posted from The Anchorage Inn, English Harbour, Antigua.
We have been building a house in North Carolina. Our builder kept telling us that we should leave town when our house got to the drywall stage because there would be nothing but dust everywhere. We took the suggestion to heart and not only got out of town – we left the continent.
Jackie and Mohammed, our guide, outside Rick’s Cafe, Casablanca, Morocco
No, it’s not the Ricks Café from the movie, but we still had to go, because as Louis Renault said in Casablanca, “Everybody comes to Rick’s.”
So here we are in Morocco. We got a good deal on a last minute tour.
I originally was going to walk you through the tour place by place, but I think it will be better to talk about aspects of the country.
There could easily be twice as much text in this post and I had a terrible time culling the 2000 or so photographs down to what I included. Here is the story:
We had an overnight flight to Casablanca, met our guide and our fellow travelers, and started the whirlwind tour. We travelled from Casablanca to Rabat, the capital city. From there it was on to Meknes and then Fez (the city, not the hat). After Fez, we passed through the Atlas Mountains to Erfoud. We spent a couple nights on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and then visited Tineghir, Marrakech, and Essaouira.
MOROCCO IS A MUSLIM COUNTRY
Let there be no doubt, Morocco is a Muslim country. Everywhere you look you will see a mosque. More that that, five times a day they broadcast the Call to Prayer from every mosque. In older times, each call was repeated four times – once from each side of the mosque. Now the call is prerecorded and can be heard in any place of any real population. It never ceased to be a somewhat unreal experience because it was so pervasive and because of the tone of the announcement. Our guide even had an app on his smart phone to give the call to prayer at the appropriate times each day.
One of our first stops of note was the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. It is the largest mosque in Morocco and the only one in the country that can be entered by non-Muslims.
Hassan II mosque in Casablanca
Inside the mosque
This amazing structure was our introduction to Moroccan architecture.
Mosques have separate areas for men and women to cleanse themselves before prayer and separate areas for actual prayer.
You can’t wear shoes in a mosque
Local buildings may be old or in ill-repair, but you will still see a well-kept mosque
The people of Morocco were generally friendly and helpful. Most are Muslims, but they are more relaxed in their attitudes than in many other countries. We saw a lot of women wearing non-traditional dress, but almost all had some sort of covering for their hair. Every once in a while we would see a woman in traditional dress covered head to foot with only her eyes showing. The next picture is a good example of the range of women’s dress. The one after shows a couple women in the plaza in very conservative attire.
There was a wide variety of dress among Moroccan women
In the next picture it looks like the woman in western dress is considering getting her hand decorated with henna which creates a tattoo-like design that can last up to a few weeks. It was hard to tell how many women stay with the very traditional dress, because they would be most likely to seldom venture out into public.
Women in the market plaza wearing very conservative dress doing business with a woman in Western attire
We also found the people to be fairly tolerant of other activities such as drinking alcohol. Our first night in Rabat our guide took us to a to dinner, but we stopped at a local bar on the way. A couple days before we went to the desert we stopped at a local store for provisions. The store was about the same size as the average convenient store here. There was a separate room that had a good selection of beer, wine, and liquor. We found that about half of the time a restaurant would serve alcohol.
But not all locals turned their heads when we did something wrong. Just as our guide was telling us that it is not allowed to photograph policemen, even at a distance, one our fellow tourists who had wandered off to take a picture was being politely told the same thing by one of the gendarmes.
We met a lot of people, but mostly interacted with our guides. Mohammed, our guide, did a great job. He was interesting, informative, and had a sense of humor, all while keeping us together – a bit like herding cats. Her he is in one of his lighter moments guide demonstrating that the cork tree nut is edible – although mostly used for animal feed.
Our guide Mohammed.
Earlier I mentioned that Mohammed had an app on his phone to call him to prayer. He had to do his job as our guide so he couldn’t always observe the call to prayer, but sometimes when we were settled – like in the middle of lunch – he would excuse himself and find a secluded place to pray.
We also had a few local guides for specific historic sites or to shepherd us through a medina. This was our guide in Tineghir.
Our guide in the Tineghir
Woman cooking traditional flatbread in a wood fired oven
Local women going about daily life
It was common for us to see men sitting at small roadside cafes, but never any women.
Men relaxing at a cafe
Just one of the many street musicians we encountered.
Woman in traditional dress waiting for her son to ride back?
Our travel company provides some support to a school in Morocco. We stopped there to visit and have lunch. A couple students shared a table with us. One was rather quiet, but the other was fun to talk to. We even had a geography lesson using a couple big wall maps in the lunch room.
Fellow traveler, Betty, Jackie, student Lhoussaine and I after lunch
Some businessmen start young. This fellow would let you pose for pictures holding his baby fox – for a small fee, of course.
Young boy with a baby fox. You can pay to have your picture taken holding the fox. Correction – our friend Ellen tells us this is a Fennec fox and never grows any larger. They are thought to be the precursors to chihuahuas.
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The king, King Mohammed VI, has broad powers and has ongoing programs to make sure all households have electricity and that school is available to all. The king has palaces in all the major cities and towns, but the primary Royal Palace is in Rabat. We visited the Royal Palace , but there are no tours for visitors, so we could only look from the outside.
Main entrance to the Royal Palace. The king isn’t in.
There are many ancient sites in Morocco and we visited a few on the trip. One site included the Chellah necropolis from the 14th century and the Andalusian Gardens.
Chellah, a 14th century Merind necropolis
We saw the Hassan tower, an unfinished mosque built mostly in the 12th century.
On the way to Fez we stopped at the Roman city of Volubis. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of the best-preserved Roman archaeological sites in North Africa.
Original Roman mosaic floor
Jackie looks on while the guide explains the olive press
In Tineghir we visited an old mosque and religious school that is no longer being used but is being slowly restored.
Former mosque and religious school
Mausoleum Mohammad V is a modern structure, but it sits on the site of a mosque that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755. The tower, floor, and parts of the roof support column remain.
Columns that supported the roof of the mosque
Long ago they dug aquaducts to bring water from the mountains to the plains. How do you keep a straight line while digging underground? Every so often you dig a well. In this picture you can see the rope hanging down to the bucket.
Ancient underground aquaduct
MEDINAS AND SOUKS
On the way to a party with a lampshade on his head? Welcome to the souk
Everywhere you go, you have to buy things. The towns and cities have areas that we would find typical – streets with shops along them. But the two traditional places where goods are sold are medinas and souks. Strictly speaking, a medina is an old city. They are usually walled and filled with narrow streets. Many streets are lined with shops. Souks are open air markets or commercial quarters. Souks often begin outside cities or towns, but can eventually be walled and become part of a town. The souk might be the commercial part of a Medina. Thus the distinction can blur – at least to this western observer.
Marrakech has a large market plaza outside the medina
There is a lot to see in the marketplace in Marrakesh
Many vendors had a lot of inventory
We visited quite a few market plazas and they were quite interesting, but they were nothing like the souks in the Medinas.
Every older city has marketplace, or souk. These are the older portion of the city enclosed within walls. They are streets lined with stall after stall of goods. Some are quite open and others are very narrow and maze-like. Many are covered over so you find yourself in an enclosed maze.
In the souk in Marrakesh
Inside the souk you can find almost anything. In some souks will find similar shops in the same area, but in others they are completely mixed. Some are large and open, others a little narrow rooms. And everyone is ready to deal. “For you a special price”
Spices for sale in the souk
They sell everything in the souk…..
Some souks are old and dingy – others are more open and well lit.
Typical view in the souk
Sometimes the souks were narrow and crowded and you had to dodge delivery animals and vehicles
Some souks are restricted to foot traffic although that includes push carts and donkeys. Other souks are open to vehicles and in those you have to be careful of fast moving scooters and motorcycles.
We toured the large souks in Fez and Marrakech. Our guides were careful not to lose us in these mazes. At the end of our trip we returned to Marrakech and stayed in a riad in the edge of the souk. The people at the riad gave us a map and armed with that and a compass we managed to find our way through the souk to the plaza and back.
We constantly passed rows of shops in very small towns and in the cities. Some were retail establishments, but most were manufacturing, fabrication, or repair establishments.
We typically passed by places like those in the picture above, but we conveniently stopped at some places that produced local specialty items. And even more conveniently most accepted credit cards.
On the way to the Sahara Desert we stopped a place that made furniture and art objects out of rocks with embedded fossils. They were quite beautiful.
A table made with stones containing fossils
After that we visited a rug factory. Local women made rugs on hand looms. We were served tea and shown rugs that were for sale.
Rug hand loom
We were served tea and then shown rugs for purchase
We stopped at a place that made leather goods from scratch. They started with hides and ended with very nice leather clothing and articles. I didn’t get any pictures of the merchandise, but I did get some shots of the leather tanning vats.
Vats for processing hides into leather
In Fez we visited a ceramics shop where they made a wide variety of items.
A potter shapes what appears will be the top to a tagine – a covered serving dish
All ceramics are decorated freehand…
…with a practiced eye…
…and attention to detail
We watched quite a few artisans decorating the pottery. They drew simple lines like these – straight and smooth – and repeated identical patterns on piece after piece, all by hand.
A table that looks like this…
It was quite interesting to see how some things were made. For example, the table pictured above was made face down as shown in the picture below.
…is made by placing the colored pieces face down and pouring the grout around them
We stopped in a textile shop where they did very nice needlework and beautiful weaving.
Women doing needlework
Samples in a textile shop
Not a product, but more of a service, decorating the body with henna is a popular addition to a woman’s outfit. One evening we went to the home of a woman who creates this body art. She paints it on and the customer dries it under a lamp into a hard crust. The next day the customer cleans off the henna and the result is a temporary tattoo.
Jackie gets a henna tattoo
These tattoos are generally used for decoration, but they are also part of a bride’s preparation for her wedding. The groom has to be her servant as long as the henna lasts – as much a two weeks if good quality henna is used.
The finished product
Jackie removed the crust to find a rather pale design on her hand. We were a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a bit darker.
Although argan (pronounced like the gas “argon”) oil is a specialty product it merits its own section. It is used as a cosmetic and as a food product. Argan nuts are harvested, the shells cracked open and the meat is ground to release the oil. We visited a coop where the oil was processed and sold. This was one of the few places where we felt we could get the pure oil. The oil in the souks was often cut with other substances.
Even tourists get to grind the argan nuts
Some livestock – notably goats – like argan nuts. They eat the nuts, but do not break the shells, but the shells soften as they pass through the goats. We have been told that people collect and process these nuts to produce oil.
Yes, goats climb trees to eat argan nuts
I saw this with my own eyes on the way to and from Essaouira.
THE SAHARA DESERT
We spent two nights in the Sahara desert in the tour company’s camp. The terrain has areas of hard packed dirt and areas of massive sand dunes. We travelled by camel and 4-wheel drive SUVs.
Resting up for caravan duty
Jackie the camel jockey
Sometimes 4-wheel drive is not enough. I am the second butt from the left.
Our tent in the desert
The first morning we got up early to watch the sunrise. It was nice.
To the west we saw camels on the ridge of the high dunes.
Camels silhouetted against the sky
Sunsets were pretty cool, too.
Sundown behind the dunes
Sand dunes outside our camp
We visited a nomad family.
Nomad woman and her daughter host the tourists
You can’t leave the nomad camp without checking out the trinkets for sale
Jackie tries on some headgear
We also visited a small farm irrigated with water pumped to the surface with pump powered by solar panels.
Solar powered water pump for irrigation
Young children man the “gift shop” at the farm
We left the Sahara and passed through the Atlas Mountains. We passed a small river that has been dammed up. The impoundment is used to generate hydroelectric power and then the water downstream is used for irrigation.
A man made lake used for irrigation and hydroelectric power
Our next stop was the town of Tineghir. This city is built around a small river. The land along the river bank is fertile and much of the water is used for irrigation. The result is a green strip of dense farmland through the valley.
Water cascades into this gorge and is channeled off for irrigation throughout the valley.
It’s amazing what a little irrigation will do.
Crops being raised in the valley
Morocco has a very dry climate. Except in the heart of a city, earthy tones of brown and red and pink and yellow dominate. But when you look closely you can often see a light undergrowth of green tinting the landscape. Despite the arid environment, small grasses and shrubs find a way to grow.
Rolling hills were common
Sheep grazing in the desert
Much of the land was cultivated
The Atlas Mountains were impressive.
Mountains tower over a fertile strip in a river valley.
The view from our hotel room
Sometimes the green in the landscape was quite amazing
Lush green in a dry land
But more landscapes were like the next one where a faint hint of green could be seen in the pinks and browns.
Adobe, brick, and concrete blend into the surroundings
The roads through the Atlas Mountains were twisty – and sometimes exciting.
One of the many winding roads we encountered passing through the Atlas Mountains
We actually encountered some roads more impressive than the one above.
More rolling hills
We would see planted fields where we least expected them.
No one serves a meal in Morocco without olives – yes, that includes breakfast. Olive trees grow everywhere. People use ladders and special small, rake-like tools to pull the olives off the trees. Olives ripen in the sun, so olives in the middle of the tree ripen more slowly than olives on the outside. A single olive tree can have a variety of olives.
Olives in the market
Olive picking tool. All these olives came from the same tree
We travelled by tour bus most of the time, and by four-by-four and camel in the desert. The most common form of local transportation was the scooter.
Everyone rides scooters
We saw a few of these livestock trucks.
Sort of like those double decker tour buses except they are for livestock
Typical donkey drawn cart made from car axles and wheels
Horse drawn carriage that we rode. Not exactly the Marrakesh Express
Luckily these carriages do not operate at high speeds
It was entertaining to see what people would carry on their vehicles.
No wonder you don’t see any U-Haul franchises in Morocco
But the most interesting vehicle we saw was this hand powered tricycle. Evidently the rider has a problem with his legs, so he rigged up this tricycle with a hand crank using bicycle sprockets and pedals.
Hand powered tricycle
Our tour ended in Marrakech. We said farewell to our guide and fellow tourists and got on a bus to Essaouira, a seacoast town a few hours ride from Marrakech. The bus ride was uneventful. Someone met us when we got off. We were sort of expecting a taxi, but we weren’t sure because our riad was in the souk and cars usually can’t travel there. The fellow who met us piled our bags in a hand drawn two-wheeled cart and set off into the streets of the walled city.
Cart like the porter’s and motorcycle
This souk was more open and had wider streets than most we had visited and soon we were at the door of the riad. The road in the following picture is typical for this souk although some were wider and some were very narrow.
Typical road in the souk
This was the third riad we stayed in and similar to the previous ones. It had four floors of with the common rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms on the rest. In the center was a nice little courtyard and there was a small patio/dining area on the roof.
The rooftop where we ate breakfast each morning
View of the sea from the riad rooftop
The riad was very nice inside.
The riad courtyard
Our room in the riad
We walked through the souk to the sea wall. The view was impressive in many respects. The seawall and fortifications were quite substantial and the coast looked so rocky that you wouldn’t think canons would be needed, But even more memorable was the relentless wind.
Old fortification along the seawall
The coastline outside the fort was very rough
We walked out of the fort into the harbor area where we found many small fishing boats like the blue ones in the picture below as well as larger fishing boats.
Just some of the many small fishing boats in the harbor
There were many large fishing boats in the harbor as well
Boats were built in the harbor.
Wooden boats at different stages of construction
Old boats are floated onto frames and dragged up the ramp for repair
We also found a few cruising boats and met a couple who had recently arrived from Europe.
Inna and Nikolche on their boat, Nikita
Hopefully we will see them again in the Caribbean.
We walked around the harbor and came to a magnificent beach. Once through the surf the water was pretty flat and the steady wind made a great place for wind surfing and kite surfing.
The amazing beach was home to wind surfers and kite surfers
We met a British couple who were staying in the riad. They had heard of an interesting market and we thought it would be fun to go. We talked with the riad owner about it and his description didn’t quite match what we were expecting, but we thought it sounded like fun. He arranged for a taxi and off we went.
We drove out into the country and he dropped us off in a little village. We arranged to meet him at the same spot a couple hours later.
We wandered into the market area – sort of a free form souk. The people were wall to wall and at first we were going against the flow like salmon swimming upstream. We obviously didn’t look like locals and we were the only foreigners there. Other than a couple guys walking around selling cheap jewelry no one seemed to pay us any attention. After a short time we realized that outside of our group there were only a couple women in the souk. We spent almost two hours wandering around. It was probably the closest we got to a pure, non-tourist experience on our trip. Finally we met the taxi driver at the appointed place and drove back to Essaouira.
After marching along on a guided tour for so long it was nice to have had a couple days to just relax. The porter took our bags to the bus station and as we were about to check our bags we realized that we had left our passports in the safe in the riad. We had fifteen minutes until the bus would depart, so Jackie waited in line while I ran back to the riad. I found my way with only minor hesitation and was there in five minutes. The owner ran up to our third floor room and brought down our passports. He offered to go back to the bus station with me on his bicycle, but I told him he didn’t need to.
I started running back, but I had time to spare so I stopped and walked a couple times. I went out through the city gate only to realize that I missed a turn somewhere and had to run around the outside of part of the town. I arrived at what we thought was the departure time only to find out it was the boarding time and I had another fifteen minutes to cool off after my morning exercise.
We spent the next night in Marrakech, flew to Casablanca, and then back to the US.
A FEW ODD PICTURES
Storks are common in Marrakesh
Mosque at dusk
It’s funny how signs translate from one language to another.
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