Marvelous Morocco: Medinas, Medersas, Minarets and Mosques

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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.

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