Morocco is a nation of 33 million and the capital is Rabat, a city we will visit. Morocco's predominant religion is Islam, while the official languages are Berber, Arabic and French. The Berber language (an ancient language) is now being taught in schools. In ancient times Morocco was slowly drawn into the emerging Mediterranean world by the Phoenicians, who established trading colonies and settlements. Then the Roman Empire controlled this region from the 1st century BC, naming it Mauretania Tingitana. Influences of the Romans are evident in certain regions, one being the ruins of Volubilis, another area we will visit. In 670 A.D. Muslims brought their language, their system of government, and Islam to Morocco. Many of the Berbers slowly converted to Islam (Sunni). A lot more history, but to the modern times, the country became a French protectorate in 1912 and gained independence in 1956.
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The King (Mohammed VI) of Morocco holds vast executive and legislative powers, especially over the military, foreign policy and religious affairs. Executive power is exercised by the government, while legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of parliament, the Assembly of Representatives and the Assembly of Councillors. The king can issue decrees called dahirs which have the force of law. He can also dissolve the parliament after consulting the Prime Minister and the president of the Constitutional court. During the 2011–12 Moroccan protests, thousands of people rallied in Rabat and other cities calling for political reform and a new constitution curbing the powers of the king. In July 2011, the King won a landslide victory in a referendum on a reformed constitution he had proposed to placate the Arab Spring protests.
The major resources of the Moroccan economy are agriculture, phosphates, and tourism. Agriculture accounts for around 14% of GDP but employs 40–45% of the Moroccan working population. Unemployment is around 9%. The economy has grown around 4% in the last few years. There is no oil in Morocco, they import it all from the Middle East, however they are the only African country with lots of natural water aquifers. They keep their water and refuse to share it as they suffer from cyclical droughts. Education and health care are free.
Arrived in Casablanca from Bordeaux on Sunday, July 6th, a 2 hour flight. Well, guess we didn't really look at the Islamic calendar when we booked this leg of our trip.....it is Ramadan. So, most of the shops and restaurants are closed as fasting takes place from 3:30 a.m. till 8 p.m.; even the restaurant in our hotel is closed. We walk around and find a small shop and buy some bread and cheese and that constitutes our lunch. The streets are pretty quiet. We are a total of 10 people in our group; three couples mainly our age and one mother and daughter in her twenties; all Australians except for ourselves. Our guide Youssef, is a Moroccan from Meknes and has been working for Peregrine travel for several years. He went over some administrative details as well as the itinerary for the next seven days. Even after only spending a few hours with him, can't believe how lively, interesting, knowledgeable and funny he is. He handed us all a sheet of Arab words (with the English translation of course) and has asked us to make the effort to learn a few words every day....hello = "Salem Alekum" and if someone says hello to you the reply is "Alekum Salem" . Thank-you = Shukrun" , Sugar = sokar
We all go out for dinner to an "authentic" Moroccan restaurant run by a family. Their specialties are "tangines" and "couscous" (my brother Denis loves couscous!) and we try one of each. A spiced meatball tangine and lamb couscous, both very delicious........no liquor/wine as it is Ramadan.....wonder when the shakes will set in after all that good wine in Bordeaux! A first evening together to get to know our travelling partners for the next seven days.
The one thing we have quickly learned is that Moroccans love sugar. Breakfast is usually made up of lot of sweet pastries and they sweeten their tea and coffee.....4 to 5 sugars in a small cup. We have had lots of orange juice so far and it is delicious, always freshly squeezed. Hotels normally have a buffet for breakfast and we usually stay with the conventional eggs, cereal and yogurt. Robin tried some "mystery" meat....just a bite and left the rest.
We will be staying in a variety of hotels during our trip including a riad ( for the last two nights in Marakech. A riad is normally a family home with an inner garden...the word riad means garden in Arabic.)
Our first morning starts at 8:30 a.m. and we are off to visit the King Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, open to non - Muslims. The mosque which is the third largest in the world, is built on reclaimed land by the ocean. The King decided to have the mosque built here as the Koran says " The throne of God is on the ocean". It took 6 years to build and was completed in 1993. The mosque architect was a non Islam Frenchman. It is green which represents Islam and peace. On the top of the minaret is a finial with three balls which represent Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Moroccan Islam faith acknowledges all other faiths. The mosque accommodates 25,000 worshippers ...20,000 men and 5,000 women. Each mosque has a niche where the Imam prays and it always points east ( in this part of the world) the direction of Mecca. Every mosque in Morocco is square and is twice as long as it is wide vs. mosques in the rest of the world are circular.
The mosaic tiles on the walls and floors, the cedar wood ceilings and the various doors to the mosque take your breath away when you consider the workmanship involved in these works of art. The clay for the mosaic tile work and the cedar wood for the ceilings come from various parts of Morocco. There are Murano glass chandeliers and some Carrera marble used in both columns and fountains. They say they traded sugar with the Italians to get the Carrera marble. The Moroccans say... we still have the marble, but the Italians have probably consumed all the sugar they got!
The five pillars of the Islam faith are as follows:
1) To believe in not one God, but to believe in all the Prophets
2) 5 daily prayers
3) Giving alms to the poor. Normally 2 1/2% of their earnings or savings per year.
4) Ramadan - fasting for 30 days
5) Visit Mecca during one's lifetime or Volubilis (for Moroccans 7 times)
During Ramadan, which is taking place while we are here, the Muslims fast from 3:30 a.m. till 8:00 p.m. During this time they do not eat, drink (even water) or smoke. It is also a time to visit family and friends and to ask forgiveness from those one has wronged. Ramadan is based on the phases of the moon and therefore the timing changes every year, and happens twice a year.
It has been interesting to learn more about the Islam faith; keeping in mind that the Moroccans are very moderate in their practices and beliefs when it comes to their religion.
Every city has a different colour "petit taxi"....Casablanca and Fes have red taxis, Rabat and Meknes have blue and Tangiers/Marrakech have green. The larger taxis are always older Mercedes Benz and it is normal to see up to 6 people in these taxis.
Rabat, the capital is very clean vs. Casablanca where garbage was very noticeable.
Moroccan whiskey....also known as tea
Djellaba - a long white robe for men with a pointed hood, women's are colourful and embroidered and also have a hood.
Kasbah means fort. Medina is an old town where people live and work whereas a souk is a marketplace.
They consume so much sugar here. They love their sweets and you can certainly tell from the state of their teeth. Our guide told us that dentists are all very rich. He calls them "The fat wallet people"
We always laugh when Youssef introduces the group to a City guide or another groups guide. He always says " My brother from another Mother".
Each City has its own colour...Meknes is green, Fes is blue and green, Marakech is red and Rabat is white.
The Moroccan flag is red with a five pointed green star, which points represent the five pillars of Islam.
City Guides have been so informative.
The French refer to their time in Morocco as a protectorate, the Moroccans call it the "occupation" !
Polygamy is allowed in the Islam religion, but certain rules apply. The first wife has to approve of any other wives and all wives have to be dealt with equally. A man has to be able to afford to take on more wives. In today's world, not much of this going on, perhaps only in rural areas. Berbers only have one wife.
Cats everywhere. Youssef tells us that cats are well taken care of in Morocco. No one really has cats as pets, they are just everywhere and everyone feeds them. Very few dogs, people don't like dogs.
After visiting the Mosque in Casablanca, we make a quick stop at the famous Rick's Cafe from the movie Casablanca then drive on to Rabat, the capital of Morocco.
Rabat was built by the Moors and pirates ruled this area in the late 1700's. It was made the capital in 1912 when Morocco was a French protectorate and some of the buildings still have an Art Deco influence and some avenues are quite wide, similar to the Champs Élysées. The walls around the City are quite spectacular and the City is extremely clean. One wall dates back to the 12th century while the other dates back to the 17th century. Rabat is a Unesco World Heritage site.
Upon arriving we visit the earliest settlement in the area called Sala/Chellah, now mostly in ruins and just on the outskirts of Rabat. This was a Roman site. Storks are perched everywhere along the ancient walls and in the trees make a clacking sound with their beaks, very noisy.
We then go on to visit the Presidential Palace, but the King must have forgotten we were coming, because we couldn't go in. Only able to see the main square where they hold parades and the Palace gates and walls.
We go to Bab Oudaia which is the principal gateway to the Kasbah des Oudaias and is built in the Moorish style. The Kasbah is filled with homes and you would almost think you were in Greece. All the house walls inside the Kasbah are painted blue and white, and with the sea in the background, quite a sight. We had a city guide ( looked like Elvis Costello!) that took us through this area of the City and he was very informative, throwing folklore and humour with the actual history. This Kasbah is quite small in size and one could get around on their own.
We then drive to Meknes where we will be spending our second night. Meknes was at one time the capital of Morocco and is known as the Imperial City. The medina (oldest part of the city) dates back to the 11th century. A lot of military type architecture relates to the defence of the city in ancient times. It is also an important agricultural centre, and the agri industry employs about half of the population in Morocco. Meknes also known for its textiles, metallurgy and wood furniture.
In Meknes our first stop is at the Tomb of Moulay Ismail. We have a City guide that once again shares his knowledge of the history of the sites we will visit. Sultan Moulay Ismail was a man of excesses. A ruthless tyrant, he had a harem of 500 wives and concubines and fathered hundreds of children and of course built many monuments in his honour.
Then we visit the huge Heri el Souani granary. This large 17th-century high-vaulted building served both as a granary and feed store for the 12,000 steeds in Moulay Ismail’s vast stables. These chambers are immense – Moulay Ismail was always ready for a siege or drought. The remains of the stables are attached to the granary.
Next day we are headed towards Fes, and make a stop in Volubilis on our way. It was once a distant Roman Provincial capital and is said to be the most impressive Roman site in Morocco and was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997. A local guide takes us through the ruins and we get another history lesson. The mosaics that have been preserved are in quite good shape. Some of the ruins suffered damage from the effects of the large Lisbon earthquake in the late 1700's. Much of the excavation was completed during the French occupation. Very hot in the middle of the day and we are drinking lots of water. Amazed that the Moroccans, as it is Ramadan, aren't drinking water in this weather. A local guide took us through these ruins and I honestly think he may have been suffering a bit of heat stroke!
Stop for lunch along the way and served tangine, very good. This was a high end restaurant so actually able to order a cold beer for Robin and a cold glass of white wine for myself. Thirst quenching....very hot here, most days have been in the high 30's.
We stay in Fes for three nights and we are staying at the Fes Inn which has a pool, a welcome relief after hot days of touring. Arrive late afternoon, and a meal is arranged at a traditional riad (originally meant a house with an inner garden). It is run by a family and the specialty of the house is a chicken pie. At the start of each traditional meal we have always been served Moroccan salad specialties. These are comprised of small sharing plates which I would call Moroccan tapas.....spiced olives, saltyyyyyyyy olives, white beans in a tomato sauce, beets (Robin's favourite!), sweet peppers in tomato sauce, aubergines and lentils. Hard to describe the chicken pie.....did I mention it is sweet....my gosh they love sweet food here, even main course is sweet. The pie is cooked in a pastry, similar to a phyllo, but when you try to cut through it, the bottom crust is very hard...almost impossible to cut through! I was told that the pie also included ground almonds as well as a variety of spices and a topping of icing sugar. Must say that a few in our group didn't eat a lot of the pie. After dinner we are all served fresh mint tea. Needless to say, unless you specifically ask, they will serve it with lots of sugar, sometimes you don't have a choice. Had to take an antacid tonight!
Next morning we meet our city guide, Fatima. She is dressed in traditional dress, as are most women in Morocco and our guide, Youssef, appears in traditional dress as well.
First stop is a ceramic factory where everything is made by hand, very labour intensive. Even a small ceramic star, say about an inch in diameter would be chiseled out by hand using a hammer. These pieces have to be precise to fit into a ceramic work of art such as a fountain, bowl or feature wall. When they make a fountain, they place the individual ceramic pieces in a mold, but they are working backwards/blind, so they have to memorize the pattern and place the pieces where they belong. They glue and cement them in place then remove the mold. All the ceramic pieces, pottery, bowls, etc. are all painted by hand.
Then up to a view point and we look down at the medina (ancient quarter of any North African City). We are told that there are more than 10,000 streets/alleyways in the medina and that it easy to get lost!
Our tour of the Medina starts. Fatima tells us that it took her about 2-3 months to get to know her way around the medina. It is the oldest medina in Morocco dating back to the 14th century. She lives in the "new city" and normally had little need to come here until she became a guide. The alleyways are crammed with vendors, mules delivering goods, ordinary Moroccans doing their food shopping, tourists and people simply going about their everyday life. Vendors selling all sorts of goods...spices, fish, meat( including beef stomachs, goat heads) live chickens (soon dead when you choose which one you want), wooden, metal, leather and ceramic goods, everyday household needs, etc, etc....along the way Fatima explains anything that would not be familiar to us as well as the history of Fes. In a small alley we see some young boys stringing up what looks like thread, which it is. They string it up along the wall, then twist it and make a braid, which they sew on the djalabas. They also make a type of silk thread from the agave plant.
During our tour of the medina, we visit a tannery and a dying shop. Men are working barefoot in vats softening the skins of various animals, others are dying wool and cloth working in pairs wringing out the dye. The only protective gear they wear are aprons. Their arms are in the dye up to their elbows. When I ask about the safety/health of this, especially on a long term basis, I am told that all the dyes and processes they use are natural. O.K. but still, I am not convinced that this is good for people who do these jobs on a long term basis. The dyes they use follow: blue = indigo, yellow = saffron, brown = agave, red = poppy, white = eggs, green = henna or mint.
Love the picture of the guy laying down with his fez.....he was one of the salesmen at the tannery shop....must have been his break!
Next stop is a co-operative selling woven blankets, shawls, etc. Women work out of their homes where they weave the goods, then bring them to the co-operative to sell. The gentleman who runs this shop starts wrapping turbans on everyone's heads, all depicting various tribes ( Berber, Bedoiun, Nomad, Touraeg,etc. ) Lots of laughs!
Speaking of Touraegs...apparently when Volkswagen wanted to use this name for their SUV, they agreed to pay the Bedouin Touraegs 1.5 million Euro each year. They wanted to use the name to depict "Nomadism".
Mine looks like the guy gave up half way through wrapping my turban and just flopped it over my head. He assured me that their was indeed a tribe that wore its turbans in this manner!
Then finally the carpet shop. The carpets are hand knotted by young women and could not believe how fast they work.
Also visit an ancient Koranic school. Once again the mosaic work is simply breathtaking. I look fat in this picture!
The next day in Fes is a free day so Youssef gives us a few options. With another couple, Ann and Trevor, Robin and I choose to be dropped off back at the medina to do more exploring......did I say there are 10,000 alleys and streets. A little apprehensive, but Youssef tells us to stick to two major alleys and that we should be o.k. He also gives us the name of a restaurant to go to for lunch. The four of us spend about four hours exploring many shops and taking in the smells, colours, sights and sounds of the medina. Lots of fun, Trevor is a real character! We stop by a shop where we find an older man wearing a traditional fez. He is selling his beautiful wooden boxes, many inlaid with yellow wood from the lemon tree. They use cedar and mahogany for their wood work. Lots of cedar trees in the Atlas Mountains. He shows us newspaper and magazine articles where he has been written up as a talented craftsman. You can tell he is very proud and we acknowledge his work by saying "zween" which means beautiful. He shows us the "magic box". First, he shakes it....we can hear something inside. He asks us to try to open it, we can't. He gets such a thrill in showing us.....first slide one of the small pieces of wood, out comes the key. He says "Can you find the keyhole?" . No we can't......he turns the box, slides another piece of wood and "voila" the keyhole. Good fun with this elegant older gentleman.
Also see a vendor selling sweets. This isn't really different with the exception that he keeps pouring more syrup on the various sweets....hundreds of wasps gathering!
Ann says she needs some sun screen, so we head down a small alleyway.....yikes! No worries, we end up in a Herbalist shop. The owner spends at least half hour showing us the different herbs, oils and natural medicines. A very interesting time. Ann bought some argan oil, also known as Moroccan oil which is good for the skin and hair and Robin bought some argan cream to use as after shave balm. The Aussies tell me it is big in Australia and that it is very expensive compared to the price in a Morocco....yeah.....it's made here. The Berber women pick the pods (look like cocoa pods) and then crush them to get the oil. The Herbalist makes us smell all sorts of herbs and oils. At one point he tells us that anise is good to clear the sinuses and good for lungs. He crushes some anise seeds in some cotton mesh then comes to each one of us and literally, shoves it up our nostrils and makes us breathe deeply....oh my gosh....a shock to the nasal passage. The Herbalist also shows Robin and Trevor ginseng, he tells them it's Moroccan Viagra !
Like this picture of Ann and Robin......what are they thinking about? Great afternoon in the medina with Ann and Trevor...lots of laughs!
When driving from Fes to Marakech (about 9 hours) we stopped in Ifrane, a town in the mid Atlas Mountains which is known as the "Switzerland of Morocco" at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. The King has a palace here and there is also ski resort. The King is said to be a great snow skier as well as enjoying seadooing in the summer (not here of course, but on the coast). The architecture really does remind one of a resort in the Alps with A-frame type buildings. There is also a University here which is attended by the elite and government officials of the country. We are told that most of the professors are from Europe and the U.S. and that all their expenses are paid for to travel back home on breaks and while in Ifrane teaching. There is a statue of lion in the main square. We are told that it was a gift from the French after they killed off all the lions in the Atlas Mountains .......well, well....isn't that just thoughtful of the French!
Interesting and various countryside on our way to Marrakech. Mountainous, agricultural and barren land. Also pass by a dam, water levels quite low, but they say they are not in a drought.
We reach Marrakech late afternoon, and our accommodation for our last two nights in Morocco is a charming riad.
Youssef has arranged a dinner for us at the main square, Jemaa el Fna. Every night temporary food booths are set up along with picnic tables where one eats. Each vendor is trying to get you to eat at their establishment so lots of antics going on. When we get to booth 41, where Youssef has arranged dinner for us, there is some fighting going on. Youssef tells us it is a friendly disagreement....it is actually one of the waiters pushing the owner about. My my....this fasting certainly causes some cranky people. Just as we arrive, the Imam sings out the time for the breaking of the fast. The fight stops, the owner pulls out a cigarette and the waiter stops to have milk and dates, a common food in breaking of the fast for the day......peace reigns!
The dinner is comprised of the usual appetizer Moroccan salads I spoke about earlier. Then we are served all types of meat and vegetable skewers, followed by mint tea. Your plate is a piece of paper as is your napkin. Young vendors walking by the tables hawking their sweets, we pass.
After dinner we proceed to walk around the square....all sorts of vendors. Several booths selling orange juice which looks very appealing. Youssef tells us not to fall to the temptation of these vendors, but points out some cafés in the square that we should frequent. He tells us that the juice vendors in the square sell watered down juice and use local water.....now that could be very bad for one's intestinal tract! All sorts of people trying to hawk purses, wallets, trinkets, jewellery, etc. There are story tellers as well. Youssef tells us once again to resist and that tomorrow our city guide will show us where to buy quality goods.
Continue our walk around the square passing snake charmers.......I take a wide path around the snakes, and guys with monkeys. Did I mention that monkeys rank right after snakes in my book, both very annoying. These guys charge you for taking pictures, that's how they make their money. One of the ladies in our group who was walking around the square on her own had a snake thrown over her shoulder. You would have to see Kate to understand why this happened to her. She is a big woman (she was travelling with her 22 year old daughter) and walks like an Amazon. I found out that she is a prison guard! Watch out snake charmers!
Youssef asks if anyone would like their fortune told. Old women in the square read palms and tell people's fortunes. I opt in as well as young Melissa.
Youssef has to interpret. So.......my husband loves me (check), my husband is good to me (check), I will get another house (wrong), I will get more money(wrong), I am healthy (check). Love the above picture .....Lynn and Ann are just as interested as I am! Another fun evening.
The next morning we actually get a bit of a sleep in. We meet our City guide, Ibrahim around 10 a.m. and start our tour. Again very informative. Our first stop is the Palais Bahia which was started in 1894 and took 15 years to build. A beautifully restored mansion built for a former slave who had risen in the government of the day. In the Moorish style, there is lots of beautiful mosaics, but some French influence as seen by floral designs used on some interior doors.
Ibrahim tells us that 60% of the Moroccan population is Berber. When the Arabs came to Morocco centuries ago they brought the Islam religion. He said we could find more if we used "Uncle Google"!
Ibrahim takes us into the Marakech medina, much smaller than the Fes medina but alleyways still mind boggling. We go into a Herbalist shop who reiterates what four of us have already heard in our afternoon in the Fes medina. Trevor and Robin misbehave......see below.
Then visit the Musee de Photographie. I know this sounds possibly boring, but I loved it. Photographs, mostly all black and white, capturing life and people in Morocco in the early 1920's.
A view of the medina/souk of Marrakech from a cafe rooftop and following a view of the main square with the mosque in the background.
Mid afternoon and Robin and I head back to our Riad, actually remember how to get there. I decide to have a Hammam experience and Robin opts for a massage. This is the first Hammam I have, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Our guide Youssef says that in Morocco there is never "TMI -too much information"......so here goes. I wear my bathing suit, I am told to lie face down on a marble slab/bench, the lady doing my treatment commences to throw water all over me using a wooden bucket, tells me to turn over and does the same thing all over again, including my face. She then waits for a few minutes and applies black soap all over me, waits again for about 5 minutes....she puts a mitt on her hand (similar to a loofah) and she begins to scrub me all over. She shows me that she is removing dead skin.....just what I wanted to see! She tries to scrub my stomach, but I stop her as thoughts of a similar procedure in Peru caused me significant pain....not good for anyone with diverticulitis! Then more buckets of water, get my face scrubbed, which includes removing my makeup, and more water. She then proceeds to wash/scrub my hair and head.....more water. Then she proceeds to put argan oil on my skin and in my hair. An interesting experience, not sure I would be in a hurry to do it again though!
Our last dinner together as a group and we head to a nice restaurant that serves traditional Moroccan food as well as Italian cuisine. The restaurant overlooks the Koutoubia Mosque and its grounds. It is Saturday night and prayers at the mosque are due to start at 8 p.m. As we pass the mosque a few people are milling about. By the time the prayers start, we are told that the mosque is full and there are hundreds of people outside. The Imam starts singing calling the people to prayer, it's actually quite haunting. He then starts to read from the Koran, all over loud speakers. Good thing we have finished dinner as we wouldn't be able to hear one another. Head back to the riad and Robin and I say goodbye to everyone as we have an early flight back to Paris.
Overall observations of our trip to Morocco
1) First experience in an Arab country has been eye opening and very educational.
2) Learned a lot about moderate Islam religion
3) Morocco well served with modern infrastructure and was easy to get around, good roads, Internet, etc.
4) Pleasantly surprised at the number of people in Morocco who speak French making it easier for us to be understood.
5) We would definitely do another small group tour like this again in a country where we did not feel comfortable ( language, culture, safety, amenities, etc).
I hope you have enjoyed reading my blog as much as I enjoy writing it. A good way for me to preserve memories of yet another wonderful experience with my great travelling partner and wonderful husband, Robin. (Palm reader confirms this fact)
So long till our next adventure.......Claire