My daughter and I wanted to do a tour before she went away for next phase of her studies. The decision to go to Morocco was somewhat random and we were pleasantly surprised. We took conducted tour by Gate 1. Our tour started in Rabat, capital city of Morocco. Morocco is in North Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Originally inhabited by the Berbers, Berber is still spoken in Morocco, and it has Berber influence, along with Arabian and European cultural influences.
In Rabat, we visited the area where Royal Palace is located. Morocco has constitutional monarch with young king holding large powers. He married an engineer who was also a commoner and he is believed to be very progressive, passing several decrees that would benefit women. We also strolled among ruins of Chellah, one of the most ancient human settlements.
En route to Fez, we visited the ancient ruins at Volubilis and I was surprised to find them very similar to other ruins I have visited. Well, guess what — they were from Roman empire. Roman empire had expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world, had at one point covered about 20% of the world’s population and covered 2.5 million square miles. Volubilis has nicely preserved mosaics, Roman road and city layout and it is always fun to see Roman baths and even more fun to see Roman toilets where men sat in rows and talked while doing their job. The evening dinner at the home of a local family was one of the earliest highlights of this trip. They served wonderful 8 course meal beginning with sweets and followed by salad, breads, couscous, vegetarian pastilla (yummy), vegetarian tagine (traditional Moroccon dish cooked in special earthenware pots), followed by fruits, and more desserts (delicious) served with mint tea.
In Fez, we visited the crowded medina (narrow walled city, with maze like streets), with beautiful Medersa, Moulay Idreiss mausoleum, fountains, and Fez’s famous tanneries. Fez Medina is UNESCO world heritage site. We wandered through the souk (market) watching traditional craftsmen, visited authentic Moroccan carpet store, visited exterior of gorgeous Royal Palace gate, walked through the Jewish quarter and all the while stopping to shop for knickknacks, while also trying to stay with the group. According to our guide, if we got lost in the Medina, it would be hard to find our way back and we would have to locate a Moroccan spouse. I memorized some key words, should that happen, “Habibi oheb buka”.
From Fez, en route to Arfoud, we travelled middle Atlas Mountains and lush Ziz valley. We visited the fossil factory (fossils are big business here), a lively souk and one more opportunity to shop and negotiate and shop some more, and visited the 18th century ksar (castle). Then we traveled to Rissani (small city, on the edge of the Sahara). This was one of the most memorable experiences. We had a delicious meal, in a small oasis, in the middle of the desert. We relaxes in the shade for some time. Then we traveled more interior and finally rode the camels to watch the sunset. Until the sunset, we played in the sand dunes, carpet rode the hills (our guide pulled us down the steep hills on carpets, but climbing them back up took every ounce of our energy). We enjoyed absolutely incredible vistas with sky above in various hues and glistening red sand below (full of iron and no salt).
En route to Ouarzazate (a city with a funny name), we visited truly magnificent Todgha canyons, which rose to steep 800 feet. We also passed lush Todgha and Dades valleys. We passed Meggouna valley of roses. It is filled with roses, and rose water, oils and creams from here are exported all over the world. We walked in a Berber village, constructed in 12th century and still inhabited by Berbers. Some of us hiked up to Ksar of Ait Benhaddou (enjoyed incredible vistas where many films have been shot), before proceeding through Tichka Pass (highest road point on Atlas Mountain chain) to the bustling city of Marrakesh.
In Marrakesh, we visited Saadian tombs, dating back to the 16th century, the Koutoubia Minaret (law forbids any buildings to be taller than the Minaret) and the beautiful Bahia Palace. But Marrakesh’s main attraction was the Square and continued to be for the next three days. The busy square was populated with Henna artists, snake and monkey charmers (saw this monkey grooming the owner for almost 30 minutes), all sorts of knick knacks, street food and the square branches off in various directions into the crowded busy markets, another towards a road full of restaurants, and yet another road leading to horse carriages for carriage rides.
En route to the beach and fishing town of Essaouira, we stopped at some Argan trees full of goats. Small round fruit of Argan trees have thick peel that the goats love. They used to freely roam and climb these trees and eat the peel and spit out the nuts. People gathered these spitted nuts and ground them for culinary and skin care use. But now Argan oil has become world famous, highly expensive, and a huge business here. So a few Government sanctioned trees where goats are allowed to climb, serve mainly as tourist attractions. Oh what a site. For some reason, goats are my favorite animals. I love mountain climbing goats, grassy plains goats and I just adored these Argan tree climbing goats. Another truly memorable experience.
We visited argan oil factory, run by a women’s cooperative. Besides learning about argan trees and sampling some products, it was also a beautiful opportunity to learn about the democratic way this cooperative runs, where many women find friendships and support. In Essaouira, we walked the streets and while some enjoyed fresh fish cooked to perfection, Neesha and I stumbled into a small cafe serving vegetarian burgers. It was a wonderful meal, with the most delicious juice ever. It was date, almond, avocado, and orange juice freshly made with just the right blend of the ingredients.
Finally, at Casablanca (Morocco’s largest city), we visited the incredible Hassan II Mosque. With 60 stories high Minaret, it is 13th largest mosque, topped by a laser light directed towards Mecca. Part of it sits on the Atlantic ocean, with sea bed being visible through the glass floor (which we did not see), and has a retractable roof. Inside its marble walls, 25,000 can gather for prayers and another 80,000 can pray on the mosque’s outside grounds. It is packed with worshippers during Ramadan. We also visited Notre Dame De Lourdes Catholic Church surrounded by beautiful stain glass. We passed by the Rick’s Cafe, started recently by an enterprising American but were disappointed to learn that “Casablanca” was not shot in Casablanca.
What a beautiful trip. Morocco seems to enjoy a peaceful blend of cultures and its diverse terrain with high mountains, rugged coastline, winding alleys of the souks at Medinas, and sweeping desert, offered a range of experiences. Walking past the cafes was a bit of the strange experience. I called it, walking past viewing galleries. Moroccan men sit outside the cafes, sipping mint tea and people watching (most likely, women watching). Two men will not sit face to face but sit watching out, side by side, next to each other, often touching and enjoying a level of intimacy, not found among men in the US. Also very often women walked together linking their arms. Moroccan women don’t wear a veil but they may wear beautiful scarves and are mostly well covered. Both men and women wear lovely long flowing robes that are very comfortable, called the Djellabas.