October 31, 2023
We arrived at the airport in Barcelona to get to Morocco about 2.5 hours early so we could eat in the lounge that we access through our Priority Pass membership, one of our cardmember benefits with the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and Capital One Venture X Card. We were greeted just past security with a mariachi band with Day of the Dead makeup on. You could actually get your face painted, too, but we didn't think that anyone would want to get their face painted and then hop on a plane.
We arrived in Marrakech without incident, collected our luggage, and headed outside to meet the taxi driver that our Airbnb host had arranged... except we couldn't find them..... no one with a sign with our name or the name of our home on it. We tried messaging our contact here through WhatsApp, and we got him, but he only spoke French. We only have a VERY basic vocabulary in French and speaking via phone wasn't working, so we moved to text message so that we could run it through Google translate before communicating. Luckily finally the driver showed up, about 30 minutes later. Apparently our arrival time had been changed to an hour later in the communication somewhere between us to our host through the company and then to our driver. That was the only hiccup, though, and we were able to get to the meeting point on the edge of the walled city, and our host was waiting there for us. From there we walked (he had arranged for a luggage cart and porter) about 15 minutes to where we are staying (no cars are allowed during most hours in the old city).
We are staying in a raid (traditional home) in the Medina (walled city) that we have all to ourselves. The western and southern edges of the walled city are where most of the commercial activity (covered markets and stalls) is. Our place is on the edge of the busiest part of the medina. The further in you go the (relatively) quieter it gets. It feels a lot more like Cairo here in level of activity than like the medinas in southern Spain. The main square in the Medina is full of activity with snake charmers and monkey dancers and musicians. In the evenings the spaces are taken up by food stalls. It's quite a scene both day and night.
While we were on the plane, we decided to book a street food tour for 8:30 to 11:30 that night. After having done the food tour in Barcelona, we remembered that they are a good way to orient to the city, so we decided we would do that right away our first night. You might be thinking, 8:30 to 11:30?!?!?! Yup, there is activity here nightly (except probably Friday nights), that feels almost like a carnival (including snake charmers and monkeys). This food tour went to the other extreme vs. the one we did in Barcelona; it was almost all food and almost no context. The food, though, was quite an adventure. We were joined by two Brits on the tour, Deb and Renee, who were on a vacation together. Some of the food was a little bit too adventuresome for them (although sheep's head was not included on our menu). We figured, though, that anybody that was doing this regularly wouldn't stay in business if they took people to venues that weren't European/American stomach safe as far as hygiene.
The food tour was organized with the idea of "from breakfast to nighttime" so we started off with traditional Moroccan crepes called msemen. We tried a variety of flavors including cheese, honey, and tomato and spice. We also had mint tea, which is appropriate to drink pretty much any time here. It is a ritual here to pour a cup, then pour the cup back into the teapot before pouring your cups to drink. They put a fistful of herbs into the pot to flavor it. Next we stopped off at a fruit juice stand and got a mixed juice of everything we knew (nothing exotic in this concoction). After that we went to get skewers. There were chicken skewers and liver skewers; we had both. The liver was pretty mild, so whatever the person grilling did, it was magic.
Our next stop was at a stand that cooks offal in big bronze pots and then serves it in a Moroccan pita style bread (round but much thicker) with stew-y white beans. We've sampled different kinds of offal on our trip so far, but this was the best that we've had. Our next to last stop was the sugar cane juice stand. They crush the sugar cane fresh in front of you, add a little bit of ginger and lemon, and then you drink it straight. It was sweet, but not overly so. Lastly, we stopped to have escargot, but these were not the typical butter and garlic variety. They are cooked instead with cumin and saffron. We didn't love them as we thought they had a bitter aftertaste. On the way back to our starting point, our guide stopped by a cart selling Moroccan purple prickly pear. They were like regular prickly pear, but a bit more sour.
November 1, 2023
We're taking today to check out the sights within and just outside the walls of the Medina of Marrakech. We started with the Bahia palace. It was constructed in the mid to late 19th century, but was similar to architecture we saw in Turkey and in southern Spain, but in different ways for each. What was particularly noteworthy here were the painted ceilings which was much more like what we'd seen in late medieval and renaissance architecture in Europe.
We decided we wanted to break up our architecture sites with a museum so we decided to hit the Museum of Moroccan Culinary Arts, which is near the palace. When we arrived, it was open, but as we walked in, they said the museum portion was closed and they were only doing cooking classes by reservation due to damage from the earthquake. A few other of the sites in the Medina that we would have liked to see were closed to to damage as well (but certainly not most sites). There is, though, as we walked around, quite a bit of areas where riads crumbled, or buildings are shored up against the ones across the street with lumber planks. Since we couldn't get into the museum, we headed to the Jewish quarter to see the historical synagogue (still in use) and the Jewish cemetery.
On our way to the synagogue, we were stopped by someone on the street who said if we were looking for the synagogue, that the way we were going was closed due to damage. Instead he walked us another way, but wouldn't you know it, he said the synagogue was around the corner but we should first talk to this street vendor right here who has great incense. We'll never know if the way was really blocked; it's not inconceivable given the earthquake. We're going to go with... it was blocked.
The Slat Al Azama Synagogue has been housing a congregation at this location since some time between 1492 and 1557, although the current building dates from the 19th century. The Jewish community in Marrakech once numbered in the tens of thousands, but now it is now reduced to just tens. Most Jews here emigrated to Israel after the breakout of the first Arab-Israel war. There was an "indigenous" Jewish community here that left the holy land sometime during the Roman occupation at the same time as other Jews were flowing into the diaspora in Spain and Eastern Europe. Then, after the Spanish Inquisition, Jews escaped Spain and came here, swallowing up the indigenous Jewish community.
There was a museum of sorts about the local Jewish community at the synagogue. It was interesting to see photos of the history of the community. Even more interesting, though, was an explanation of a group in northeast India that claims Jewish heritage. The community didn't exactly know that they could have been Jews, but their local beliefs were very different from the other dominant Hindu traditions of the area, and they had many similar traditions related to Jewish festivals and stories like Passover. They ate unleavened bread on one of their festivals and had a myth about a dream interpreter who saved a kingdom from famine, even though the stories had been warped through time.
It is thought that this group migrated to this area of India around the time that most Jews were in Persia following the fall of Jerusalem to the Assyrians and Babylonians. Since they were separated from the core of the Jewish community so early (prior to the standardizing of the Torah and way before the development of the Talmud), their understanding of what it means to be Jewish is very different. And it opened questions about what it means to be Jewish. Since being recognized as a part of the Jewish community, though, and coming into more contact with members of the contemporary Jewish community from the post Talmud communities, their practices and understandings have also moved closer to what we think of as Jewish. This was probably one of the most thought provoking exhibits we've seen on our travels.
From the synagogue, we went to the Jewish cemetery. It was quite large, and, interestingly, had graves that were painted white and generally unmarked. It was a testament to the size of the community in the past. The white graves were also quite a striking sight against the reddish hue of the Medina walls.
Next, we headed to Badia Palace. This was built much earlier than Bahia Palace (in the 16th century as opposed to the 19th). It was modeled on the Alhambra in Andalucia, but much of the palace was raided to furnish another palace in Morocco in the 18th century. There was very little left here, and much of it was under restoration. The big deal with this palace was the throne room, but it was closed. It was unclear if it was closed due to damage from the earthquake or for scheduled restoration prior to the earthquake. We didn't take but maybe one picture here.
Our final stop before heading to lunch were the Saadian tombs. To view the main tomb, you have to queue, so it might pay to arrive early. You pay your entrance fee and then have to join the queue. There are a few other tombs around the complex, so one of us saved our spot in line while the other checked out the ancillary tombs (which took about 5 minutes). We waited about 30 minutes to get to see the main tomb. It was well worth the wait.
For lunch, we followed a recommendation from Lonely Planet, and headed to this street in the Medina that has a bunch of stalls that serve slow roasted lamb. It's served by the kilo and presented to you with bread. We went to Chez Lamine Hadj Mustapha because it had the most table seating, and we wanted to sit down, but there were plenty of stalls around that area and all the lamb looked good. You pull the bread apart and use it to pull the meat off the bones (it is fall off the bone tender). They present you with a shank and ribs. They gave us knife and fork, though, as they did with all the other foreigners. Stephen was relieved, as he's a lefty, and it's considered an offence to eat with your left hand in a Muslim country.
November 2, 2023
Toay we decided to head to the newer section of the city for a couple of landmarks there, the Yves Saint Laurent museum, the Berber museum, and the Majorelle Gardens. YSL had a home in Marrakech and spent a lot of time here. All of these locations are connected to him.
This area is about a 45 minute walk or a 20 minute cab ride from the main square of the medina. There are also buses that run that direction and the cost of a bus is about 40 cents a piece. We figured we'd try the bus. At main stops like the bust stop at the main gate of the medina, there are locations marked with bus numbers so you know where to wait and where the bus stop is. Google, though, was showing a bus stop a bit closer to where were were walking, so we went that direction instead. When we got to where Google said there was a bus stop, there were no marking at all that indicated that a bus might stop here. Being a bit worried about that, we trudged back to the main bus stop in the opposite direction. We got on a bus almost right away, but it was standing room only. Luckily it only took us about 20 minutes to get to the stop closest to the YSL museum. Apparently taxis and buses travel at about the same speed in Marrakech.
Upon arriving at the complex, we went to the ticket window to buy our tickets. Apparently you must get your tickets online as the ticket window wouldn't actually sell tickets and you must get tickets online in advance for these sites (which we did not realize). When we arrived at the gardens at about 10:30am, the only tickets left were for 3:30 in the afternoon. We were about to give up and head to another sight to see and try again for the next day, when a group of three French speaking people approached us. They were here visiting their brother who was on a study abroad program. Their parents were supposed to meet them here in Marrakech, but they got stuck in Brittany due to storms. Therefore, they had two extra tickets for entry at 11am and were trying to sell them (at face value). Sensing an opportunity, we readily said we'd buy them. However, the one trick was that we all had to enter each of the sites together as there was only one QR code for the 5 tickets. It wasn't a problem, though, as we enjoyed our conversation and were all about at the same pace in moving through the sites. Thank you, guys, for rescuing us.
We started in the gardens. It definitely gave you the impression of an oasis, and it was quite lush with a mix of cactuses, bamboo, palms, and other more thirsty plants too. There were water features throughout, as is typical in Arabic garden architecture. This was overall the best part of the three sites. The Berber museum is within the garden, but you need to buy an entry for it. The collection is small; there are maybe only 4-5 rooms as it is housed in the former residence of Pierre Berge, who worked with YSL. You can also not take photos in the museum. The YSL museum is a short walk up the street. We were really disappointed in the museum, especially after having seen the Dior museum in Paris. YSL has a museum there as well, and we hope the exhibits there are more interesting. There were a bunch of sketches on display from the 1980s, and some dresses on mannequins from that period as well, but nothing really from his avant garde work. The best part of the museum was the film highlighting that part of his work. You also were not allowed to take pictures in this museum.
We thought we'd take a cab back from the museum area to the medina for lunch, but they wanted $10 for a cab ride that we could get on the bus for for 80 cents, so we decided to try the bus again. Unfortunately the two busses that passed us were totally full and did not stop for us. After that and waiting a little while longer, we decided on trying to hail a cab. A cab with a passenger already in the cab stopped for us. We offered the equivalent of 5 bucks and he agreed to take us as his current passenger was on the route to take us to the medina. About 5 minutes later he dropped off the other passenger and then took us to the medina. We think we probably could have gotten it even cheaper, but 5 dollars seemed reasonable to us. In these situations it's cheaper to walk to the main street and hail a cab vs. taking one of the parked ones nearer a tourist site.
For lunch we headed to a tajine restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host, Cafe Kessabine. The tajine of beef and eggplant was very good, the French style taco less so (for more info on French style tacos, see our France page where we have a taco in Carcassone), and we had a bird's eye view of the activity in the square below.
After lunch we came home and worked on blogging, instagramming, and other tasks. Since we started traveling almost 18 months ago, our COBRA coverage will run out in December. November 1 starts open enrollment in Obamacare, so we signed up for a new health plan that will start in January through the exchange. Since we're not really working, we actually qualify for a subsidy and it will be cheaper than what we were paying for COBRA, just with a higher deductible and max out-of-pocket cost for non-routine care. Copays will remain about the same.
November 3, 2023
Stephen developed cold symptoms last night (mostly runny nose), so we're taking it easy today, doing laundry, getting caught up on paperwork, and checking out just one or two sites. The first was the Music Museum. The second was the Secret Garden. On our way to the sites, which were not too far from each other in an area of the medina we hadn't been to before, we passed through alleyways less crowded (partly because it was Friday) and more serene. Pictures, though, can't really convey the feeling you get walking through the narrow streets; it just has to be experienced. Only until noon prayer ended and throngs of men emptied out into the street with their prayer rugs did the become more crowded. We passed by a number of shops selling traditional instruments, but we restrained ourselves; we didn't want to deal with having to figure out how to get it home.
Our first stop, the Music Museum is housed in a riad from the late 16th century. They did a great job of putting the instruments on display in context; there was typically a video in each room showing how the instruments were used in dancing and singing during actual festivities. Each room was devoted to the different cultures and sects of Morocco and their particular instruments. They also do short 1 hour concerts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 6pm, but since we were leaving the next day, we thought we'd want to pack and get a good night's sleep.
The Secret Garden is also in a raid of about the same period. It had similar elements to the Jardin Majorelle from the previous day, although not as extensive. We got some good photos. They offer a trip up to the tower in the riad for an extra fee, but you can go up to the terrace for free and it's only about another 9 feet up to the tower.... not worth it.
For late lunch/dinner, we went to Nomad. It is advisable to make a reservation, so that's why we ended up there at 4:30pm. It's got a nice rooftop seating area and some delicious food. We had the lamb chops and chicken thigh tajine with zucchini cakes as a starter. The chicken thighs were the best by far, but the lamb chops and zucchini were strong as well.
November 4, 2023
The car rental agency opens at 8am and we wanted to get an early start on our drive to Ouarzazate so we would have some time to see Ait Benhaddou on our way before we had to get settled so that Stephen could work at 3pm. When we arrived, check-in was going fine until the clerk said that they needed proof that Eli had been driving for more than 2 years. He had recently renewed his license, and they even said they knew he had been driving for more than 2 years, but they still needed proof. We had flashbacks to the awful rental car experience in Antalya in Turkey. Luckily, Eli had a photo of his old license in his Google Photos, and it's really easy to search images there, so all he had to do was type "license" and he was able to find it.
Before checking out of our place, our host warned us about the police on the roads and warned us to be careful. We did encounter a number of random traffic stops on our way to Ouarzazate, but we passed through them uneventfully.
As we approached the turnoff for Ait Benhaddou, we felt like we had enough time, so we stopped. It's about 25 minutes just outside of Ouzazarte. It is a kasbah, which is just a word meaning fortress, although sometimes it can be used interchangeably with medina, too. Built originally in the 17th century, it has hosted a number of film shoots, including "Romancing the Stone", and is seen as quintessential Berber architecture. Traditional buildings in this area are made with mud brick cured in the sun, and then covered with a "stucco" of mud, dung, and straw. Since the area does get occasional rain, the buildings and their decoration sort of "melt" and have to be restuccoed every so often. You can also see remnants of buildings no longer in use within the complex melting away as well. People are still living and working here, although mostly in pursuit of the tourist trade. There were donkeys being cared for and mailboxes built into the mud walls. The exterior decoration and flourishes of construction were really cool; the Morocco EPCOT pavilion is based on this kind of architecture. We walked through the alleyways of the kasbah for a bit, but it was much more interesting from the outside than the inside. After about 40 minutes, we headed back to the car. That would get us to our hotel in Ouarrzazate with an hour before Stephen had to work.
Ouarrzazate is affectionately known as Mollywood because it is now home to a couple of film studios and film lots. You can do tours of the couple studios here, but there is not much to see, honestly. Ouzazarte, though, is a convenient stopover point on the way to Merzouga and the dunes and some of the kasbah architecture in the surrounding area. We stayed at a soulless Ibis hotel since we thought they would be likely to have strong wifi so Stephen could work. Interestingly they had some damage here as well from the earthquake; there was a big crack along the wall in our room. We didn't do anything in Ouzazarte proper, but we did have a fabulous meal at Douriya... vegetable soup, goat tajine, and pastilla of pigeon.
We have also noticed that the call to prayer in Morocco is not the same as in Egypt, Jordan, or Turkey. It's much more of a straightforward call here without all the tone changes, vocal flourishes, and musicality as in other countries.
November 5, 2023
Today we drove on to Merzouga with the same time pressure to make sure we were there so that Stephen could get set up for work. On our way, we stopped by Kasbah Amridil, another kasbah built in the 17th century. We didn't go in here, but spent about 20 minutes taking pictures from the outside. It was even easier to see the straw embedded in the walls here; some had just recently been restuccoed.
There are some other sights along the way to Merzouga, like Dades Gorge, but we had to make it to Merzouga before Stephen had to work. As we approached Merzouga, part of Erg Chebbi dune is visible from the road. It is quite a sight. We both remarked that movies and television had given the impression that the Sahara was all dunes like this. In fact, though, the Sahara is quite a diverse landscape. With that said, the dunes are quite stunning. Depending on the angle of the sun, the dunes create all kinds of interesting shadows which make it look like modern art (or Eli said also a Windows desktop background). We didn't stay long taking photos from this vantage point, though, as we had to get Stephen settled in time for work. We're staying at a guest house on the outskirts of town with a view of the dunes.
While our hotel was a great location right next to the dunes, we can't recommend it as the staff left a bitter taste in our mouths. We were at first assigned a room, but the internet there was not strong enough to use video. Stephen checked it from a couple of other places and thought it was better toward the front. He at first asked to switch rooms, but one of the employees said that he could use it without a problem as long as they didn't need to give it to a guest and that he didn't disturb anything. However, when it came time to start and he asked for the key, the "boss" said that no, that wasn't okay, and that the other employee had no authority to offer that. So in the end we had to switch, and then the internet started falling in and out. We tried a couple of different things, but our airalo eSIMs weren't getting great reception here. Stephen bought a T-mobile high speed pass but that wasn't giving good enough speed, but Eli's AT and T service connected to a different mobile company in the area and had good enough speed for video.... outside. So Stephen ended up working from the car parked outside the hotel using Eli's phone. Eli got some great photos of the dunes at sunset with Stephen's phone (and he made sure Stephen got fed while he was working).
November 6, 2023
While Merzouga sits at the base of Erg Chebbi dunes and you have all the benefits of a town, you can also go to a desert camp and stay as well. We needed to do both because of Stephen's work, although it ended up that we had enough cell phone reception at the camp on Stephen's phone via the T-mobile pass, but ironically not Eli's this time, that he could have worked from the camp. The camps are mostly located on the far side of the dune from the town and half the fun is crossing on camel or dune buggy (or dirt bike if you can ride).
The owners of our camp also run a tour agency specializing in tours for Americans in the Moroccan Sahara and they helped us arrange for a 4x4 desert day tour of the area in addition to our camel ride into the camp. The Sahara is actually quite geologically diverse and we got to see some of that on our tour. There is actually some industrial activity mining lead and other minerals from the desert. This area was also undersea about 50 million years ago and has an incredible fossil record of that period, including fossilized turtle shells. The dunes are actually a result of a very shallow water table. The water close to the surface works as a "magnet" of sorts for the blowing sand. Unfortunately, though, due to continued drought, the water table isn't as high and the dunes are slowly retreating.
We also got to visit an Black African village. Berbers had enslaved Black Africans from both east and west Africa. After the arrival of Islam, though, slavery was forbidden. Some of those enslaved peoples decided to stay and have developed a culture that incorporated traditions from Sub-saharan Africa with traditional Berber traditions. We got to hear a group sing and drum. We recognized some of the rhythms and sounds created by some of the instruments as similar to what developed into African based music in Latin America. Particularly the sound they created with the double sided cymbals reminded us of the sounds and rhythm patterns of the guiro from salsa and cumbia.
Our guide also took us to a community garden.... yes... in the Sahara. Families buy plots and share the irrigation system, each family getting an appointed time to allow the water to flow past their plants. Unfortunately, this too is being affected by the drought and climate change. Even though the have the plots and can grow some things, each year they can grow less with the water allotted. We also stopped by a bedouin village. These bedouins had been pushed out of a nomadic life from the drought; there is no longer enough vegetation to feed their flocks. The government has allowed them to continue to live in a semi-traditional way in this camp while providing supplemental food and income and having their children attend school in the town.
From here we headed to the meeting spot where our guide would transfer us to our camels (actually dromedaries... one hump, not two). Saeed, the contact for our camp (and the travel agency) met us. He was very friendly and we talked for a while while waiting for the camels. He is actually the son of bedouins who settled in the area after the last major drought in the 1990's. He wanted to do something that honored their traditions and also shared them with the world. They've had the agency for a while, but in 2017 opened Moonlight Desert Camp as a small luxury camp experience made up of 6 tents at the edge of the dunes. Since COVID, all the camps have been moved out of the interior of the dunes.
He got us situated with our camel guide and then took our bags to camp for us (the ride across the dunes on camel is about an hour plus a stop for the sunset but a 4x4 can go around the dunes to the camp in about 20 minutes). Riding a camel is not faster than walking, but trudging through the sand up and down the dunes is a challenge. The camels were walked by our guide all the way through the dunes. It was fun, but we were sore afterward.... even just walking the camels give a rougher ride than a horse. And they're quite wider than a horse so our groins felt a pretty good stretch afterward. There really is no other way, though, to enjoy the incredible scenery of the dunes. Once you're about 20 minutes in, you can't see anything else around you but the dunes (and the occasional other riders on their way to their camps).
We arrived at camp after an additional 10 minute camel ride from where we stopped to watch the sunset. The camp was quite an inviting scene when we arrived with fresh mint tea and a roaring fire going. We sat by the fire and sipped tea for about half an hour and then went to our tent to shower and get ready for dinner. These were by far the most luxurious tents we've stayed in on our journey so far. The bedding was plush, the ensuite bath was well appointed, the food was well presented. You can do everything from the camp that you can do from town; Saeed can arrange for tours, dune buggies, camels, sandboarding, etc. right from camp.
Eli hadn't been feeling well for the last couple of days, so he didn't eat dinner and retired to the tent. Just as dinner was ending a strong windstorm picked up, so we weren't able to spend much time at the fire. But the tradditional drumming still happened in the lounge area of the main tent. Stephen stayed to drum and got to play with the guys from the camp.
November 7, 2023
The camp offers sandboarding and our host at the camp had suggested that we try it at some point, but the wind was still blowing pretty fiercely and so we decided just to head back to town and get an early start on our 7.5 hour drive to Fes. Eli still wasn't feeling good, so Stephen would end up driving the whole way. Yesterday our tour guide had warned us about the corruption of the police in the towns on the road to Fes and gave us some tips on how to manage it if we get stopped. This was actually very helpful a couple of times.
We passed through a few police stops without incident. Typically we would just slow down to a crawl when we saw the police signs at the side of the road, they would wave us on through, we'd wave back and we were good to go. At one stop, though, we did the same thing, having been used to the flow that happened at all the other stops. But this time the police officer had us pull over. Stephen got out of the car and the police officer said that we owed 600 dirhams (about 60 bucks) because we just rolled through and failed to stop at the second warning sign for the stop (written only in Arabic and French). Meanwhile our guide had said that most traffic fines are only 150 dirhams (15 bucks) and that many police will try and gouge tourists and pocket the money. Stephen continued to protest that we were tourists, that we didn't understand French or Arabic, that we were complying in spirit with the stop, and that we didn't have any cash. Most of this is what our guide had told us to do (especially the no cash part). Stephen and the officer argued about 5 minutes and then the officer brought him over to the supervisor. They argued for about another 5 minutes and then they just gave up and let us go.
We passed through a number of of other police stops without incident and then we got pulled over again about an hour and a half before Fes. This time the officer claimed to have clocked our car speeding (going 65 kph in a 60 zone which is equivalent of going 3mph over the speed limit). He also said that the fine would be 600 dirhams. Ugh! Stephen then said that he wanted to see a list of the violations and the fines attached before he paid anything. The officer insisted that Stephen should pay him and he would bring him back the receipt. Stephen insisted that he wouldn't pay until he saw the list of fines and violations (but he didn't have the energy to fight this one to the end). He again got brought over to the supervisor and, wouldn't you know it, the appropriate fine for this violation is 150 dirhams. Stephen wanted to rat out the officer trying to extort us, but thought better of it as the supervisor might have been in on the gig as well. We paid the 150 dirhams (15 bucks) and we were on our way.
Other than those two hiccups, the drive was very interesting. We went through all kinds of different biomes, including alpine forest. Who would have known that there is alpine forest (and French mountain-chalet style architecture) in Morocco!
On our arrival in Fes, we left our car at the airport location for Avis and took a cab in as we thought we wouldn't want to drive through city traffic. When we called our host to let him know of our arrival, he offered to bring us dinner since it has been a long travel day. He met us at the meeting point, led us through the maze-like alleyways of the medina, showed us our place, and then brought us food. You can't get better than that. And our place is freaking gorgeous. As nice as our place in Marrakech was, this place is 10x in the amount of restored detail work. There's tons of tile work, woodwork, carved plasterwork. It's a lot of fun just to sit and marvel.
Stephen arguing with the cops successfully the first time.
Stephen arguing less successfully the second time.
The sandstorm as we left Merzouga.
November 8, 2023
This morning, our host volunteered to meet us and take us around a bit. We went to pick up fruits and vegetables at his favorite stands, and since Eli is still not feeling well, he took us to a natural pharmacy to pick up some herb mixes for his stomach. We also took us to a shop where you can go on the terrace and see the tannery functioning. Because it is in the medina and people are living right on top of it, they have to use all traditional and natural processes (although it still smells). He also took us for breakfast to one of his favorite stalls in the neighborhood. They only do fava bean soup (and tea). We each got a bowl (it's about 1 buck each) and sat and ate together. It's sort of like split pea soup and you tear off bread cubes and stick it in the soup (but instead of dressing with bacon, you drizzle with olive oil).
After breakfast we said goodbye to our host and headed off to see the sights of the medina here. The Fes medina is the largest medina in the world. The lanes here are even narrower than in Marrakech (see our video below) and with even less light coming from above. The lanes also veer off into dead ends. In the old days, extended families would have a whole "neighborhood" and would close off their alleyway from the main "thoroughfare." While there is no real green space or open space here, kids found all kinds of ways to entertain themselves. We hear kids playing, laughing, and running all nearby our place. It is even easier to get lost here than it was in Marrakech, but our place is right by a landmark and they have signs, so we haven't gotten lost yet. We do get asked all the time if we are looking for the tannery because it is in our neighborhood (but we're not falling for the "that way is closed" again).
We're on the lower edge of the medina, so we trudged up the hill to see some of the sights higher up on the hill. We started near our place at the Museum of Woodworking. It was a starred sight in Lonely Planet, but we weren't that impressed. It's known as being housed in a beautiful riad, but we weren't that impressed nor with the collection. From there we headed up the hill to the 11th century Bou Inania madrassa. You can only visit the courtyard, but it is stunning. The other sight to note here is the water clock. Not much remains other than the wood beams that supported the mechanism, but it accurately told time in the 11th century (which was important for calling prayer times). We then headed to the newest gate of the city, which was punched through only in the 1930's. From there we headed home and rested, relaxed, marveled at our beautiful place, and had leftovers for dinner.
November 9, 2023
We started today with a breakfast out at a place called Cafe Clock. Stephen had great Berber eggs and Eli had a standard omelet, but it was all for 10 bucks. From there we walked to the medina gate and picked up a cab to take us to the Ville Nouvelle area. The Mellah, or Jewish quarter, is near here. We stopped in to see the cemetery and the historic synagogue. Both were interesting and very similar to the ones in Marrakech. We did note the graves of some of the head rabbis, one of whom was a descendent of Maimonides.
From there we headed to a nearby French supermarket market to pick up some we'll need to cook dinner tonight and some breakfast-y kinds of things (not that we didn't like the fava bean soup) . We decided to use the vegetables we got with our host the other day to make a roasted vegetable panzanella and roasted Jerusalem artichokes. We wanted a bit of a break from Moroccan food for a night.
We also decided to double check our way to the Rcif gate for tomorrow morning because that's where we have to meet our tour to Chefchouen and we hadn't really gone that direction since we came from there when we first arrived to the city. The alleyways are a tangle here and we didn't want to get lost and miss our tour meet-up.
Dinner ended up coming out great, but we had an early fail and burned the bread cubes. Stephen went out to get some more bread and got a bit hassled by some of the touts on the street trying to get him to go with them. In trying to get away from them, he got into an area of the medina he hadn't been in and had to find his way out. But he was able to find the French baguette and make it home just a little more annoyed than when he left.
November 10, 2023
We wanted to visit the blue city of Chefchaouen which is about a 3-4 hour drive from Fes. We looked into renting a car, but the cheapest we could find was for $44 dollars and then we'd have to pay for gas. There were tours to Chefchaouen offered through Airbnb Experiences that were pretty bare bones (basically just transportation there and back, no guide or anything) for between 30 and 40 dollars per person. The cheapest one would have been about what we would have spent anyway on renting a car for the two of us, so we decided to do that. We gave up some of our independence as far as when we'd leave and come back for the benefit of not having to deal with driving parking, and the traffic police again.
We did learn something new, though, having gotten up early to get to our transport. We were wondering about garbage collection in the medina as we were walking seeing all these bags left on the alleyways. And we found out.... donkeys. Donkeys collect the garbage moving up and down the alleways (with humans guiding them) and then dump them in big collection dumpsters near the gates.
There are lots of debates about why the houses here are painted blue. Some say it's for mosquito control; some say it's from the Jews who arrived to the town fleeing Nazi Europe who painted the houses blue to connect to God in heaven. More likely, as in Bo Kaap in Cape Town, they just like it that way and it turned into a tourist thing which is now maintained because it brings the tourists in.
It is nice to walk the streets, and there are plenty of vignettes for Instagram photos (of which we got a few). If you're into trinket shopping, it's not a bad place to do that either. Luckily it wasn't very crowded while we were there. We wanted to head to a restaurant that a friend of Eli's had recommended with a nice view over the kasbah of the city, but just as we were arriving, a large tour group arrived at the restaurant and we figured it wouldn't be a very relaxing or attentive service if the staff were dealing with that, so we just chose a Moroccan pizza joint in the city. In all we were done in about 3 hours, so we had an hour to kill before the bus headed back. We sat in a little square outside the medina and talked (luckily without being bothered much by touts).
Originally people were saying that we should try to overnight in Chefchaouen, but we didn't think there is much there to warrant that. There is a nearby waterfall about a 45 minute drive out of town which you can hike up to, but we felt that since it's fall and snowmelt has long disappeared that it wouldn't be worth trekking to. That would really be the only reason to stay longer. We probably would say that it's not quite worth the drive from Fes, but if you're in Tangier, Chefchaouen is only a 2 hour drive from there. That would have been more reasonable to us.
November 11, 2023
Since we had done a food tour in Marrakech, we decided on doing a cooking class here. We had a great time with our hosts, Yassin, Amal, and Mohammed. Mohammed and Yassin have been friends since childhood and they hang out together all the time. Mohammed owns the riad where we cooked; he is married to Jessica from Hong Kong who he met while working at a hotel many years ago.. quite a love at first sight story. He is a plaster artist and did all the plasterwork in the riad. Yassin was the one who we talked most with as his English was the most developed, although he only really learned it on the street. They couldn't have been more friendly and the food that we cooked with them was probably some of the best and had the most depth of flavor since we've been here.
We went shopping first and actually stopped to pick up our meat at the store where we got the shot of the cats patiently waiting the other day. Clearly they must know where the good meat is. We learned a lot as well. For example, tajines now are cooked in pressure cookers to save time; you get the same depth of flavor without needing to wait 4 hours and it's actually easier to get the meat tender that way. Also, you wouldn't cook a tajine in a tajine (the clay pot), even in the old days. That's really just for serving. Also to get really good, light and fluffy couscous there are multiple steps. We had to first wet the couscous and mix it with our hands, then steam it, then mix it again with a whisk to get out the clumps, add some olive oil, steam it again, and then serve. They actually steamed it in a cone over the exhaust of the steamer pot that was cooking the meat.
The couscous dish was vegetarian with just onions, spices, golden raisins, and chickpeas, and then the meat dish was lamb shoulder with onion, spices, and dried fruit.
We also got to hang out a bit with some of the guests staying in the riad. We had a great conversation with a couple from France. She is working in the tourist industry here in Morocco and speaks Darija which is the Arabic spoken in Morocco with a mix of Berber, Spanish, and French vocabulary. He is a Gendarme officer in France and was here visiting her. They were heading out today to head down south, but not the same path that we did through the desert.
November 12, 2023
Today we laid low mostly, getting ready to head on to Rabat tomorrow. Eli did laundry and Stephen stepped out briefly to check out the Kairaouine Mosqe and Medrasa. This site dates from the 9th century and is still operating; it is cited as the oldest existing & continually operating university by UNESCO. The complex is quite large, but as tourists you're only allowed into a small sliver of it. However, he grand courtyard is even more impressive than the one we went to see on our 2nd day in Fes. We also needed to use up all the leftovers we still had in the house from all our meals here.
November 14, 2023
Today we're taking a train to Rabat, which is on the coast just north of Casablanca. We had another travel fail this morning. Over the weekend, we both looked at our departure time and both totally got it wrong. We double checked it at 8:30 this morning as we were preparing to leave the medina to get to the train station and saw that our train left in 10 minutes. We definitely weren't going to make that. Luckily there were plenty of seats on the next train out at 9:40 so we booked that. The train ride is about 2.5 hours on the train with fewest stops, which is about the same amount of time as it will take you to go by car. Morocco now has a high speed train line, but it goes from Casablanca to Tangier, so not what we needed. When we first boarded the train, we had the compartment all to ourselves. We thought this was great! About two stops later, though, a man with three pre-teen and teenage boys sat down in our car. The man proceeded to watch the football game on his phone with the volume all the way up. We were giving him dagger stares for a while, and then finally Stephen used his translator to ask the man to turn town the volume. He complied without a comment, which makes you wonder why he was so attached to watching at full volume in the first place or why he thought it wouldn't bother the other people in the compartment with him.
Our train was on time to Rabat. We stepped out of the train station and were hit up by taxi touts. It was originally our plan to take a bus to our riad, and we thought we had the right bus. We asked the bus driver and showed him a map of where we were going, but he insisted that his bus didn't really go there and asked (since we had luggage) if we were going to the airport. We figured this bus thing wasn't going to work out for us today. We hopped in a cab instead. The blue cabs here have taximeters, so that was a relief that we didn't have to negotiate a fare.
Rabat is a relatively new city and more the political and arts/culture capital above Casablanca, which is more commercial/financial. Most embassies are here vs. there. The medina here, erected in the 17th century, is relatively young. When the French arrived after WWI, the medina was really all that was here of the city. We're staying at a riad but it's not traditional since we're outside the medina here. We walked to the medina and all the way to the kasbah inside the medina. The medina here is relatively more open and straightforward due to its later construction than the medinas of Fes or Marrakech. That's because it was built so much later. It is also less touristed, so it felt a lot more calm and subdued than our experience in the the other two cities. The architecture here is very different as well, and feels much more Spanish Andalucian vs. what we had seen previously in the other cities. We walked around a bit checking out food stalls and wares for sale. We got photos of the Mohamed VI tower (named after the current king) and the concert hall designed by Zaha Hadid.
We headed to the Andalucian Gardens next, which are accessed by a gate in the wall of the kasbah from outside the kasbah. It is reminiscent of the gardens at the Alhambra but just a really small vignette. It's quite a peaceful space, though. We really wanted to see the Museum of Adornment, which is located inside the gardens. The museum is dedicated to clothing and jewelry representing the various cultures in Morocco. The displays were awesome. It's also incredible to think that most of the displays were of objects created in the last years of the 19th century or the first years of the 20th.... not that long ago.
For dinner, we followed the recommendation of our riad plus a friend of Eli's who has family here in Rabat and went to a restaurant recommended by both. It must have been an off night tonight as the were out of all the tajines that we wanted to try. And then to top it all off, the guy behind us started smoking. We did have a great soup and mezes, and the view overlooking the walls of the medina was great, too.
November 14, 2023
Today not much went right for us. We decided we wanted to go see the Chellah, which has a kasbah and old Roman ruins. We took a taxi to the gate, and right away a tout told us that it was closed but we could hire him for a tour and get a view above and inside. We weren't falling for that, so we went ahead a bit and there was a guard at the door who did say that it was closed and had been for about 4 years. Given that Google had hours posted and our Lonely Planet didn't say anything about it being closed, we wanted to verify this for ourselves; we walked around the site (it's walled all the way around) to see if there was another entrance somewhere. After doing that, we realized that it really was closed. We send an update to Google so the next unsuspecting tourist doesn't end up like we did. We did get additional good shots of the Mohammed VI tower, though and some stork nests in the trees nearby.
We thought our next stop would be the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was a starred sight in Lonely Planet. We looked it up before heading there and unfortunately it's closed on Tuesdays (we figured Mondays) so we were out of luck again. We decided instead to cab to the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, who was the king who worked to secure Moroccan independence from the French. We flagged a cab down and he already had a passenger. Taxi sharing here is a common thing. We told him where we were going he said to get in. We drove for a while and the taxi stopped.... in front of the contemporary museum. Apparently museum sounds a lot like mausoleum to someone who only speaks a little English, and the Museum of Contemporary Art is named after Mohammed V. We apologized and so did the cab driver, and then he took us to the mausoleum, which was not too far away.
As we were getting out of the cab, though, Stephen dropped his phone and it hit a cobblestone. When he went to pick it up, the glass was cracked and the screen was dancing and flashing. It's basically non-functional, so we'll have to try and get it repaired when we get home. The mausoleum, though, was beautiful with an ornate gilded ceiling.
Since we hadn't had much success today, we decided to cut our losses and return to our riad, but we figured we'd check out a couple of music stores that were on the way back to see if we could find a rbab, which we had wanted to get to add to our musical instrument collection. A rbab is played with a bow, and we particularly wanted this of all the folk instruments from here as it is used in traditional Jewish music from the area in addition to being used in other folk music traditions. We were able to find one and are excited to take it home with us!
November 15, 2023
Our train to Casablanca today was fairly uneventful, although it took us a while to find our seats. The order of the numbers of the seats in the train car (this one didn't have compartments) were not straightforward. Eli figured it out that they were in pairs of four with even numbers together and odd numbers together as it would have made sense if they were in groups of 4 facing each other except they all were facing the direction of travel.
As a city without much historic charm (contrary to what you might think based on the movie "Casablanca"), Lonely Planet warned that there wasn't much to see here. The biggest draw is the Hassan II Mosque, which is, according to the guides, the third largest mosque in the world behind the mosques in Mecca and Medina. We decided this would be our big sight for the day.
It's contemporary vs. historic, an was completed in 1989. It can hold 25,000 worshipers inside and 80,000 in the courtyard. The exterior was designed by a French architect and has a art deco feel on the exterior, although art deco borrowed heavily from Moroccan design to begin with, so who knows. The interior is a little more ornate with pained and carved wood ceilings, marble and mosaic, brass and copper worked doors, and carved plaster. The only non-Moroccan materials are the Murano glass chandeliers and some carrara marble around the mihrab. The ablution rooms were also really interesting as well. It looked like the mushroom forest from Disney's Alice in Wonderland.
Luckily we read the website before going. In order to view the mosque up close and to get in the interior, you have to go on a guided tour. Depending on the time of year, they run tours up to 3 times a day and the times vary around prayer times as it is still a working mosque. We got there about 1/2 hour before the tour we wanted to go on as we were worried about spaces selling out, but it appeared that they would take all comers and they had guides available in a bunch of European languages. We would have been really disappointed if we couldn't have gotten in since the mosque was shrouded in a heavy blanket of fog. It appears that this is an issue across the city at this time of year. There's also a small museum (about 20 minutes' worth) about Moroccan craft; the most interesting part being the displays of craftwork by students at the attached traditional crafts academy.
The mosque also has an attached hammam, so we decided we would book a scrub right after our tour as an anniversary present to each other. We had used the online interface the previous day to book, or so we thought. Apparently that interface doesn't actually work... it's a total phantom. Call instead. Luckily, the staff had time to do our scrub and suds anyway. These were the cheapest scrubs we've had so far. In total we spent about 40 bucks including gratuities for the BOTH of us. As far as ambience, the hammam in Granada and the one in Athens were the most visually interesting, but the hammam here was clean and well kept.
Getting back and forth to the mosque was a bit of a challenge. We decided we'd take a taxi, which should take 15 minutes. As we walked out of the hotel, we asked the staff if taxis here used a meter or if you had to negotiate and they said they had meters. Great! Except we approached 3 different cabs and none of them would run the meter for us. We're not sure if this is a tourist thing or if they're generally not used even for locals. We can imagine a situation where reimbursement rates on the meter haven't kept up with the reality of driving a cab in the city so no drivers are willing to use it and no one bothers to enforce it. Either way, we still had to negotiate. Eli minds it less than Stephen, but on the way from the hammam to dinner Eli negotiated the rate. When we arrived, Eli paid in cash and needed change, the driver refused to give the correct change for our negotiated rate. Ugh!
From dinner we decided to walk 20 minutes to the tram and take the tram back to our hotel. Stephen was thankful not to have to negotiate again, but Eli was disappointed it took a lot longer than a cab.
November 16, 2023
We took the day to relax and just went to dinner to celebrate our anniversary. We went to Le Cabestan, which is on the water and has been around since 1926. Eli had a great John Dory fish (aka St. Pierre fish) and Stephen had a pretty good lamb shank. All came with an incredible view of rocks and waves below.