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Friday, November 24, 2017

Fabled Fez

Our sojourn in Rabat was relaxing, but we were still searching for the mysterious feeling that we felt Morocco should hold. (Funny how you can get such ideas, when you've never been to a place, yes?) With that in mind, we boarded a train and headed to Fez.

We took an early train and spoiled ourselves by booking into a higher end riad in the city for two nights. The riad was placed right on the edge of the Medina, making it fairly easy to find, if you stuck to the inner wall. (That sounds easy, but with all the wendy little streets you can still get turned around.) Armed with a map of the Medina, we ventured into the maze all alone, looking for the tanneries, weavers and metal workers. The upside of the Medina in Fez is that it's on a hill. Our riad was on the upper side and the artisans were on the lower side, so getting down to the souks was fairly easy. (Of course, the map helped, too.) 

Our Riad

Eidy, the Riad Mascot
Metal Workers

Dye Vats

Unlike shiny new Rabat, the Medina is one of the most ancient in Morocco. The narrow little lanes have no space for modernity, so only mules and donkeys are allowed in the old town. (And hand carts.) The downside is that the lanes are so narrow that you can't get a data signal, so if you're trying to use your network for maps, they don't always work. 

Donkeys taking treated leather to
the artisans
As we entered the heart of the Medina, where the souks are, we got swept back in time. While some of the wares were definitely modern (cell phone stores, for example), the stalls and people could have come from any period over the last 1000 years. Both women and men seemed to have a preference for traditional dress, sporting caftans and djellabas (a traditional Berber long tunic with hood). We had found the very essence of Morocco. 

One of the main entrances (babs) The Blue Gate

Meeting of the Minds

Needless to say, we enjoyed our time in this authentic and mesmerizing city. We felt like we'd turned a corner, somehow, in this strange land and were ready to take on Marrakesh.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Rabat, Morocco's Capital

Heading to the train station in Tangiers, it seemed like the entire city was under construction. This included the station, itself as well as the tracks leading out of the city. As we progressed through neighbourhoods, suburbs and into the countryside, the construction continued. We later found out that Morocco is planning on putting in a bullet train and we had seen the preparations.

The amount of garbage along the tracks (almost entirely plastics) was truly stunning, and we discovered that Morocco only has a fledgling recycling program. We arrived at our station and met with our home exchange partners. They'd agreed to help us get settled in and show us the neighbourhood before departing the next day to Ecuador. We were treated to a lovely tajine (traditional Moroccan dish served in a ceramic dish with lid) for dinner.

In the morning we headed out to the tram which took us into the downtown core of Rabat. The capital had a different feel than Tangiers, with a less touristy feel. We went through the Medina several times during our stay and we're blissfully unmolested by vendors. (One man did offer Ron hashish, but that's not unusual.)

Rabat is mostly modern city, with lots of universities, offices and a shopping district to rival almost any capital. At the edge of the Medina is a huge cemetery that ate up so much sea view land that I was surprised that it hadn't been taken over for condo development. Unlike Tangiers, no one spoke Spanish and there was very little English spoken, either. This was the most challenging city linguistically, but we still got by.

Click the photo for a better look

One of the most interesting spots in the city is the Chellah, an old necropolis from the Phoenician period (1500 to 300 BC - give or take). It's essentially a royal burial tomb, heavily fortified and ornately decorated. Of course, others have used it since, but it finally fell into disuse after the Roman period. It is now a world heritage site.

Storks of the Chellah

We weren't able to see the King's palace, we were actually shooed away by a guard and failed to make it to the large mosque. We did visit the large Catholic church, which was conveniently close to an excellent restaurant called Ty Potes. (Pronounced almost like teapot.)
Goat cheese and smoked salmon salad
Near our house is a beautiful mosque that we took some time to peruse (from the outside). 

Mid-stay, we ventured off to Fez and before we knew it our time in Rabat was done and we were headed off to raucous Marrakesh. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Mysterious Morocco - Tangiers/Tangier/Tanger

Yes, I'm back...did you miss me? Our whirlwind trip of Portugal, Spain and Morocco has come to an end and we're wading through the photos, trying to capture the reality of our experiences.

I confess to being a bit uneasy about visiting Morocco. There are a lot of travel advisories for women, when it comes to that country and we've never set foot in Africa before, so there were a lot of unknowns for me. I have to say, I'm glad I went.

Morocco is actually a fairly liberal country, with a long history of mixed colonial rule, as well as mixed religion. It can't be any clearer when you first arrive. There is a tapestry of skin colours, facial features and languages. I've only ever experienced this in either very old countries or very young ones. (Ironic, no?)
Our plane from Gibraltar
We started our foray in Tangier, just a quick flight from Gibraltar. (More on that in another post.) We were met at the airport by our driver who sped us off to the Medina (meaning the non-European area of a North African town) and we had to rely on a (seemingly) crazy person to find our riad (a traditional house in the Medina). It was an intimidating start to our adventure, but we felt welcomed and relaxed, once ensconced in our hotel/riad. The people of Tangiers speak Arabic, French, and, more surprisingly, Spanish, so we had no trouble conversing with shopkeepers or restaurant owners. The manager of our riad (Badr) also spoke English.

View from the terrace

Badr, our host and guide
We had a tour of the Medina and got our first taste of the souks. (I guess you'd call that the shopping district or bazaar.) Having a guide kept "hucksters" at bay. (We'd been warned about this several times: guides that only took you to shops (nothing historic) and got a big cut of the sale (meaning higher prices) or wouldn't leave you alone until you gave them some money. While there is a certain amount of "I did something for you, so you should give me money" it wasn't as aggressive as I feared. So, take that off your things to worry about list. Being firm, but polite, is key to surviving and enjoying Morocco.)
Berber style head scarf

We had a wonderful lunch featuring Moroccan/Berber specialties and then toured a Synagogue  in the old Jewish quarter. We got to smell the fresh sea air and marvel at the narrow passage ways that wound, maze-like, through the Medina.
Pigeon Pie 

Tajine and cous cous

Medina Cafe

Walls of the city


There were a lot of amazing things to see and experience, but we marveled the most at the ornate doorways that just dripped with history. (In overwhelming situations, I tend to focus on specific things.)

The other plentiful thing in Tangier (and Morocco, in general) are cats. They're everywhere and I learned that cats are allowed in houses in Morocco, while dogs are not. This has something to do with how the prophet Muhammad viewed cats as the perfect pet.

The wonderful thing about being in the old part of the city is that we got to see a lot more of "traditional" life, meaning traditional dress and crafts. The first time I heard the call to prayer (Muslims pray five times a day) we were sitting on the rooftop of our riad, watching the sunset. It was haunting and soothing all at the same time, hearing the Mullahs call the faithful.

Street leading to the souks

We'd only opted to spend two nights in Tangiers and were off to the train station fairly early the next day, on our way to Rabat. We missed the new part of the city completely, except for seeing it through the taxi window on our way to the train station. I was interested to see how the capital differed.