Tag Archives: Morocco

Dromedaries, Dunes, and Deserted Ruins

Sunrise in the Sahara

Welcome back to another, and perhaps my final post on our adventures in Morocco. My apologies for the slight delay between posts. I was off to Toronto for a conference, and had other family obligations. At any rate, on the plus side, we now have all of our pictures put up on flickr. I’ve even added a folder of videos as well, with a few clips that I shot in various places. For this post, I’m going to take you on two unique journeys. The first will be a camelback ride out into the dunes of the Erg Chebbi, where we spent the night in a Berber camp. The second part of the story will be our exploration of the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, an expansive site which was one of the farthest trading posts of the Roman empire. Both of these little adventures was pretty amazing, and this was the first time that either of us had ventured by camel into a desert, and spend the night under the stars in the desert. Once you’ve had chance to peruse the desert pictures and Roman ruin pictures, hop on back and read the whole tale.

Our camel journey started in the far southeast of the country. We set out from a little town called Merzouga. If you look at a map, you’ll see that it is situated very close to the Algerian border, which is actually closed, and there are rather severe consequences if you were to cross it. Suffice to say, we didn’t cross it. The long dusty road trip to Merzouga took us through a number of other little Moroccan towns, in one of which we bought some pretty cool black marble candleholders with fossils in them. We didn’t actually get to Merzouga until near the end of the day, which was the plan, as it meant we’d be making our camel trek through the sunset and dusk. On arrival to the little outpost, we immediately saw a long string of camels laying disinterestedly in the sand, their legs tied so they couldn’t wander off.

There were 6 of us in total in our group. Deanna and I, the two Scottish ladies we’d climbed in the Atlas with, and a young Swiss couple that arrived by car. After buying some water to last us till the next day, and a quick mint tea (of course) we were led to our camels. The Berber guide chose a camel for each of us. I was given a camel that was already laden with some gear. Apparently, they figured I weighed less, and would therefore be easier on my camel. We were up and heading out in no time flat.

I will tel you this right now. Camels are NOT what you’d call a ‘graceful’ animal. They move awkwardly, and make a myriad of strange noises (owing to their constant digestion), and also source some rather interesting odours, not unlike rotting eggs at times. While they may look rather cute and aloof from a distance, they are a very interesting beast up close. Also, straddling one of these wide beasts, on a steel framed ‘saddle’ of sorts, isn’t that comfy either. Owing to that, it didn’t take long before half of us had chosen to ride our camels in some sort of side saddle style.

The ride itself was pretty unique. Our Berber guide (who was on foot and guiding our ‘camel train’) led us up and down and all around a series of small dunes. We wandered for almost 90 minutes in the fading light until we came to our camp for the night. We’d passed by a few other desert wanderers on our way. By the time we arrived at camp, the light was pretty much all gone, but not so much that I didn’t notice that where we dismounted was a minefield of camel dung, which presents itself as slighly larger than walnut-sized pellets, not unlike chocolate easter eggs. It was everywhere! Obviously they bring groups every night in varying numbers. There were already a couple other tourists there who would be camping, but it was otherwise pretty quiet. That is, until the next ‘camel train’ arrived, laden with a group of about 20 Europeans, all of whom seemed to be smokers. Ugh. So much for a peaceful night in the desert.

Luckily, nothing prevented me from leaving camp armed with my camera and wandering away on my own for a bit. The desert is a pretty surreal environment. It’s rather disorienting to be surrounded by a sea of sand. After we all had a big meal, the youngest Berber invited us to join him in a trek up the highest nearby dunes. Perfect! We set out, and it was immediately clear he intended to be the first and to shame the tourists with his skill. Not his day though, as ActiveSteve kept up step by step the whole way up. The two of us eventually lost everyone far below us. We summitted the first big dune, and then he pointed to another one that we also scaled. Here, at this highest point, we finally stopped to wait for the rest. Surprisingly, it would be fully 30 minutes before the main group caught up. By then, we’d had a nice chat, and I had decided to head back down with Deanna, who had also pushed hard to secure 3rd overall (not that it was a contest).

The height of the dunes was quite misleading. Once at the top of the big dune, it was clear just how tiny all the other were below us. However, in the camp, the high dune really didn’t seem all that tall. Of course, this just begs the question now, doesn’t it? Will I ever choose to tackle the Marathon des Sables? Given that they run during the daytime highs, I’m guessing no, but who knows?

The next morning, we got up before sunrise to re-mount our camel friends, and ride off into the dunes to experience the sunrise in the desert. It was a pretty great morning. We’d been lucky with good temperatures and virtually no wind. Back at our starting point from the day before, we had a quick breakfast, and everyone went their own ways. For us, that was back to Marrakech. It was the end of a great adventure for us.

Stork nest in Basilica

So, now, how about those deserted ruins you ask? Well, this was at a site known as Volubilis. This is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site that has undergone significant restoration. This was a significant trading post, whose main exports included grain and of course olive oil. Indeed, during the 5km walk to and from the ruins that Deanna and I made from Moulay Idriss (where we were staying), we wandered through many an olive grove. As with most of our trip, the weather was once again spectacular. Hot sun beat down on us as we wandered to the entry gate to pay our small admission fee which worked out to less than 2 dollars. There were very few tourists on our arrival, so we had the vast ruins to ourselves. Well, us and the many guides touting their services near the entryway. We passed on the pricey service, opting instead to use our 2 guidebooks, which between them had maps and lots of explanations of the area. That way, we weren’t limited to just a 1 hour tour, but could take our time and poke and prod all over on our own.

Exploration was the name of the game here. We started at one end of the site and very gradually made our way under the hot sun to all corners of the ruins. What looked like a fairly compact site froma distance soon revealed itself to be a fairly large area. Much of it is still under thick vegetation, and we figured they will spend several more years unearthing more treasures in the area. I’ve been to other small Roman ruins in other travels, but nothing like this. We were truly able to get a sense of the kind of village life that these Romans may have lived. We wandered through the residential quarters of the workaday people, meandering over to the city center, with the Forum, the Arcade, the baths, the arch, etc. Finally, turning right, you are lead up the grand boulevard where the rich folk and administrators lived.

This rich area is where you see a lot more of the details and features that make these ruins a real standout. There are mosaics in these areas are well over 2000 years old, yet still retain some of their vivid colours. It is truly remarkable to imagine just how old these mosaics and ruins are. The craftsmenship and ingenuity displayed is remarkable. Possibly one of my faviourite little details though was a manhole cover that was there. As with today’s, it was round, and had a few slots on it. However, it was of course made of stone, and has been walked on for many many centuries. Beneath it, a Roman water system used to distribute water to the houses and fountains. Just amazing.

After we’d had our fill of the ruins, we headed to the on-site cafe for a quick bite to eat before our return 5k walk to the village. Simple sandwiches to keep us fuelled. The fateful question was of course ‘do you want tomatoes?’. To which we answered yet. These were dutifully washed, and sliced for our meal. Very tasty too. Unfortunately, it’s what you can’t see. We figure that the water (sourced from who knows where) used to clean it was tainted, because for the next 24 hours, we were both pretty much horizantal, except for the fact that we had to catch a train and move on to Rabat. At one point, it was so bad that I left Deanna at the hotel and ventured out to find a doctor or pharmacist to get us drugs, which are both plentiful and don’t require perscriptions if you’ve got the cash. These straightened me back up, but unfortunately for Deanna, she remained quite ill for well over a week, prompting a visit to a Canadian doctor on her return as well, and more drugs. Oh well, makes for great memories and stories, and apparently is a great crash diet!

Given the current length of this post, I reckon this is a good place to leave you all. If I had to now summarize the whole trip for you all, I’d say it was awesome! Morocco truly does have something for everyone, and you can choose to focus on that one thing, or dabble in a bit of it all, which is what we did. The one thing we couldn’t fit in was a visit to any of the sea-side resorts which are well known as well. So if beaches are your thing, you have that option as well. Everyone always asks “Would you go back?” when you visit somewhere like Morocco. First instinct is to say a heartfelt YES!, but in truth, my own interest lies in seeing as much of this world we all live in as I can. Therefore, while I absolutely loved Morocco, there are so many more countries to see, and my travel time is limited, so I’ll probably move on to some other locale next :-), but I do highly recommend everyone visit Morocco if the chance presents itself. The rich history, amazing architecture, warm people, great sites, and relative inexpensiveness make it a great option.

The Highs and Lows of Morocco

Early Dawn Light

Welcome to the second post detailing some of the awesome experiences Deanna and I had in Morocco. This time, I’ll take you a bit off the beaten path, and talk about two particularly awesome experiences. Namely, the high of trekking and climbing in the High Atlas mountains, including sumitting the highest peak in North Africa, as well as the lows of heading to the depths of the deepest caves in North Africa, the Friouato Cave system. For Deanna, these were particularly fun, as she had never climbed a mountain before or gone cave exploring. In another post, I’ll visit a first for BOTH of us, but this time, it’s all about Deanna’s firsts. If you check into flickr, you’ll eventually find pictures from both, but for now, only the Atlas Mountain pics are up. Eventually, they’ll all be in the collection though. For now, I’ll just give you a bit of the blow by blow in written words. Enjoy!

It’s no secret that I love the mountains. I’ve now seen some pretty incredible ones in several continents. This includes the Rocky Mountains of Canada, a few different peaks (including the mighty Aconagua in South America) on travels in Argentina and Peru, the Alps of Switzerland, and the high mountains in New Zealand. Every time I spend any time in the mountains either alone or with others, I get a great sense of my place in the world. I love the clean air, the majesty and ruggedness of the environment, and the feeling of being basically a speck of dirt on this great planet we inhabit. The feeling is compounded even further after being subjected to the chaos of busy cities. This is exactly the circumstances in which we started our high Atlas trekking. We’d just spent a night in Casablanca and a day and night in Marrakech, which is the very definition of chaotic in the centre of the Medina.

We awoke early on a Monday to be picked up by a taxi drive who shuttled us from Marrakech to the village of Imlil, nestled in the foothills of the High Atlas. Our ultimate objective was to summit Mount Toubkal, which at 4,167m is not the tallest mountain I’ve ever climbed, but the highest of north Africa. We’d be spending 3 days and 2 nights trekking. We had a guide, a muleteer, a cook, and at the last minute, learned 2 other trekkers (from Scotland) would be joining us. The weather? Absolutely amazing. Bright, sunny, and warm all 3 days. So no need to dwell on that. Obviously we’d have done it no matter what the weather, but no rain was certainly a treat compared to my mountain experiences last time in Africa at Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru.

Our first day wasn’t too bad. We spent probably 4-5 hours total trekking, heading gradually up the valleys and around some of the smaller mountains to get to our eventual ‘refuge’ for the first night. Along the way, we stopped for our lunch, which as per usual on these types of trek, was amazing. Fresh prepared food with fresh ingredients. And of course, they always give you way too much food. We were getting to know our guide and the two other crew on the trip, and although there was a slight language barrier, we all got along well. Day 1 was definitely impressive for the sights, and knowing that the best was yet to come put me in high spirits. The High Atlas are impressive not only for their rugged beauty, but the fact that they completely surround you. Very rocky and barren, with many criss-crossing trails in some spots. The area has been used for a very long time for grazing sheep and goats, and has even played a strong part in the history of the country as a stronghold for keeping enemies at bay.

Instead of tents, we were lucky enough to be able to use a refuge for sleeping. Basically, sleeping mats in an open room with blankets. With no electricity and early sunset, our night ended pretty early. I grabbed an ‘alpine shower’ in a drip of cold water, and tried snapping pictures in the light of a near full moon, but still hit the hay around 9am. Good thing too, as our next morning started bright and early. This day, we’d have at least 6 hours solid trekking. It started kinda chilly, but passing waterfalls and having the sun rise and light up the mountains around us made it a joy. We also had a very steep switchback climb up a scree valley to keep us on our toes. Deanna and I had struck out on our own and were between the two helpers, while our guide was farther back with the another trekker. It was nice to just be totally on our own out there. The sights of day 2 were even more impressive than day 1, and I was clearly starting to fall in love with the Atlas mountains. Definitely high on my list of favourite treks. Once again, we stopped for lunch, and our spot had a perfect view of our conquest, Mount Toubkal, looming across a valley from us high above. We could also see our camp for the night, further down a valley. Sadly, we’d be descending to it, only to have to climb back out for the summit.

Once at the Toubkal Refuge, we talked about summit plans. Most climbers start at first light, get there late morning, then head back down valley. However, I convinced the team that we should head out around 2am in order to be at the summit for sunrise. This was met with some resistance, but I’m quite sure if you ask everyone now, they’ll agree it was the right call. The climb up, although in the dead of night, was amply lit by the light of the moon. We had the trail completely to ourselves. It wasn’t an easy climb, but we’d given ourselves the right amount of time. We actually put climbed the last bit before the sun even rose up. There was early morning glow, but no sun yet. The summit? Well, we had that completely to ourselves as well. It was absolutely spectacular in all respects. Of course, it was also quite cold, so we didn’t stay super long, but at least 20 minutes. Eventually I’ll have some video up.

Our return path was also different from most people. I’d also convinced us to take the ‘south col’ route down. Pretty treacherous at the top, and then heads down another scree valley to meet the main trail far below. It is also the final resting place of a crashed airplane from the 1970s. The debris field was quite large, with interesting bits of twisted metal all around. It was only 8am as we were heading down the last bits, but we’d already put in a solid day of hard climbing. However, we stil had another 6 or so hours of trekking to get us all the way back to Imlil. We were all a bit tired, but just plodded on, one foot in front of the other. Deanna and I were the only trekkers in our group to actuall hike the whole thing, and we were pretty strong. I was very proud of Deanna in the mountains, and can’t wait for the day we head to Nepal to do some serious mountain trekking :-). Lunch on this day was in a holy village in the valley heading back to Imlil. It was a great time to take a little crash and lay in the sun. Just the re-charge we needed to take us to the end, and in time to watch one of our mules go a little crazy! Ask me in person some time about that.

With the mountains out of the way, I now take you all the way to the northeast of the country, the Friouato Caves, reputed to be the deepest in North Africa. To quote one of our guidebooks “The sense of descending into the entrails of the earth is exhilarating.” We can attest to that. However, this was no multi-day affair. We basically made this a day trip from Taza. The trip to and from was just as exciting too. We left our hotel in the morning, used a grand taxi to get us there, then planned on hitching a ride back to Taza to catch a train to Fes. We didn’t realize that getting a ride back would prove challenging. But it was. The caves are NOT on the beaten path, so walking along the road we saw almost no cars, and we were 27km or so from town. One car going the other way even stopped and gave us fruit as we walked, which was super cool. Eventually, we DID get picked up (after several km trek in the hot sun). This fellow was exactly what I hoped. His car was actually barely running. He didn’t want to stop, as the car might not start again, but since it was mostly downhill, he took the chance. We had great conversations on the ride back to town, and he refused payment, offered advice, and even pointed out restoration work being carried out by UNESCO in the area. All this contributed to Deanna’s decision that Taza was probably her favourite place. A quick filling lunch, with more friendly locals, and we caught our train to Fes.

But what about the caves you’re wondering? In a single word, cool. Not breathtaking or amazing, but cool. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing a couple other cave systems now, the best being the Lucky Strike caves in New Zealand, and the level of care they take inpreserving those sort of put Friouato to shame. The public access to the Friouato caves is well worn with foot traffic, and there is a fair bit of just mud. Also, many of the stalactites and stalagmites have been damaged, which was sad to see. Kind of how you feel when you see someone break a piece of coral reef that you know took decades to grow. In spite of that though, there were some amazing sections of curtain stalactites, water pools, and just general grandeur to take in. You have the option of just going to the mouth of the cave for one price, or you can pay to have a guide walk you 3km into the cave, then retrace the steps. Obviously we got the guide. We are unlikely to ever return, so spending the extra money was worth it!

I will say this for these caves. They are massive. Compared to all others I’ve been in, these ones boggled the mind. For the entire 3kms, we were in pretty wide open cathedral-type spaces. In other caving trips, there was lots of crawling through little openings, and lots of narrow passages. Not here! Just wide open spaces. Of complete darkness. We’d shown up pretty early in the morning, so once again, we had the place to ourselves. In fact, we sort of woke up both the cafe / shop owner and the guide. We basically made them open up the caves for us. Not sure how they liked that. However, our books said it was open at 8:30, and we showed up at 9am, so we didn’t feel too bad! Overall, I’d say Deanna was also pretty impressed with this experience. She had no idea what to expect, and I think it’s safe to say that it blew her non-expectations out of the water. Just the descent into the cave system entry was really cool. Over 500 steps carved in rock from the top to the bottom, created in the 1930’s by French spelio-dudes. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to take any pictures that would do it justice.

So there you have it. The highest highs and lowest lows of Morocco for us. Next up in the series will be a story about a true first for both of us, and another of the highlights of the trip. Till then, hope you all enjoyed this post, and check back for the next installment!

Marvelous Morocco: Medinas, Medersas, Minarets and Mosques

Hassan II Mosque

Hello world! It has been simply far too long since I’ve taken the time to write a few words to all my dear readers. This is partly due to a number of distractions at home and with work, and partly due to the fact that Deanna and I were quite busy jet-setting. As you may have guessed from the marvelous alliteration in the title, we were off to Morocco taking in the sights, smells, and sounds of that amazing country. I’ll split the story into 2 or 3 posts, starting with this one. In this post, I’ll focus on the cities that we visited. Our trip was broken into bits of urban exploration, then some adventures in the mountains, desert, and caves. We covered a lot of ground and had a lot of experiences in our two weeks, far too many to cover in full detail. So here’s hoping I can be somewhat brief! Of course, there were also a LOT of pictures taken, and we’ll sort those all by day or location to make it easiest. You can check out all the pictures over on flickr. We’re in the process of creating one big collection with many sets. Keep checking back for more pictures as we post them. Have a look now, then head back here to read more.

Our journey started in the city which probably evokes the most response from people who think they know Morocco. Casablanca. Yes, the namesake of that most amazing Bogart flick that in fact was filmed entirely on a Hollywood soundstage. Our flight was direct from Montreal to Casablanca, and was pretty uneventful (side note: I wouldn’t recommend Royal Air Maroc if you’re into the ‘latest’ stuff, this was vintage 1980s comfort!). We decided to make the absolute most of our trip, so even though we’d taken a red eye flight over, we wanted to get right into the trip. We checked into our art deco style hotel, freshened up a bit, then hit the mean streets with camera and guidebook in hand. We’d opted to tackle most of this trip on our own, given that I can speak french fluently, and they had a pretty good rail system. That way, we set our own agenda, made our own reservations, and basically could blame no one but ourselves for the experiences.

The Lonely Planet guidebook featured nice self-guided walking tours of most major cities in Morocco, so that’s what we did right away. Casablanca, being the financial capital of Morocco was really just a big city in most respects. Our walking tour consisted of looking at various government buildings in the newer part, and art-deco buildings in the older sections. However, there are a couple real shining stars in Casa. Firstly, this is a port city, so you’ve got the drama of the Atlantic Ocean to watch. We saw young Moroccan boys body surfing in medium-sized surf, and took a nice stroll along the corniche, or ocean wall. However the real attraction is the Hassan II Mosque. This is the 2nd largest mosque in the world after Mecca in Saudi Arabia. However, unlike Mecca, non-muslims can visit, and we took advantage with a guided tour. The attention to detail and sheer scale of this holy building is mind-boggling. We took plenty of pictures, but were relatively rushed in going through the tour. As the number one tourist stop in Casa (some would argue the ONLY one worth it), there were many others dropping jaws with us here. The ocean-front location was also breath-taking, and after the tour, Deanna and I hung out in the main courtyards outside for quite a while enjoying the sun and atmosphere.

Given our slight jetlag, the rest of our time in Casa was spent just idly walking around downtown, trying to follow the tour, and eventually grabbing a bite to eat in a cafe before meandering back through some park areas to our neck of the city. To finish our one night in Casa off, we had delicious shawarmas on a pedestrian mall, followed by too much ice-cream, and capped it all off back at our hotel with delicious mint tea (aka Whiskey Berber) to live oud (a stringed musical instrument) music played by a local. It was a pretty great start to the trip and good way to ease into this environment. The next day the pace would change a bit…

Day 2 had us hopping into 1st class on a train for the 3hr 20min trip from Casa to Marrakech. This of course, is the real tourist heart of Morocco. The stuff of legends. Endless mazes of souks, the carnival atmosphere of Djemma El Fna (a big square), grandiose palaces, and a magnificent medina. Ok, time for a very quick explanation. Mosques, as you likely all know, are places of worship. Minarets? The square towers that you find at each mosque. Medersa? Well, think of these as dorms and schools for Islamic scholars. Finally, Medinas. Simply put, these are the old walled imperial cities of Morocco. Most of the cities in Morocco are split into what are called the Medinas (walled old part) and the Ville Nouvelle, which are the areas built up by the French during the time that Morocco was a protectorate of the French. The real Morocco was best experienced in the medinas, which is generally where we stayed and toured. Of course, these are also the places where you’ll find the souks, the poorer people, the cheap accomodations, but might not find hot water or reliable washrooms. All part of the experience though. After all, at about $20-$30 a night, we were pretty happy with what we got. Ok, back to Marrakech.

Marrakesh medina sees the light

Marrakech for me marked the first time I’ve ever truly and completely been lost. Deanna and I once again embarked on a self-guided walking tour. However, the souks are an extremely complex maze of twisty streets, row after row of identical-looking merchants, blind alleys and dead ends. There is no sun visible nor any shadows to work with. The most confident navigator could get lost here. And I did! Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to turn on my GPS as we wandered. Without it, we wouldn’t have found our way back. Well, we would have, it just would have cost us a few dirhams to get someone to guide us back to the main square, Djemma El Fna. Also during our tour, many of the merchants would have liked us to buy things, but for now, we were only tourists. Our lodgings were a Riad, which is a converted old colonial home with a central courtyard. Our room was about the size of a shoebox, but cozy, and pretty cheap, WITH our own ensuite, and a great rooftop terrace where we watched the sun set before heading out for food at night.

Speaking of night, that is when the square really comes alive like a circus. It also becomes a massive outdoor buffet. However, this particular night was also a qualifying match for the world cup, and Morocco was playing against Tanzania. As a result, the whole city was more interested in the game than tourists, which was quite nice. We wandered by stalls where there was a little TV, and crowded around, 30 or so Moroccans. Thankfully, Morocco won, keeping everyone in good spirits. We ate in the square, each having a couscous dish, and capped it off with, what else, mint tea. The night was closed off with pastries on the roof of our riad and some water, chatting about our experiences so far, and looking forward to escaping the craziness of the Medina for a few days, since we were off to the mountains.

Fast forward almost a week, and we come back to Marrakech for one night before leaving for the far northeast of the country. Second time in Marrakech felt much more familiar, and we wandered the square and the nearby souks much more confidently. Early the next morning, we were off on a 9 hour train trip (which ended more like 12) to a place called Taza. This one is quick to sum up. We only spent one night, and it was in the ville nouvelle. Deanna loved it. Why? No one cared about us. After a week in Morocco, it was nice to be incognito. We dined with the locals at a hole in the wall. We shared grand taxis (think of a 1980s Mercedes Benz, and cramming 4 in the back, 3 in the front) for cheap drives, and even hitch-hiked back from the caves (in another post) getting picked up by a friendly local pointing out where the Unesco work was being done (while hoping his car wouldn’t die completely). It was a great little break from the other places we’d visited. From Taza, we were jumping back into the fray by heading to Fes, which is the #2 tourist stop after Marrakech.

We’d both read that Fes is even more confusing then Marrakech in the souks and medina, but we actually found it not too bad. There were two parallel main ‘roads’ heading through the medina, and as long as we kept our wits about us, we could get back to these. I was still unable to actually follow the walking tour, but we gave it a good shot AND got to see all the things we’d hoped to. The sights included an impressive Medersa with more amazing stucco and woodwork (you really need to just check out the pictures to get a sense). Of course the requisite mosques and minarets. We were actually staying just inside of the main Babs (gates) which in itself was very impressive. We spent two nights in Fes, giving us just enough time to really take it in. By now, we’d become pretty enamoured to most Morrocans. There are always a few bad apples, but by and large the people were very warm and friendly. Sure there were people trying to pull fast ones on us (cab drivers in particular), or beg for money, but nobody ever made us feel unsafe anywhere. There’s a lot to say for the that. The lack of police made us feel safe too. Normally, you’d think police presence would make you feel safe, but I felt the opposite. No police to me meant there was no imminent danger.

After getting our fill of the medina, we also ventured outside the Fes city walls at dusk to see the golden glow over the old city, and to also cast our eyes on the tombs in the surrounding hills. The walk was well worth it, and gave us yet another perspective of life in Morocco. When we were at the top of the surrounding hills, and just about to turn and head back (it was about to get dark), we got to take in the haunting sound of dozens of surrounding mosques starting their call to prayer. It was a pretty surreal moment up there. Completely normal, innocent occurrence to the locals, but for a couple Canadian travelers looking down on a 700 year old city, who in many ways hasn’t changed much in those 700 years, it was quite unique. We returned to our final meal in Fes feeling quite humble. But alas, time to move on again. This time, Meknes!

Meknes was our second last city, and arguably last ‘pure’ Moroccan city. Meknes is another of the Imperial cities, and has one of the best-preserved medinas. It also happens to house a royal palace, so there are some pretty extensive walls surrounding that little house. Like Marrakech, there was a big square, but it lacks the carnival atmosphere. A little music here, a little henna artist there, but no madness like in Djemma El Fna. There was a pretty excellent museum here that we took in (and had the surreal experience of one of the curators follow us around and insist we snap picture in the ‘off limits’ areas – for a tip of course). Once again, we turned to Lonely Planet for a tour, and I made it my mission to successfully follow the whole thing. It took a couple false starts, but we made it! I felt like high-fiving everyone. I challenge anyone else who ever visits Morocco to try and follow one of their walking tours in the medinas. They are rife with errors and it is nearly-impossible. Luckily, Meknes was much smaller, and getting your bearings when you got turned around was much quicker. We had a really great supper that night as well, in a family house that was converted partially into a restaurant. Very homey, right down to the family wiener dog running around, and the brother and sister fighting. Once again, perfect ambiance to us :-).

Meknes was another 2 night stop, broken by a night out of town at Moulay Idriss, another very holy town (but that too is for another story). Sadly, our 2nd day in Meknes is basically lost in time. We were both pretty much horizontal for nearly 24 hours after taking ill due likely to tainted tomatoes (or rather the water used to wash them). However, it was also raining that day, and we had no real plans, so we didn’t even feel like we lost anything. It was simply just a write-off day. Good thing too, since the next day we were heading to Rabat, the capital, for our final day of the trip, and final touring as well.

Rabat. What can I say about Rabat? Well, for starters, it is the Ottawa of Morocco. The capital. Our luxurious hotel (we paid about 4-5 times what we’d paid every other night) was right across from the parliament, and very close to the train station. A little place called the Hotel Balima, which in its day was apparently THE place to be in Rabat. Just the place we needed for our last night in Morocco and to help us transition back to the ‘western world’. With no official walking tour, we just set out with a couple maps and a few ideas where to walk. Many people say Rabat has not much to offer, but in our one day there, I’d say we found a lot to like about it. Great restaurants, good ice cream, great museums (don’t miss the archaeology museum), amazing ruins just outside the city centre… Surprisingly, I think we could have easily been entertained there for a couple days. Once again, the medina and souks also seemed easier to navigate, and as a more cosmopolitan city, we were once again blissfully ignored. There’s a lot to be said for that. In a word, I’d say it was the perfect finishing spot to an absolutely amazing trip to Morocco. I even found a patisserie that had been in business since 1929, and got treats to bring back to my co-workers on our way back to the train station on the final morning.

As per the rest of our trip, the weather in Rabat had also been amazing. Apart from one day of rain (where we were laid up anyway), we’d had beautiful blue skies, and temperatures between 28 and 32 degrees Celsius every day. our timing had apparently been impeccable. This great timing and weather also helped for the other parts of our trip. Of course, that will have to wait for my next installment, where I’ll take you to the top of Morocco where we scaled Mount Toubkal. Till then, hope you enjoyed my ‘taste of Morocco’, and don’t forget to look at all the pictures, they tell a much greater tale than these words do. Plus, if you want more ‘colour’, chat me up next time you see me. There are many more stories to tell.