Morocco… Medinas and Tajine
I am writing this post on the bus from Chefchaouen, Morocco to Fez, Morocco. The road is a series of switchbacks as we descend a mountain. I am flailing about as I try to write this. A girl just sat on the floor beside me and began vomiting. A lot of detail I realize but just trying to illustrate how rough this is.
We arrived in Casablanca about a week ago now. We flew from Dubai on September 4th. We only planned to stay two days in Casablanca because everything we read said that there is not much to see or do in Casablanca. It is the financial centre of Morocco but from a tourist perspective it is really a big city. We stayed at the Moroccan House Hotel not far from the port area. It was quite a charming older building. This hotel was actually a preview for some very interesting building architecture and design that we have seen so far. The tile work in the Moroccan House was fantastic. Doorways are rarely rectangular and often quite ornately curved Arabic archways at the top. Too many of the doors are small and my head has taken a beating in Morocco so far. Not a lot of hair left up there to provide much protection. The Moroccan House, like other places we have stayed, is about ten stories high with all rooms built around the outside of a square open area that extends from the bottom floor to the roof.
The breakfast at the Moroccan House was quite amazing. Four tables all set up around the square opening filled with fresh fruits, breads, cereals, and even a station where they are making omelettes to order. The tables are all quaint little seating areas with couches beautifully decorated with moroccan fabrics. I find that when we book accommodations that include a good breakfast, we usually have a late breakfast and then if we have any lunch it is something small.
On our first day in Casablanca we arrived early afternoon. The sign outside of the airport said a taxi to downtown was 250 MAD (8 MAD – Moroccan Dirhams – is about $1 CAD). As at many airports, the taxi hustlers are trying to get you to take their taxi. We were looking for something that looked a little more official, with a meter, but did not see any. The guys asked where we were going and they said 300 MAD. Nicola said no way… 250 as on the sign. They said that is an old sign. She walked away and said we will look somewhere else. They agreed. Later she read somewhere that it is 300 or 350 MAD. She can definitely barter with the best of them. When we got in the taxi he started driving out of the airport and then quickly pulled over, had a discussion with another cab driver. Then he announced that we were going with the other guy. We totally did not trust what had just happened. The old cab driver was talking on his cell phone, switching ears and hands as he changed gears with no hands on the steering wheel. In the end we got right to our hotel, 38 km away. We later learned that the Petite Taxis are a much cheaper way to go and they have meters. If they are not full though they stop and pick up other fares and everyone has their own meter.
We decided to go for dinner at a restaurant called Rick’s Cafe. It is a tribute to the movie Casablanca in decor and name. The price however is definitely indicative of the crowd they hope to attract. For two of us dinner was about $90 which is a lot of money for a meal in Morocco. In some places we had a ‘menu complet’ (full meal including a starter salad, main, and dessert) for 40 MAD, about $5. It was a nice meal at Rick’s but not really 10X as good. I think we did it for the experience really.
On day 2 in Casablanca, after a slow start to the day, we planned to head to the Hassan II Mosque. We have seen many mosques on our travels but we have never been able to go into one. The Hassan II Mosque does tours a few times a day. The tour is about an hour and costs $15 per person. They do the tours in about 6 different languages. This place is huge. 25000 people can worship inside and an additional 80000 can worship outside. They said the most they have ever had at one time is 215000 people. It took 6 years to build and was completed all by hand. It is the third biggest mosque in the world and the minaret (tower) is the biggest. It has a light that shines at night towards Mecca that can be seen 30 km away.
On day 3 we took a train to Fez. Fez is one on the four imperial cities and is one of the must sees to get a sense of culture and history in Morocco. We booked a hostel in the Medina of Fez. A medina is typically a walled area that is the old town area. Inside the medina there is no vehicle traffic. The streets are narrow alleys that are an amazingly confusing web in which it is easy to get lost. Actually, one of the recommended things to do is to get lost in the medina. Eventually you will find your way around. I cheated a bit by putting a waypoint on my GPS watch our hostel, Dar Lalla Kenza. That works only so well when trying to get back though because even though we may be only 1 km to the west, nothing is in a straight line.
These alleys are alive with little shops trying to sell everything like food, spices, fabric, clothes, jewellery, and more. You have to be pretty firm and say no thanks otherwise the shop owners will have you in every one and you will never get out. The guy at our hostel told us not to trust or believe anyone. He said, if someone tries to get you to see a concert or show, do not believe them. There is no show and no concert. We did want to see the tannery area of the medina. In this area, artisans tan leather and you can see it from above… for a cost of course. They use all natural products as dyes and to treat the hides. For example, they use pidgeon poop in one of the stages mixed with other things to soften the leather I believe.
We hooked up with two Australians and one girl from Israel who were also going that way. It turned out to be quite a fun day as we explored the medina together and got to meet some new people. Annette (the Israeli girl) was looking for a table cloth. She could not speak any french so in the beginning I was translating for her. I have not used my french in a long time but I have enjoyed this refresher. In the end she was not willing to pay what they wanted. Unfortunately they were all heading to Chefchaouen the next day and we still had one more day in Fez. We would have enjoyed spending another day with them. Good people.
The next day in Fez, we decided to head to the Jewish area. No Jewish people live in the Jewish quarter… any more that is. They have all moved to Nouvelle Ville. This was our negative experience in Fez. It began raining and a guy was on us quickly. He wanted to show us an artisan cooperative run by his brother. They always say looking is free, no pressure.We made a mistake and went with him. He was taking us so far from where we wanted to be. We did not want to buy anything and I am not sure why we agreed. The guy at the shop was very nice and frankly there was not that much pressure. I bought something in the end because he spent about an hour and a half with us showing us lots of stuff and feeding us mint tea. I am sure I way over paid for it but in the big scheme of things it is not that much money. We were tempted to purchase a carpet which would have been very expensive but in the end Nicola was not totally convinced about them.
This was not the negative part… the negative part followed us leaving the shop. The guy who had taken us there was waiting for us. He began taking us out of where he had taken us but not to where we wanted to go. He was giving us a tour that we had told him many times we did not want. He stayed with us. Finally when we said enough, we are going back, he wanted money. He had been fabricating stories all along and kept contradicting himself. Nicola said no we are not giving him money. This guy was scamming us all along. He got quite upset that we would not give him anything and Nicola got angry with him. He kept following us yelling at us. He did not believe that we had not bought anything from the shop…. because he wanted a cut. He said that that was not his brother and we should not trust him, he is very expensive. He wanted a tip and now admitted to us that this was a scam. We gave him nothing and in the end, after his seemingly unrelenting pursuit of us, he gave up. We did explore the Jewish area a bit but really did not see the synagogue because of this guy.
On our way back to our hostel, an old man started chatting with us and said he was going to the same place but when we got there he wanted money. Again, you cannot trust seemingly friendly people. These two experiences caused us to become very skeptical about people here. I can handle aggressive tauts and salespeople but the scams bother me more. It causes people here to talk negatively about one another. People on the street tell us not to trust people at the hostel and people at the hostel tell us not to trust people on the street. At least by talking with other travellers you can get ideas about their positive and negative experiences. That might be better to trust.
After 3 nights in Fez, we headed to Chefchaouen which is further north (about a five hour bus ride). Chaouen is best known for the blue buildings in the medina and for being the Amsterdam of Morocco. I am not sure what began this but in the Medina, buildings are almost all painted a pale blue colour. It is quite nice. The pictures tell more than I can ever describe. We have not had any alcohol at all in Morocco. It is not on menus in restaurants. In Chaouen however, if you want some marijuana it is quite easy to get. We were asked quite often if we wanted to buy some smoke. People were smoking it quite publicly. On the terrace of our hostel, there are wall to wall mattresses on the ground where backpackers crash. In a seating area, young travellers sit around and smoke their weed and discuss their travels. In a common area on our floor (we had a private double room) guys were smoking using a water pipe. And yet I cannot get a cold beer anywhere… go figure.
I was a bit of a downer in Chaouen. My stomach has not handled to local foods in Africa and Morocco well. It caught up to me in Chaouen. I stayed close to the bathroom for much of our time. We did explore the main plaza area of the medina. It is quite relaxed and you can eat meals in the square or up above on their terraces. Typical Moroccan food is called Tajine. Tajine actually is the pot that it is cooked in. It is a clay bowl and your food comes having been cooked in the pot. You can have beef, chicken, lamb, goat, couscous, or vegetarian tajines usually. One type is called kefta which is ground beef (like meatballs) in a tomato sauce with eggs cooked in it. Nic had tried it once in Fez but was disappointed by it anywhere else she tried it. I tried to eat some safer foods like pizza but my gut still couldn’t handle anything. When we get to Fez I am going to try to see a doctor. It has been about three weeks now and I am sure my system is messed up.
One night I decided to get a hair cut in the medina. There are many little shops where barbers give cuts and shaves. A hair cut cost 20 MAD (about $2.50) and was as good as any hair cut I have gotten in Canada. On another night I got a shave for 10 MAD (about $1.25). It is good but my face is a little raw now. A good close shave though.
On our last day, we hiked up to the Spanish Mosque. It was built up on a hill outside of the medina by the spanish for the locals. It has never really been used though. It was a nice 30 minute walk though with some amazing views of the town and medina.
We are now heading back to Fez. Tomorrow we will take a taxi to the east where we will do a 3 day and 2 night desert safari. It includes a camel ride into the desert where we will stay in a berber tent for one night. It should be quite an experience. After that we will take a couple of days to get to Marrakech.
Some exciting news for us… we booked a three week mediterranean cruise leaving Rome on October 20th. We will get to ports in Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Israel. We have always seen cruises for amazing prices that we could never take advantage of because of work. So we decided to do it. $1400 each for 3 weeks seemed good.
Before that, we will spend a week in London visiting Nicola’s sister and her family; a week in Spain while Nicola walks a week of the Camino with her mom; and then Geneva to visit Bernie and Minoo maybe for Canadian Thanksgiving. The next couple of months will be busy but exciting for sure.
Just a quick shout out to Emily who celebrated her 17th birthday this week. Happy Birthday my girl.
And to my sister Michele who also celebrated her birthday this week. And Jane whose birthday was yesterday. Hope you all had amazing birthdays.