Welcome to Casablanca, Morocco! At the end of April I left Halifax on a direct red eye flight, London Heathrow bound. I spent three days touring London solo before catching a train at London Bridge station for Gatwick airport. A short flight later (with the tallest man I’ve ever met seated next to me, a Dominica native bound for Côte d’Ivoire to spend two months with his fiance) and I touched down in Morocco!
I arrived in Casablanca around 8:00PM, in time to see the sun setting outside the airport. Due to some pre-arranged transfer confusion, my phone not working, and my lack of communication skills in French/Arabic I didn’t arrive at my hotel until close to ten (sun was set and the call to prayer was outside my window). I was set to meet up with my fellow Intrepid Travel passengers as we were all off on the Best of Morocco for a 15 day adventure. They were out for a welcome dinner and it was lights out around Hotel Maamoura so I un-packed and eventually met my new roomie, Marianne and tour leader Khalid.
The first day started with a negotiated taxi fare to the Haasan II Mosque (120 DH entry fee) – we were leaving Casablanca mid-morning so this was a very early start. Bonus – little to no tourists around when we arrived, which made for some great shots!
It was noticeably more difficult to barter the taxi fare from outside the mosque – what was supposed to be 10-15 DH ended up being 20 DH as no one was willing to take us back to the hotel for less. Back at Hotel Maamoura, I met the rest of my group from various parts of Australia and we set off in two large sleek black taxi’s for the train station, gare ONCF Casa port (which had McDonald’s, in case your curious). Second class in “train no. 21”- means no assigned seats, we walked the length of the train before splitting up into small pairs. Me and Marianne met a gentleman who had lived in Montreal from 1997-2002. Which brings me to where people think your from when you say “Canada” – Montreal.Our first stop by train – gare ONCF Rabat ville. Welcome to Rabat – the new capital of Morocco. I had my intro to “nus-nus” – espresso sitting in a perfect ring on top of steamed milk. Along with a capri salad and kafta sandwich, lunch costs 55 DH at the small cafe where we stored our luggage for the afternoon.
Kasbah des Oudayas – on the edge of the old Medina admission is no charge.Winding your way through the Kasbah, up to the top a grand view of the Atlantic ocean. Those little black dots on the left? Surfers!Walking away from the Medina towards the Hassan Tower (which is currently closed for maintenance).What we can see of the closed Hassan Tower.Moroccan soldiers, guarding the Mausolée Mohammed V.Looking down into the tomb room!Carved marble – intricate details everywhere.When your traveling solo, photos of yourself are a little more difficult – but when your on a tour someone is always willing to grab a shot or two (even if they snap three simultaneously with your Nikon and your eyes are open/looking at the camera in none 😉Having tea and sweets (X5) at the Majestic Cafe in Rabat (25 DH). Also my first experience trying to order something completely in broken French. I got what I wanted (cinq bonbons…thé minte) but I had no idea what she said back to me. Not a clue.
Leaving Rabat by train. This gives you an idea of how schedules operate in Morocco: “you never say I missed the train, you say the train missed me” – Kahlid.We arrive in Meknes to the Hotel Majestic as the sun dropped down below the horizon. I was (as always) starving after walking up the hill from the train station, so once we had settled in our room, Marianne and I ventured out looking for something to eat. This was the first time I realized that hanging out on sidewalk cafes and eating after dark is something a small minority of women participate in. After attempting to find several places in Lonely Planet’s Morocco – we settled on a delicious smelling “chawarma” house around the corner from our hotel. Super crispy caramelized chicken, green olives, soft white cheese, tomatoes, onions & loads of mysterious sauces wrapped in a pita and pressed on the grill until melted and crispy. This was my 10:00PM Chawarma Poulet Fromage – 25 DH with coke and fries.Exploring the old Medina in Meknes.Mausolée de Moulay Ismaïl – one of the most beautiful interiors I visited. Once a mosque, here lies Moulay Ismaïl, his wife and two of his sons – now a mausoleum and one of the few religious buildings open to non-Muslims.
Leading into the Royal stables – which was closed off because the royal family was actually there that day.Enjoying a few pots of mint tea overlooking Place el Hedim.We met back up with the rest of the group for lunch – a winding walk through Meknes’ old Medina into an area I could never find on my own – stall after stall with a cook managing a charcoal grill and ground meat. This is where we ate camel burgers!All of the cuts of camel.These stalls were so tiny and so narrow, the fan over the coals barely keeping the black soot filled air from coating the ceilings.Lots of seasoning, and a little flair.We ate off sheets of un-printed newspaper.Camel meat in a delicious homemade roll with veggies and lots of turmeric.Leaving the Medina in Meknes – stall after stall of eggs.Fresh orange juice with sugar, naturally.Rose petals everywhere – the old Medina in Meknes had so many good smells and little to no tourists.In Meknes we met our mini bus, which would take us around for the rest of our journey through Morocco! This I believe is Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, a town spread at the base of Mount Zerhoun – where the religion of Islam first arrived. 5 KM away from the Roman ruins of Volubilis.Prepare yourself – almost nothing in English.We had a local guide here who showed us different column pieces and decorative stone carvings, that now sit under this modern shelter – protected from the sun.The trees and light here were beyond.Standing amazed, at the work that was started in 3rd century BC.Lombards, hot sun, zero humidity, olive trees, sweet florals filling the air and thousand year old crumbling ruins. My favorite things.Here is where my Nikon D800 overheated from the sun – and the battery went from 5 bars to 0 in a matter of minutes.Back in the mini bus, headed for Fes (Fez) on route de Sidi Chahed. The northern part of the Middle Atlas mountain range.The turquoise lake of Barrage Sidi Chahed.Sunset over the old Medina – hello Fez!After unpacking at Hotel Olympic in Fez we went to have dinner in the old Medina where a local family has converted their dining and living areas into a restaurant.Bread and olives to start!There were at least 15 different cold and warm appetizers – stewed chili’s, white bean, cold lentils, warm lemon potatoes, brown beans, warm sugared carrots, pickled beets, and on it went. The main dish was sugared “chicken” (aka pigeon) pie – baked in a delicious phyllo pastry.Dessert was some sesame sticky sugary sweets, and fruit. This was one of the most expensive meals we ate – 200DH each including service. We were allowed to bring our own wine – this bottle of local red cost 110DH.A little alcove off the families entry way. After dinner we left the Medina and went to a local shisha bar a few blocks from our hotel. Shisha to share with a few beers and bowls of popcorn, 55 DH each.Our first full day in Fez, we had a local guide, Isham, meet us early after breakfast. He took us first to the entrance of the royal palace in Fez.Next the mini bus took us to Quartier de Poterie – where we could watch Moroccan artisans create plates, tiles, bowls, etc. from clay to finished glazed product for sale in the shop.These wood fired kilns are hand built, and managed by “instinct” – no temperature gauges.To create tile mosaic patterns on table tops and fountains, each individual tile is created as a square, traced from a master pattern and then slowly chipped away by hand.The pattern on a table top is created blindly – color side down, completely from memory.My most favorite blush pink fountain with a gold bear spout.The shopThis tajine was my favorite, it was fired for use directly on a stove-top (not just decorative) – at 750 DH it stayed behind.Cats everywhere in Morocco!Overlooking the Medina before we went in to have a guided tour.Each area of the Medina in Fez had different crafts happening – this was walking through the metal works area, en-route to the tannery. Chouara Tannery – over a thousand years old. There are different leather shops positioned around the tanneries so you can look out over the different dyes. The smell was interesting but not as strong as people led you to believe.My favorite corner, just warm and white and pink.I brought home two of the simple goat leather poufs – in the light natural color (they are the shorter ones). Negotiated from 750 DH each to 450 DH each.This natural camel leather bag was also impossible to resist – starting price 1150 DH but I walked away spending 650 DH.Lunch in the Fez Medina in a converted riad – Le Patio Bleu. This place was stunning!The same hot and cold combination of intensely flavored veggies and beans to start.I ate lamb tajine wherever possible – this was on top of a bed of couscous with a variety of stewed squash, cabbage and raisins on top.They bring a small bowl of the meat drippings to apply to the meat and couscous before eating. With coke, bread, mint tea and fresh fruit for dessert this lunch was 150 DH including service.We were given a five minute special door opening to peak into the University of al-Qarawiyyin. It is argued to be the oldest university in the world, and usually the smaller door to the left is open to students (no visitors).The Attarin Madrasa in Fez – Old Town (Medina). So silent and beautiful – admission was included as part of our tour.Elegant cedar wood – intricately carved.Further walking led us to the weaving and textile areas of the Fez Medina.Weaving here is done with silk as well as fibers harvested from large agave leaves.Back at our modern hotel (one of the best we had!) – Hotel Olympic my new leather carry-on.
“Dinner” on our last night in Fez was a Jr. Whopper from Burger King (18 DH) and pistachio gelato (18 DH) from the mall where we went to grab snacks for the road, and waited for our laundry to finish. Note to all – if you get your clothes laundered, they will put everything in an industrial dryer…
This concludes my first five nights in Morocco! Up until this point Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, and Fez looked pretty much exactly what you would expect Morocco to look like – beautiful mosaic rooms and doorways, intricate riads, textiles, leathers, ceramics, French influence in cafes and sweets, Arabic influence in almost everything, tropical flora and fauna, and tajine’s of couscous and slow roasted meat.
When I left Fez, everything changed! Next up Ifrane, Barbary apes, the Middle Atlas Mountains, markets at Timahdite, and the canyons of Midelt…
Oh! Also more tajine’s!