s not my preference to turn a 4 hour drive into a 6 hour one, but if it saves us from squishing in with 50 or more, and a driver who’s likely on his phone and smoking while whipping around the mountains on the local bus, then I’m down with that.

We had a few photo stops on the way, this is one of the water reservoir dams that feeds Fez.  You can see the waterline is way down on ‘what it is supposed to be at this time of year’. We also made a stop at an orange orchard so we could buy a few fresh oranges for our picnic.  The oranges here are lovely, you can get large, cheap glasses of fresh orange juice in restaurants everywhere and the juice tastes slightly more like mandarins than the oranges at home. Everytime we get into the countryside, I can’t believe how green everything is…. the grass is lush and green, the trees are green, the stock looks fat and healthy… the drought at home is quickly brought into stark contrast. Another stop we made was at an olive press co-op.  Some of the smaller local farmers don’t have the expensive machinery required to press olives, so they bring their harvest here and their bags are numbered.  They then wait their turn and put their olives through the press.  The air felt thick and kinda slimy… the ground is literally dripping in olive oil.I actually disllike olives, which is weird for me as I usually love savoury and salty foods.  The smell here was getting to me quite a bit.  Bags of olives belonging to different farmers. A couple of the men who worked here – their clothes are soaked through with olive oil, their hands and faces black with oily gunk.  This must be one of the few largely automated processes we have seen in Morocco so far… until now, it seemed like nearly everything is done by hand.
The first press olive oil is thick and green. Everyone was offered a bit of bread to try it, along side other oils that had been processed for the second time and third time. I quite like my extra virgin olive oil, but not being a fan of things that actually taste like olives, I gave it a miss (good thing that turned out to be – at least two in our group said they paid for it as it went right through them and they were running for the bathroom a few hours later). Anyway, back on the bus and a few kilometers down the road we stopped for a picnic lunch. Before leaving Fez, we went to an enormous supermarket and all picked up some tidbits for lunch.  We had some very tasty sandwiches and wraps with meats, cheeses, nuts, dates, figs etc. We even managed to buy some drinks so many had picked up some beers to have with lunch. Hay stacks for the winter.  Everywhere, you could see enormous rows of prickly pear.  They use it for a few different purposes – hedgerows are grown to make fencing to keep their animals in.  The plant itself is eaten in some dishes, and the flowers are used for a natural dye.  At home it’s a noxious weed. About another hour or so down the road and we arrived at Chefchaouen.  Chefchaouen is nestled between two mountain peaks – the word itself actually means ‘two mountian horns’ – and is located at 560m above sealevel, about 70kms from the Mediterranean to the north and 130kms from the Atlantic to the west. From this lookout we could see some glimpses of the blue walls this city is so famous for. We arrived at our hotel Darechaouen and were greeted with cups of Moroccan mint tea and date cookies while they sorted the rooms out.

We found ourselves being escorted to a lovely suite room with a large living room attached and a huge ensuite.  Very nice!

After everyone had settled in, we went for a bit of an orientation walk around the town.  Firstly up to see the mountain spring that feeds the town with fresh water.
After the winter snow melts, this spring will have twice as much water pouring from it. Directly to the left of these four ladies was a bench with four men, presumably their husbands… “What you talking about?” – “Shopping” … “What you talking about?” – “Football”

Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 as a small kasbah (fortress) to fight the Portuguese invasions of northern Morocco.  Many local tribal people, Berbers and Ghomara peoples, as well as Moriscos and Jews, settled here after the Spanish Reconquista in the medieval period.  In the early 20thC (c1920) the Spanish seized the city to form part of Spanish morocco.  Spanish troops imprisoned local leaders in the kasbah for several years and there is a decidedly Spanish influence to a lot of the local architecture and food etc.
The blue walls are what draws the tourists to town – it makes a stunning backdrop for photographs and is reminiscent of the blue-trimmed whitewashed walls of Santorini or Mykonos.  No one is entirely sure why the walls are painted blue – there are several theories though.  One popular theory is that the blue keeps the mosquitos away, another is that the Jews introduced the blue when they took refuge here from Hitler’s regime in the 1930s.  Another is that the blue paint was brought down as leftover paint from what was used to paint fishing boats to the north.  And yet another theory is that the blue symbolizes the sky and the heaven to serve as a reminder to lead a spiritual life.  However, some locals apparently say that the town mandated walls were to be primarily painted blue simply to attract tourists at some point int he 1970s… which while far less whimsical, is probably far more likely.
And it works.  Chefchaouen is a very popular tourist destination, partly due to its proximity to Tangier.  There are over two hundred riad and hotels to cater for the influx of tourists – once largely catering to the European tourists (lots of Spanish arrive here at Easter and Christmas holidays), but now more commonly the Chinese tourists are here for their photos too.  

The region is also known for its native handicrafts that are not seen anywhere else in Morocco, particularly Berber style woollen garments, rugs and woven blankets. Want to see my scoot?! The surrounding countryside is well known as a prolific source of ‘kief’ – marijuana, and as we walked the town you would semiregularly get a strong whiff of pot as you rounded a corner or walked past a shop. There are public fountains dotting the town that are gravity fed directly from the mountain spring – hundreds of years old, they have seen a lot of use. There are quaint little alleyways in every direction, most of them steep and because of the fountains located around the place, most of the walkways were slightly wet and rather slippery. Chefchaouen is also knowns for it’s remarkably varied and popular blue doors… so many gates and doors everywhere – some simple, some elaborately painted, some enormous and some so small I have to duck to go in. This (below) is one of the most famous photo spots in the city… Samirr warned us that if there were Chinese tourists here, we would ‘have to come back next year’ rather than wait for them to finish taking their photos.  The locals are completely over the habit of Chinese tourists to stand in front of any famous object and take fifty photos of themselves in a myriad of very posed positions (tbh, so am I – Iceland last year was a real test of patience on that front).

When we arrived here of course there were a handful of Chinese tourists hogging ‘the spot’ for their selfies and posing away for their friends with the camera… as soon as one moves out of the way, another will quickly jump in.  Samirr’s shoulders slumped and he said, ‘I guess we have to come back next year’.  Instead, as one (totally overdressed Chinese lady) was moving out of shot and another was about to move in, I very loudly and firmly said to their group ‘Thank you! Thank you!  No people for a moment please!’ and unexpectedly, it worked! They all held back while our group took a few photographs of the street with no people.  Samirr was impressed at my crowd management skills, our small tour group was pleased to have their chance at photos sans Chinese tourists, and I was simply stunned at the amazing beautiful blue colours of the steps on this tiny little street that attracts people from all over the world.

As we walked away from the area, everyone was thanking me for clearing the street, but after last year in Iceland where we would stand around patiently waiting for 10 to 15 minutes or longer, waiting for self-absorbed arseholes to get out of the way – I give up.  You obviously need to speak up or you just end up wasting time or missing out…  patented Mommy Voice for the win.

A little futher we came to an area of town selling pigments for the local craftsmen. I know it looks like the town is nearly empty in most of these photos – but this is just my judicious sense of timing.  Pick a spot and wait for the person to move right out of frame and *click* before someone moves into the left of frame.  But trust me, there were plenty of people around and the medina only became busier as the sun went down and the locals came to town for the restaurants and clubs.

The original 15thC kasbah which we may go visit tomorrow… The town’s main square, which is pretty much at the bottom of the steep medina.  Still.. there were further little alleyways winding further down the mountain and we were diving back into them to find a Berber carpet shop.  As tradition dictates, one must go carpet/rug shopping when in Turkey or Pakistan or India or Morocco and well, nearly everywhere from North Africa to the Subcontinent!
Abdullah, our host offered us all sweet Moroccan mint tea… very sweet this time and quite refreshing.  This is also part of the tradition, coming right before the selling!  In Turkey, I think they have much more success with the selling part, as they often ply customers with beer and raki instead.  Here, have a buzz, buy a rug! The group waiting for the rugs to start falling. And so they did… Abdullah*, threw down about fifty rugs in total, all of them locally made by Berber tribes, and in a wide variety of colours and sizes.  These rugs are unlike any I’ve seen before, predominantly kilim style and most of them asymmetrical in design – which makes me twitch like all giddyup.  So I was pretty safe from any unplanned rug purchases.

(*We were fairly confident that Abdullah was stoned off his gourd which was vaguely amusing.) Anyway after our rug shopping experience, where no one found anything they liked, we went to a restaurnt called, Restaurant Bab Ssour, for a lovely rooftop dining and some delicious local tagine dishes. The view across the medina from the rooftop terrace. Goat cheese is a speciality local dish, served with balsamic.  It was really good and had a smooth creamy texture.
Goat tagine with plums!  The meat was just falling off the bone and absolutely delicious. After our long day of driving followed by what was supposed to be a short orientation walk (6kms), we head back to the hotel for a vodka tonic and crashed in our big luxurious bed.

The Funky Fez Medina

Another day; another ear worm!  🙂

Had a bit of a later start today and didn’t head out until about 0900… it was nice to get going when the sun was up!   We had a big day planned to check out the Fez Medina.  But first, we took a couple of pit stops.  The first being to the Dar al-Makhzen or the Palais Royal, which is one of the many royal palaces belonging to the Alaouite sultan – ie: the current King of Morocco.  The palace grounds seem enormous, it sits on some 80 hectares of land and no one really knows what it looks like as it is not open to the public.  Mustafa (our local Fez guru) told us that the King of Morocco has an inordinate amount of power… he is the supreme head of the church in Morocco, he is also the commander in chief of Morocco’s military, he is effectively the head of an executive branch of the government, he can veto bills in parliament, hell, he can even dissolve parliament!  Basically whatever he says goes… and he owns a bunch of palaces across the country – most of which rarely see him. This palace in Fez has seen him in residence for barely a month in the last two years. The royal palace is a popular tourist stop for its enormous ornate bronze doors in gates heavily decorated with zellige tilework and carved cedarwood.  The innumerable hours of hand-craftsmanship that goes into making these things is simply phenomenal.
Zellige is mosaic tilework technique that is achieved by taking individually chiselled geometric tiles and then setting them into a plaster base (for certain purposes, like small fountains, they use fibreglass to set them into place. It’s a really popular and prevalent form of Islamic art that we’ve seen replicated on a lot of Moroccan architecture.  The geometric patterns are really appealing and you see them on walls, ceilings, fountains, floors, pools and tables. Off to the left of this main gate is a small ‘servants entrance’… frankly, they probably deserve to use the main entrance seeing they come and go way more than the King!

The palace is set right in the middle of the 13th mellah – or Jewish Quarter.  The area is a walled Jewish settlement which people often mistakenly compare to the European Jewish ghettos.  The Jewish community was first confined to the mellah in the beginning of the 15thC and again in the early 19thC, but generally the Jewish community seems to prefer to be centrally located near their synagogues, so it’s a more ‘self imposed’ autonomous confinement nowadays.  The Jewish quarter is typified by a very European feel to the architecture with these cedar balconies overhanging the streets. 

As we were walking through the Jewish Quarter, Mustafa pointed out some Moroccan black soap also known as beldi soap.  Beldi soap is a high-alkaline soap made from olive oil and macerated olives to form a gel like goop.  It’s a hideous green/black colour, and thankfully doesn’t smell anything like it looks!  It does have an olive oil smell to it which isn’t unpleasant but certainly looks like something that might have come from a cow’s arse… they use it a lot in the hammams (traditional steam baths) in Morocco.  Blerg! After a quick wander through the Jewish Quarter, we took a drive out to a lookout to have a look at the city of Fez.  Fez is Morocco’s second largest city, behind Casablanca, with 1.4million peoples. It is largely locaed in a valley surrounded by the high grounds, and the old city or the Medina is divided by the River Fez which runs through the 9thC walled part of the city. These pictures show how closely packed the Fez Medina is – it is believed to be the largest pedestrian zone in the world. Not a single vehicle can enter the medina as it is a completely bamboozling labyrinth of winding alleyways some of which are barely 70cm wide.  Donkeys, mules and horses are the only form of transport in the medina and everything is transported in via animal or hand cart. Walls of the Fez Medina…the holes in the walls are desinged to allow the high wind to pass through the walls rather than causing damage.  Apparently the wind here gets so bad it can ‘knock over’ wall like this…Before we threw caution to the aforemented wind and ventured into the Medina, we took a stop at a local mosaic and ceramic factory.  Pictoral mosaics like the one below are not particularly common.  Usually you see the traditional geometric, typically Islamic styles of art still being replicated in mosaic work.
Piles of clay come straight from quarries and have zero purification or cleansing before being put to use. Turned bowls drying before their first firing.
The kilns used are still traditional kilns that have been used for hundreds of years… the ground up dark dirt seen in the front is actually ground up olive pits which are added to the kiln fires. Something to do with the oils being beneficial in the firing process, but I’ll admit the explanation was a bit disjointed. Tile making in action – this guys spends all day making clay squares into more uniform, flat and tapered clay squares.  :/ Painting the ceramics with glaze before the second firing.Etching off the glaze before a second glaze is done. Mosaic work is painstakingly done by hand.  From the drawing of the designs onto the nice square tiles the previous guy was making…
To the hand-chiselling to taper the pieces to the right shape so they may be fit together properly…
To the laying out of the design – upside down so the plaster can be poured onto the back to hold it together!To the final chiselling of the finished product to clean up any irregular edges or overflowed plaster.The end results of this meticulous and time consuming work are amazingly beautful artworks.

So many beautiful designs, so many gorgeous objects, so many overblown price stickers because this is tourist central!

After our brief foray into the exciting intricate and time consuming world of mass produced handmade ceramics and mosaics, we finally made our way into the world famous labryinthine Fez Medina! The World Heritage listed Fez al Bali Medina has alleys coming off alleys,stemming from alleys that are connected to even more alleys. Nearly all tourists who venture into this place come with a guide of some sort, becuase it is so easy to get completely lost and end up wandering around for kilometres to find your way out. We entered near a food section of covered markets. Dates, figs, seafood, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, tea, grains, spices, herbs, and god knows what else was stashed into every available square inch of space in the covered shops. It is very similar to the Grand Bazaar in Isanbul. This man was selling live snails, and when he saw the tourists photographing his big tub of slimy delicacies, he started asking for money from people who shoved their cameras right over the tub of writhing creatures… tourists in the medina taking lots of photos and buying no produce must drive them crazy. The camel heads hanging at the butcher’s shop is apparently the easiest way to tell people that you have camel meat in stock today.  Little gory, definitely effective advertising. Seafoods – the large lumps of white flesh in the front of the table is some sort of local shark meat. Not far from the fresh produce and food stuffs are was dyers lane.  I could see all this silk hanging up and it piqued my interest immediately.  Apparently this is ‘saba silk’, which allegedly comes from the agave cactus plant – yes, that agave plant.  Disappointinly, from what I’ve read up on this thread though, the bulk of the ‘saba silk’ used in Morrocan crafts is actually rayon that has been manufactured in Spain or India and comes in bulk and is dyed here for local use. I don’t think people care that their item has rayon embroidery on it – but generally speaking I don’t think it’s ethical to lead people to think that their item is made from hand harvested agave and spun by local women into something beautiful, when it’s actually brough in pre-manufactured from India.  This is one of those things you hear about and think: ‘yeah, not entirely surprised’. Just outside the dyer’s lane was a small bridge that gave a view of the Fez River which runs thorugh the medina. It’s difficult to see in this photo with such a high contrast ration, but I can tell you unequivocally that the fish and eel and other seafood stuffs being sold inside, does NOT come from this river. We saw loads of these large cone shaped items around the place and had to ask Mustafa what they were – they are food coverings, and apparently these huge velvet and embroidered ones are used for covering bread… ’tis a far cry from the Brabante bread bin that adorns my kitchen!

All over the medina were people selling brass objects, ‘silver’, copper and other items of metalware… a lot of these metal items were elaborately decorated with Islamic motifs.  I did walk past a guy who was hand chasing and engraving these intricate designs into a place.  Unbelievable – these large plates in particular, are one of those things I’ve seen around over the years, and I’ve always just assumed they were punched out by a large steel press somewhere…?  Apparently – no.  They’re largely handmade! I managed to see another man doing some metal work on one of these metal topped tables, and was just amazed at how detailed they were.Further into the the medina we found ourselves moving into the leather area.  Morocco is famous for its leather industry, and the medina has three tanneries contained within its walls.

We did get a chance to visit the Chouara Tannery which, oddly enough, is located in the leather area of the medina.  It was built in the 11thC and is the largest tannery in the city. Ever since its introduction to Fez, the tanning industry has been continually operating in the same place and in the same fashion as it did in the early centuries – that means there has been untold generations of people stomping around in the disgusting and fetid conditions of the tanning pits.

We walked into the tannery via a shop, and were (thankfully!) handed a very helpful sprig of mint… so that we could crush it up and smell it.  The tannery absolutely reeks as a result of the processes and materials use to tan the leather. From a balcony overlooking the tannery, you can see numerous stone pits filled with different coloured dyes and liquids. Hides of cows, sheep, goats, and camels are processed here – the first step is to soak them in a series of white liquids – this first stage of the process uses a liquid that is a varying mixture of cow urine, pigeon shit, quicklime, salt, and water.  This cleans the often very tough skins, and it normally takes about two or three days.  After the cleaning and scraping, they are soaked in various dyeing solutions.  The tannery uses many natural colourants such as poppy for red, indigo for blue, and henna for orange – same as they have used since the 11thC. After the skins are dyed, they get spread out on rooftops for sun drying. The leather then gets sold to various craftsmen who use it to make Morocco’s famous leather goods:  bags, coats, shoes, and slippers. The entire leather production process in Morocco is done completely by manual labour and uses no modern machinery.  They have retained methods that are unchanged since the medieval period… which is just amazing but also completely nuts. Thank the gods for that spring of mint – the stench was enough to turn your stomcah.  I can’t imagine how anyone survives a visit up here in the summer, and I really don’t know how anyone survives working down there their whole life! I love all these colourful ottomans… you buy them unstuffed and take them home and can stuf them with wadding, wool, rags, hair, whaterver you want. They’re not particularly small to transport though.Deep in the heart of the medina is the Zaouia of Moulay Idriss II religious complex.  It’s a shrine, a mosque and temple dedicated to the tomb of Idris II who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 (or Moulay Idris II when you include his sharifian title).  He was considered the founder of the city of Fes and the first Moroccan Islamic state. The shrine is UNESCO listed and is one of the holiest shrines in Morocco. Men performing their ablutions prior to prayer. There are multiple doors to the enormous religious complex and madras (religious university) which allow glimpses of life inside. After this we took a well earned break for lunch – we had been walking the medina for a hectic three and a half hours… hectic because the place is packed shoulder to shoulder/cheek to jowl in many places.  The ground is uneven and often slippery, it’s winding and there are ramps up and down all over the place, it’s easy to get lost and/or trampled by oncoming donkeys or men with handcarts.  There is no dwardling in the medina without creating a traffic hazzard.  It literally feels like there is no place to ‘be’ most of the time.

We went to a restaurant for lunch, called ‘Le Patio Bleu’ – there is plenty of delicious looking very cheap street food in the medina, but with a fairly long bus trip lined up for tomorrow, there’s no way I was going to risk that!  So clean bathrooms and a higher probability of decent food handling practices were a priority.  We had a wonderful lunch with a few of the other people in the group… starting with colourful ‘salads’ (a salad here appears to be any dish that consists of putting things together and can be hot or cold and huge or tiny?!).
And also included some fabulous local dishes – a chicken pastille (chicken pie – shredded chicken with fruit and covered in cinamon and sugar), meatballs served with egg (this is rapidly turning into one of my fav Moroccan dishes), a beef tagine with almonds and prunes and some mixed grill skewers.  Everything we’ve had here (with the exception of that first bland touristy restaurant) has been delicious. After a wonderful shared lunch, we ventured back into the medina to have a few more glimpses into the various gates leading to the mosque and mausoleum complex.  The artwork and elaborate decoration on the doorways, walls everywhere you look is astounding. There are public fountains scattered throughout the medina, and while the water is safe for locals, tourists generally don’t have the constitution to deal with it… so it’s best avoided. Also connected to the mosque and mausoleaum complex is the University of al-Qarawiyyin which is THE oldest existing, continually operating higher educational institution in the world (according to both UNESCO and Guinness World Records).  It was founded by in 859 AD with an associated madrasa, and subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the historic Muslim world. It was only incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963, but has been a formal institute of learning that entire time. The small windows above are cells for the scholars who lived here… each has a bare room approximately 2m x 2m where they would dedicate themselves to Islamic religious and legal studies with a heavy emphasis on Classical Arabic grammar and linguistics and Maliki law.  Some other non-Islamic studies are now also offered such as French and English. We went upstairs to see the old student’s rooms, and were somewhat perturbed to notice that there were only locks on the doors on the outside of each room and small slots at eye level in each door… it felt more like a luxiourious detention centre than a student/monk’s type cell…? After our visit to the monastery, we made our way deep into the textiles sector of the medina – now THIS, I was really looking forward to. I was hoping to gain some insight into the sabra silk situation and find out whether it is made from the agave plant or no.  We saw a demonstration of someone weaving on an old treadle loom, and the man who seemed to run/own the shop handed around pieces of agave and told us the sabra silk is made from agave fibres.  It certainly seems fibrous enough to create a thread – but we weren’t offered any more information than that.  From there it was ‘on with the hard sell’, which was a bit unfortunate as we hadn’t experienced this in the ceramics workshop or the tannery.  The ‘sabra silk’ items were mostly tablecloths and other durable items that most definitely felt somewhat ‘plasticy’ so I dare say it was all rayon and roughly woven at that.  There was also loads and loads of pashmina and various garments, huge cotton tassels – no doubt all of which was imported. I would have loved to had a good look around and dig into the piles and piles of fabric and textiles, but myself and two of the other women in the group were being harrassed by the men in the store and became extremely uncomfortable.  Mr K literally had to physically insert himself between one lady and a man who was being decidedly agressive with one of our new friends.  Oddly it was the only time all day that we had been creeped out and we all wanted to get out of there asap.

I know if I had been wandering the medina by myself, without a guide, that the ‘creeped out’ by unwanted attention or overly pushy sales tactics would have happened numerous times before now – it was just totally unexpected when you’re in one of the stores chosen by the tour company to offer a safe and relaxed shopping experience.  Having travelled to Turkey, Pakistan and other countries with these sorts of shopping environments, I am somewhat used to it and know how to deflect this sort of attention – but this was seriously creepy and I felt unsafe even though I was there with my husband and at least half a dozen other men from our tour.  Not good at all – so we made a point of offering some feedback to Mustafa and Samirr.  Turns out they knew who the men were (Mr K had the forethought to snap some photos) and they don’t even work in the shop, they are just friends who hang around.  So they’re going to let the owner know that these men are literally driving away their trade – there’s no way I would have left there without a handful of pashmina (historically speaking, it seems a dead certainty) if we had felt comfortable and taken our time to shop around.
After this we were pretty much all medina’d out.  Some of our group went on their own to find some more shopping and hunt for bargains, and some of us head back to the hotel to rest our weary feet.  All up, it was an amazing day with so many sights and so much to see, but now I’m fucking exhausted!  So it was back to the hotel for me for a chill evening of writing.

Tomorrow is Christmas Day and we are heading to Chefchaouen – the Blue City.

Volubilis and Meknes

Slept so crap last night.. was asleep around 2230 and unfortunately was awake at 0330ish and even though I was thoroughly exhausted, I just could not get back to sleep… probably due to sharing a bed, the same being rock hard, or just that I was in shite tonnes of pain (or a combination thereof), but I slept like crap.  Tossed and turned for what felt like a few hours and eventually dozed back off, only to be woken by the call to prayer going out over Moulay Idriss at 0621.  So much for that 0700 alarm.  We got our act together, packed our bags and went down to have some breakfast before heading to off to see the anicient Roman ruins of Volubilis which was about ten minutes away. Volubilis is a partly excavated Roman city not far from Meknes – it is commonly referred to as the anicient capital of the kingdom of Mauretania.  It was apparently settled around 200BC and built using slave labor obtained from the local Berber population. The town grew rapidly under Roman rule – they really know how to build – from about the  1stC  AD onwards and became a town of about 10,000 people that covered about 100 acres contained in roughly 2.5kms of city walls. The city had quite a few large public buildings by 200AD, including a basilica, a temple complete with animal sacrifice altars and triumphal arch. The town owed much of its wealth and prosperity to their olive industry which enabled an upper class of patrons to indulge in building fancy town-houses with fabulously large and ornate mosaic floors-many of which have been quite well preserved. A terrace that would have been an open courtyard for dining with lovely dolphins in the mosaic floors.

Orpheus’ House – contained an enormous mosaic depicting Orpheus surrounded by exotic animals from Africa. The city eventually fell along when the entire Roman Empire did around 285AD.  It was never reclaimed by Rome due to remote location and the Empire’s inability to defend their south-west borders.  The Berbers who built the town as slaves came to inhabit the town for the following 700 years – initially as a Latin/Christian community, before it became an early Islamic settlement.  Roughtly by 1000AD, Volubilis was abandoned as the state power was relocated to nearby Fes. Quite a lot of the local Berber population moved to Moulay Idriss Zerhoun where we stayed last night.

No visit to acient Roman ruins would be complete without a guide obligingly telling you where the latrines were and how the water systems worked: Being made of natural stone rather than ceramic, the mosaics are in incredible condition given their age and the disruptions to the civilization here. A reconstructed olive press that shows how the town made much of its wealth: We arrived at the site very early and were the first visitors, so we had the place predominantly to ourselves… there was a very moody early morning fog that lifted about half an hour after we arrived.
(above) Sacrificial altar out front of the Capitiline Temple looking towards the Basilica.
(below) A view of the Basilica from behind the main facade
The tops of ancient columns seem to be a favoured place for swallows and storks to build their nests… Front facade of the Basilica The town, while overrun with wilderness and dissued, remained substantially intact until they a devastating earthquake in the 1700s that tore through Lisborn down into North Africa.  It was not long after this that the site was plunders by various local Moroccan rulers for stone to use in the building of nearby Meknes. It was then another century before the site was definitively identified as the ancient city of Volubilis.
Interior of the Basilica Captioline Temple When the French were exercising colonial rule over Morocco, roughly half the town was excavated, which is when the amazing mosaics were discovered, along with several of the public buildings and obviously wealthy homes. Today it is another one of those cool UNESCO World Heritage Sites, having been listed as “an exceptionally well-preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire”. Arch of Caracalla (Triumphal Arch) – one of the coolest thigns about this arch is that it faces directly towards Rome.  They also know quite a bit about what it would have originally looked like, thanks to the inscription on the stone itself… six large bronze horses used to adorn this archt

The inscription reads (after the abbreviations have been expanded):



or, in translation:

For the emperor Caesar, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus [Caracalla], the pious, fortunate Augustus, greatest victor in Parthia, greatest victor in Britain, greatest victor in Germany, Pontifex Maximus, holding tribunician power for the twentieth time, Emperor for the fourth time, Consul for the fourth time, Father of the Country, Proconsul, and for Julia Augusta, the pious, fortunate mother of the camp and the Senate and the country, because of his exceptional and new kindness towards all, which is greater than that of the principes that came before, the Republic of the Volubilitans took care to have this arch made from the ground up, including a chariot drawn by six horses and all the ornaments, with Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, procurator, who is most deeply devoted to the divinity of Augustus, initiating and dedicating it.

A somewhat damaged mosaic depicting the Goddess DIana… Diana herself has been removed from the mosaic, most likely by the French who took many artefacts from the site and sent them back to France. This wonderful, large terrace space depicts the Twelve Trials of Hercules.
Shooting lions, wrestling pheasants, that sort of thing…A spa area which had a fountain in the middle and visitors could sit in the semicircular cut out spaces and enjoy the fresh waters from the fountains.So many gorgeously preserved mosaics – I don’t think I’ve seen anything this impressive since Ephesus.
The Four Seasons depicted in the floors of the House of Hercules. The Decumanus Maximus, looking south-west Attached to the site is a relatively new interpretive centre with some artefacts that were found on the site.  Unfortunately, much of the site’s treasures have landed in the various museums of Europe, but there were some interesting objects housed here, including these steles from the Mauritanian to the Roman period.  A stele was a small monument which depicts a character in relief or engraved often showing offerings in their hands.

We had an amazing and very impressive visit to Volubulis, even if our guide was playing it pretty fast and loose with the classical history to keep the group entertained, and to have a site like that all to yourself for a couple of hours is simply wonderful… there were about three full-sized (50 peoples) tour buses pulling up as we were leaving.

After our visit to the ruins, we piled into some local transport and head for Meknes. Meknes was originally built as a military settlement and is a large walled city known for its imperial past. In the 17thC Sultan Moulay Ismail designed it as his capital and turned it into quite an impressive city.  The city is predominantly Spanish-Moorish (?) in design and it has an unusual blend of Islamic and European architecture including enormous courtyards and its famed, elaborately decorated gates.

The Dar El Makhzen Royal Palace The Royal Palace still belongs to the current royal family and is not open to visitors.  Inside we believe there are lavish buildings and a golf course for the King and his visitors.
Outside, rows of palms and Seville orange trees… A modern monument celebrating the water bearers who wear the funny outfits.
The Sahrij Swani – enormous granaries and stables that were built to support the military – the stables used to house some 3000 horses at the height of the Alaouite dynasty. The Bab El Khemis Gate Built in 1693, near the Riad and Mellah quarters – we saw a heavily overloaded truck speed through this gate. It barely scraped through, we all did a sharp intake of breath as it screamed towards it.  Whoever packed up that truck was obviously very familiar with the size of the gate!  The very famous Bab El-Mansour gate, covered in mosaics, tile work and koranic inscriptions – built in 1732. The history of the gate tells us that on completion of the gate when the Sultan inspected it, he asked the architect El-Mansour if he could do better, El-Mansour felt compelled to say ‘yes’, probably anticipating another commission.  Instead, the Sultan was infuriated and had El-Mansour immediately executed. While I love the weird integration of Islamic and Roman elements in the design – it was less than impressive to learn that the columns were pilfered from Volubilis.  Across the road from the gate is an enormous town square – currently occupied by snake charmers (yes, actual snake charmers, though I don’t think they were very good – their snakes were mostly just laying around in the sun), and men with little monkeys on chains dressed in soccer team shirts that they were literally throwing onto hapless tourists to take photos with, so they could then demand money from the unsuspecting visitors. Most of our group is very well travelled and didn’t fall for this nonsense. Poor little monkeys.  🙁 Surrounding the square was an endless row of restaurants and people selling tiles and ceramics and all sorts. The green-roofed doorway to right of this picture was the entrance to the undercover food market, which was full of shops selling spices, dates, figs, olives, pickles and down the smelly end – unrefrigerated meat. Olives, olives and more olives. Across the other side of the square, away from the food markets was a maze of little alleyways that were more focused on the textile industries – stores full of silk, braids, garments, and garish fabric.  You could hear the busy clatter of old embroidery machines around every corner.

We wound our way through the alleys to our designated lunch spot to try a camel burger… honestly, the camel was tasty, but the way it was prepared it could have been lamb (or horse or donkey) for all we knew!  It was made into squashed meatballs that had been simmered in some sort of tomato/onion something or other.  Very tasty but not particularly distinctive.

After lunch, we made our way back to the train station to catch a train to Fez.  Catching trains here has been a bit fun.  Samirr has been buying us tickets with allocated seating, but each time we get on the trains (juggling our luggage as we go) we have found ourselves fronting up to our seats and there are locals sitting in them.  It seems the habit here is to buy a 3rd class ticket – no seating – and then go find yourself a seat in the 2nd class carriages and hope for the best.  Some move immediately with good grace as soon as you turn up and say ‘excuse me, that is my seat’ and brandish your ticket, and others like today will just flatly refuse to ‘understand’ you.  After a long day walking around and with an hour stuck on the train to Fez, none of us wanted to end up standing in the aisle.  C’est la vie.  We eventually made it to Fez with only one crotchety old dude sitting in among our group who refused to budge from the seat he hadn’t paid for.

We made it to our hotel – the tautological, Hotel Fez Inn.  Which is quite a lovely and well-appointed place and it has… *drumroll please*… a BAR!  Needless to say almost as soon as people had squared away their stuff and had a quick shower, we were all down in the bar settled with a drink.
Whereupon, it became rapidly apparent that the group was… err, apprehensive about the restaurant we were headed to that night.  Intrepid runs several different styles of trip – Comfort – Basic – Physical and Family trips.  And our fearless leader seemed to be leading us to what we could call, ‘TOURIST RESTAURANTS’.  After such a lovely and authentic meal at the guesthouse last night, the last thing everyone wanted was to find themselves at another overpriced tourist restaurant with bland ordinary food.  So… the peasants (that’s us) decided to revolt.  I popped upstairs to change my shoes and grab my handbag and pretty much expected when I came back down that the group’s desire for a more authentic Moroccan dining experience would have been communicated to Samirr.

Instead, Mr K and I came back down to the bar and everyone was sitting around making niceties, Samirr was in the seat I had vacated, and I walked in and said, ‘What’s the plan?’  Three people answered, ‘Oh, we were waiting for you.’   Le sigh… So I got to be the grown-up in the room and explain to Samirr that we had really loved the guesthouse but we weren’t keen on another tourist restaurant for dinner.  Samirr was somewhat perturbed (I think his kickback just went out the window) but we really didn’t want to go another place where you pay 100DH for a bland and spiceless tagine dish, 80DH for a salad and 24DH for a Coke Zero, when a local restaurant would offer you something super tasty and spicy for 30DH, 20DH and 8DH respectively.

Ever the professional, Samirr rapidly adjusted the schedule and took us to a ‘meat place’.  Where we all stuffed ourselves on delicious eggplant, spinach dishes, and really tasty grilled chicken, koftas and drumsticks… the restaurant was full of locals – always a good sign – and the owner shoved us in the very back of the restaurant (I think so the visuals of a bunch of tourists eating in his place wouldn’t keep the locals away!).

All up, a very tasty meal with some unsual offerings, which, including drinks and tips, it came to a grand total of 55DH per person compared to the 120DH per person at the first tourist restaurant… but someone else can have the next conversation with Samirr when the group wants to change the plan!

*nothing to do with anything, but on our way back from the restaurant, there was a god awful stench, and I happened to look down into a basement under an apartment building and see a chicken farm… urgh! People were living right upstairs from this, but at least they could buy fresh eggs right on the spot.  😐 !


Rabat to Moulay Idriss

Got up bright and early – well actually it wasn’t actually bright, it doesn’t really get bright here until about 0830 at the moment so it was ‘got up dark and early’ – this morning to pack our bags, grab a quick breakfast and hit the road.  We had a short ride in a private minibus to the Casablanca train station where we were heading to Rabat.  The plan was to spend the day in Rabat before grabbing a late lunch and then back to the train station to move on towards Mendes this afternoon.

Oddly enough, things went smoothly.  Mr K and I had bets on which group members would be the lollygaggers holding everyone up and we were both wrong!  Everyone was prompt and on time and it felt like our leader, Samirr was the one holding us up.  

We made it to Rabat around 10:00 and stashed all our luggage in a storage room in a nearby restaurant so we could all head off and explore the city.  Armed with a seriously dodgy map – you know the kind they make for tourists with little pictures on it and no scale so you have no idea how far away things are – we set out with a little too little information and a little too much optimism. 

For no sooner had we gotten about a km from all our things, it began to lightly drizzle.  Ho hum, so much for checking the weather report before we left!  I thanked past me for NOT throwing out those purple leather sneakers in Berlin (like I promised myself I would) and we just kept on wandering down through the marketplaces towards the Rabat Casbah… aka the Kasbah of the Udayas. 

The Casbah/Kasbah (it’s a tomayto/tomarto thing) is located at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river opposite Salé. The Kasbah is an 11th century fort with an incredibly long history that I won’t bore you with (go Google it if you are interested), but it remains an incredibly popular place to go check out the local history, as well as to get good views of the Bou Regreg, the Sale and the Atlantic Ocean.  It is also known for its beautiful blue and white walled winding streets, and the Andalusian Gardens.

It was a very cute part of Rabat to go wandering through – it has approximately 3000 residents currently, and possibly about 500 cats judging by what we saw today.  They’re everywhere, and all very well fed and happy looking critters.

t was a very cute part of Rabat to go wandering through – it has approximately 3000 residents currently, and possibly about 500 cats judging by what we saw today.  They’re everywhere, and all very well fed and happy looking critters. Andalusian Gardens


After the Kasbah, we went for a walk first through some markets and then along the river to find the Mausoleum of Mohammed V which is located directly opposite the Hassan Tower.  The mausoleum contains the tombs of King Hassan II and two of his sons.  The building is an example of the modern Alauouite dynasty architecture, having been built in 1971.  The late Hassan II was interred there after his death in 1999.

The Hasssan Tower which is directly opposite the mausoleum is actually the unfinished minaret of a mosque that was intended to be built in Rabat during the third Caliphate of Almohad in 1195.  The tower was planned to be the tallest/largest minaret in the world, along with an enormous mosque which was supposed to contemporarily be the largest mosque in the world, (what is it with the male preoccupation with size, Mr Ismay? Are you familiar with the works of Mr Freud?), however, when Abu Yusuf al-Mansur died barely four years later in 1199, construction on the mosque ceased. The tower, which was supposed to be some 86m tall only made it to 44m before the construction was abandoned.  All that remains today are the tower and the beginnings of some walls, and some 348 columns that were part way through being constructed.

By this point of our day, I was getting a little WTF?  As mentioned earlier, our dodgy tourist map hadn’t really laid out for us how far apart things were, and I had inadvertently been walking about 9kms on shitty uneven cobblestones for nearly three hours and my hips and lower back were getting decidedly unhappy with me.  So we decided to take a local tram to find St Peter’s Cathedral which is located at Golan Square right in downtown Rabat.  It was only built in 1919 and is in a rather bland Art Deco style… I know – I am decidedly hard to impress when it comes to churches and architecture, and this one left very little impression on me. It was designed by someone called Adrien Laforgue… and quite frankly Adrien, I feel you let us all down. When you have the sort of dish that the Catholic Church is prepared to throw at a thing like a new cathedral, you really should have been able to come up with something a bit more … well, just a bit more?!

After the briefest of visits to the church, we head back down to the cafe where our bags were stashed to find the rest of our tour group had pretty much beaten us back.  It seems they made it to the Kasbah (we kept running into several of them there) none of them bothered to go check out the mausoleum, the Hassan Tower or the St. Peter’s Cathedral… :/   when did we become the eager beaver, see all the things, tourists???  Oh well, will have to moderate our sightseeing in future because my fucking feet and hips were seriously not happy, Jan.

Anyway, we had a bit of lunch, which cleverly we had all ordered before we left for our walk, and made our way back to the train station.  There we caught a train to Mendes – about 2hrs 45mins from Rabat.  The train was clean and comfy, though the locals had a really shitty and fluid relationship to seat numbers, and we had to boot someone out of some of our allocated seats.  Whipping through the countryside was amazing… I have always associated Morocco with a desert landscape, and it is (in parts), but after having travelled quite a bit these last few months domestically in Australia through some of the most crunchy-looking, dusty, dry and dirty brown landscapes, I was not prepared for how lush and green the Moroccan countryside is.  It’s positively gorgeous.  Which makes me very sad for home right now, knowing that half the eastern seaboard is on fire.  :’(

Anyway, we arrived Mendes and here, we picked up some local taxis to take us to the town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun.  The town is spread over two hills at the base of Mount Zerhoun (elevation is about 500m), and is considered a holy town by the Moroccan people.  The town was started here in 789 by Moulay Idriss I who Brough Islam wit him and started a dynasty.  He also was the founder of the town of Fez (that will be tomorrow’s trick).

The town is quite small and compact, having about 1000 residents living in its winding narrow streets.  The entire town itself feels like a Medina (old medieval part of a modern town), and has sections of it that are considered sacred to Muslims such that non-Muslims may not enter.  We are staying in a guesthouse here for just one night, and the walk up to the place was incredibly hard considering I had already completely overdone it for one day.

Once we were here, I had to pull the pin on going for a walk around the town to see the buildings, the bakery, the mosque etc… instead Mr K took a pile of photos of me – primarily of the town at sunset – so that I wouldn’t get the total FOMOs.   I had to kick off my shoes and rest my lower back, which totally sucks!  Thankfully this seem to be one of the longest and most intense days on our itinerary, so it should get a bit easier from here.

After the walking tour of town and the sunset had been seen – our hosts made us the most delicious traditional Moroccan feast made of all local dishes and it was amazing!  There was locally made flat-ish bread, a meatball and egg Tagline dish, some curried chicken, a vegetable couscous dish, plus fresh single pressed olive oil from nearby fields, and homemade chilli past to spice it all up.  So much yum, and all so healthy with no preservatives and no sugary crap hiding in your food!  Makes me feel like a dreadful failure for neglecting my Emile Henry Tagine all these years… will have to rectify that when I get home!

After such a bloody long day, I am enjoying this heat pack as I write this up a little too much and can feel myself yawning like mad even though it’s not yet 22:00.  We don’t have a particularly early start tomorrow, but I have a feeling it’s going to be early to bed tonight as I am ready to crash!

Tomorrow a short tour of Mendes, and then onward to Fez… where I will have to try my hardest to STOP Mr K from deciding he needs to buy a fez in Fez.  *insert rolling of eyes here*

Casablanca – the Quickie Tour

Work done, we finally had some time to have a poke around Casablanca’s favourite tourist spots… And we started off in Mohammed V Square. Considered Casablanca’s ‘Times Square’, it is a public square of historical and symbolic significance located in the very centre of the city. It was established in 1916 at the beginning of the period of French colonial era and the square is known officially named in honour of the former King of Morocco, Mohammed V – grandfather of the current King Mohammed VI. The square is also known as “Pigeon Square” due to the huge population of big fat happy pigeons – the locals like to come here and sit by the (currently empty fountains), play with their children and feed the pigeons… though why anyone would encourage an enormous population of winged rats to congregate in their main square, is beyond me.

The Square is lined with the Courthouse, Post Office and State House which lent significant legitimacy to the French colonial rule at the time. It is also filled with hawkers and touts selling toys for children, pigeon feed, water, tissues and all sorts. This guy in traditional costume (below) was carrying a goatskin of water that you could drink from one of his brass cups or just pay him to take some photos of his interesting outfit.

Directly opposite the square is the completely incongruous and thoroughly modern Opera House. Interesting building, but it very much feels like it doesn’t belong here at all.

From the Mohammed V Square, we made our way to the Casablanca’s Notre Dame church, which was built in a European modernist style of architecture in 1956. Looking somewhat like a an ugly library from the outside, the church is famous for its elongated concrete entrance and the enormous stained-glass windows, which were designed by a French artist Gabriel Loire, that run down the entire length of the church. It also has incredible acoustics so it’s known for holding concerts etc.

Interesting we learned that the Catholic church runs many social programs for the homeless, for children, and for women. The local Christian community is quite proud of this, and like to compare themselves to the local Muslim and Jewish communities who have no similar programs at all.

A trip around Casablanca wouldn’t be complete without a pit stop at the famous ‘Rick’s Cafe’, which was made famous by the 1942 movie, Casablanca, which was filmed entirely in California and doesn’t have a single Moroccan in it, but you know, you gotta at least go past… *shrug*. Not being huge fans – We came, we saw, we bawked at the prices on the totally touristy cocktail list, and we moved on.

Not far down the road was a far more interesting stop – the famous Hassan II Mosque. Which is the largest mosque in Africa, and the 3rd largest mosque in the entire world. It has a singular minaret (minaret number is apparently a cultural affectation and in Morocco, mosques have only one) that is the world’s second tallest minaret standing 210 metres tall (689 ft in the old money). The 60 stories high minaret is topped by a laser, the light from which is directed towards Mecca. It was built relatively recently in 1993, and took 12,500 workers a mere six years to complete.  Apparently it was started in 1986, and was supposed to be completed in time for Hussan II’s 60th birthday – during the most intense period of construction, 1400 men worked during the day and another 1100 men worked through the night attempting to make the schedule. Over 10,000 artists and craftsmen worked simultaneously inside the building on the handcrafted carving and mosiacs etc, to beautify the mosque.

It was not apparently completed on time for the birthday celebrations and instead was inaugurated on 30 August 1993 – which is the 11th Rabi’ al-Awwal of the year 1414 of the Hijra, which also marks the eve of the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad’s birth.

Outside, there are beautiful mosaic fountains ring the forecourt where worshippers can perform their ablutions prior to prayer.

It’s hard to see the scale of this building but it’s enormous… think St Peter’s in Rome for similar, but all contained in one open space.

The mosque stands on a promontory (some of which is reclaimed land) looking out to the Atlantic Ocean. Worshippers can pray in sections out over the sea.

The cost of building the mosque was a whopping 585 million euro, which as you can imagine was a fairly contentious issue in Morocco, being a lower to middlle income country. The King wanted to build a mosque which would be second in size only to the mosque at Mecca, but the government could not fund such an elaborate and grand project. Much of the finance to complete the project came from public donations. Over 12 million individuals donated to build the mosque and each was issued with a receipt and certificate given to every donor – even if they contributed a mere 5 MAD.

The building is made almost entirely of Moroccan materials – local marble, granite from the Atlas Mountains and local timbers. The walls are of hand-crafted entirely of marble and the roof is retractable. A maximum of 105,000 worshippers can gather together for prayer: 25,000 inside the mosque hall and another 80,000 on the mosque’s outside ground in the forecourt.

Mosaic design running up an enormous wall.

The walls are lavishly decorated in mosaic tile designs and the ceiling of carved, hand-painted cedar from the Atlas mountains.

The size of this hall is hard to depict, but I think you could easily fit about six basketball courts into this hall, end to end.

Below the enormous hall are ablutions rooms for worshippers, with large marble fountains where they can perform their ritual cleansing prior to prayer. The numerous marble fountains are not running all the time to conserve water (the water used for the fountains is freshwater pumped from the mountains). Around the room instead, are several mosaic fountains that can be used when these ones are not running.

After spending an hour or so marvelling at the enormity of the Hassan II Mosque, (and wondering how long such a hastily built edifice may stand), we made our way to the Corniche – or the Casablanca pier. Famous for the beach resorts, restaurants and nightlife, the Corniche attracts people from all over Europe in the summertime. Currently, it’s nice and quiet given it’s almost the middle of winter.

Casablanca’s famous beaches are lined with resorts, where patrons can pay to hire a cabana and enjoy some sun and, presumably, someone to run around fetching them umbrella drinks.

The Tropicana Beach Resort is one of the more popular and expensive beach resorts on the strip, with a lovely restaurant, larger thatched cabanas and (what looks to this Aussie, like) access to a rather ordinary beach full of rocky outcrops and a rather angry and murky looking Atlantic Ocean. Not sure I can see the appeal of spending time here on your summer vacation, but we have to admit, Australians are somewhat spoiled on the beach thing…

Afterwards, we made our way back into the city to meet up with a tour group. Tomorrow we are off to explore Morocco with a bunch of strangers… we haven’t done an organised tour group thing for many years and I’m not sure how it will go. We did China in 2015 on a predominantly private tour, but I haven’t done this since Turkey in 2007. The group is comprised of only one other Aussie couple, two young women from London, four Californians, and some solo guys from Switzerland, Quebec and South Africa. They seem like a nice enough bunch.