We arrived in Tangier around four in the afternoon. The ferry from Spain took about two hours to make its way to the Moroccan port, as we spent the entire time sitting patiently, like two children eagerly waiting for their ice cream after dinner. We had memorized the map and had a slight idea of where we had to go. Little did we know then, that maps were pointless in the Moroccan medinas and would be more useful as a fanning device. So when we touched foot in Africa, and entered the gate of Tangier’s old medina, it is here we encountered first hand what it means to be haggled and lost in the small streets of Morocco. Have you ever gotten lost and asked for directions (the women who are reading this at least)? Well, make sure not to do so in Morocco, unless of course you want to be charged for that specific service. Trying to find your way around in a medina, is like being blindfolded and trying to hit a piñata. Except this piñata is filled with directions to your hotel, or as I will be using from now on, a riad- a Moroccan house with a garden or courtyard in the center that has been converted into a guesthouse.
After continuously getting lost we finally made it to the door of our riad. We are welcomed with hot Moroccan tea; tea with lots and lots of mint and sugar. So much sugar, that I definitely had sugar withdrawals after leaving Morocco. Having only one night in Tangier, we dump our things and head out to explore more of the old medina. The beauty of the medina when you don’t actually have to be somewhere, is to let the little streets take you for a ride. Follow your nose towards the bakery, kick a ball around with children in the streets, listen to the tea being poured in the small cafes, and watch the store owners haggle their way into tourists wallets. The sights, sounds and smells of the streets arouse your senses. The butcher with his fresh meat all displayed for passerby's to see. Women buying mint and vegetables, laughing and talking with the shop owners. The men gathered around the back of a van removing rice bags from the car, as a goat lies by their feet (this one is live, for now). The streets of Morocco are filled with short stories. One can sit at a cafe with a glass of overly sweetened Moroccan tea and stare out into the bustling old town.
As we made our way around we noticed a huge crowd of men running and chanting through the streets, carrying what seemed to be a . . . dead body. Yes, you read that correctly. We were the lucky bystanders of a funeral procession, where the body is wrapped in white cotton cloth and taken on a wooden gurney to its grave. After our shocking couple of minutes, we settle down for our first Moroccan dinner, and with that our first taste of tagine. A tagine is a pot with a funnel-like top made of clay that is used almost daily in Moroccan cuisine. A tagine dish could consist of lamb, kefta, chicken, or vegetarian, and it usually includes yummy fruits and nuts such as, dates, plums, almonds, and currants. After leaving with full bellies, we headed back to our riad to enjoy the sunset from our terrace followed by the last Islamic call to prayer of the day, recited from a minaret tower and amplified with speakers throughout the medina. There are five obligatory prayers in the Islamic faith, and each prayer sounds different depending on the muezzin who recites them. We found the prayer to be both beautiful and at times comforting, and each city or town we visited had its unique sound.
We awoke early in the morning, and not because the first call of prayer was blaring right outside our window at 5am, but in order to catch a bus from Tangier to Chefchaouen. We headed to the terrace where breakfast was waiting for us, prepared by the family owners of the riad. If there is one thing to note about Moroccan people, its that they are very hospitable. A spread of different Moroccan breads, cheeses, olives, fresh fruits, almond-argan oil, and homemade marmalades, alongside hot coffee and of course Moroccan tea, was all waiting for us. We enjoyed our breakfast and met our new Polish friend Lukaz who was also heading out to Chefchaouen on the same bus. We hitched a ride to the bus station all together and made our way to the Blue City.
Small side note, (you probably have realized I enjoy these tangents, but all joking aside) the bus and train system in Morocco is incredibly clean and effortless. And not to mention that everything leaves on time. So for any of you future travelers heading this way, take comfort in knowing that the easiest way to get around between cities is by bus or train.
Nestled in the Rif Mountains, lies the town of Chefchaouen, famously known for its blue-washed buildings and hashish (ok the latter is not important for the sake of our blog, but good to know in case you visit and are approached several times with ‘my friend hashish?’). Walking through its medina we felt as if we had escaped to Greece on an island in the Cyclades, except every building was blue instead of white. A small mountain village with cute little shops and artisans, along with great little restaurants/taverns to eat. One should know that it is very hard to find a good restaurant to eat. Not because there are too many bad choices, but because in Moroccan culture it is not usual for families to eat out, and therefore the majority of restaurants are catered towards tourists.
It is in Chefchaouen I decide to make my first purchase, and haggle my way to the best bargain. Note to readers, I am not good at bargaining, unless its thrift store shopping and then Im unstoppable. But bargaining in Morocco is quite different than your local vintage shop experience. I had my eye on a pair of harem pants, and after several rounds through the medina I found the shop I would make my purchase. We start off with some small talk, the shop owner brings me the harem pants in many different colors, I try them on, and then I ask for the price. Its something ridiculous. I wouldn't pay this much back home, so I offer him half of his asking offer. He thinks I'm ridiculous, he has a family to feed, I am his last customer of the day. I insist on half. He tells me the pants are made by the hands of widows. I increase my offer. Widowed women making these by hand? He got me on that one. We keep going back and forth until finally I am the owner of overpaid harem pants. I was so distraught by my pathetic bargaining skills that I had to purchase something soon, to make the Greek in me proud. Which I would, sooner or later.
For the next couple of days we strolled the much quieter streets of Chaouen, ate some delicious couscous, learned about the process of making woolen blankets, enjoyed drinking tea with Lukaz, hiked the outskirts of the village, and gathered at the waterfalls to watch the women of the town wash their clothes and lay them on the rocks to dry. In the evenings, after dinner we would walk down the street from our riad and purchase these deliciously sweet and tasty almond sweets. On one of these nights as we were heading back, we came face to face with an ostrich (oh you read it correctly). The bird was freely running down the narrow streets of the medina, while its owner loosely held on to a thin rope attached around its elongated neck. Marco and I, along with several other people jumped into peoples open homes, in order to avoid any contact with that creature. I did not want to be dealing with an ostrich chasing me, because we all know how that story would end.
All in all, Chefchaouen was a peaceful blue dream, but as all dreams must end, we caught a bus and headed for the big city of Fez, the second largest city in Morocco.
We had heard lots of stories of the old capital city and the Mecca of the West! The medina is one of the largest in the world, and once you enter through the old town's gate you can immediately feel that energy. If there is one thing that they warn you about Fez, is that you will most definitely get lost. The first day we spent going around the medina having absolutely no idea of where we started and where we were. The streets and walls of the medina are brown and bare, looking almost barren and sad. But it is believed in Moroccan culture that the outside of the house should be simple so as not to welcome the evil eye. The neutral walls that were at first a maze, started to show their differences between the cracks on the walls or doors, and we finally seemed to have an idea of where we were going inside this huge medina.
We had four days to take it all in, and we decided to hire a walking guide on the first day to help us get acclimated with the markets of Old Fez. Little did we know, we had fallen into the classic Moroccan tourist trap (I will explain more about this in a bit). The guide, although a very nice man, was terrible. He quickly walked by the different markets throwing out a few explanations, but mostly talking on his mobile phone. The markets of Fez are not meant to be rushed through. There again, was the butcher alongside his freshly made jars upon jars of Moroccan beef jerky. The live chicken in a coup ready to be sold to the next Moroccan mother making a stew. A row of stalls with endless heaps of dried dates, apricots, figs, and raisins. The man with fresh ostrich and hen eggs that would carefully select them for you. The mothers and children walking through the streets with fresh bags of bread for the local bakery. Each Moroccan family makes bread and somehow marks it with a unique symbol. Then takes the batches of fresh dough to the bakery to be baked and then sold.
Past the food market, were the stores filled with babouche slippers, belts, silk scarves, chandeliers, and of course rugs. Besides our quick paced walks we did get to enjoy visits to the Bou Inania Madrassa, the oldest university in the world Al Quaraouiyine, Zaouia Moulay Idriss II, and Dar al-Magana. We also enjoyed a tour of Fez's famous blue pottery factory. We got to see first hand how the potters threw the clay on the wheel, let the pieces dry in the sun, glazed them, hand painted designs on each, and glazed them again. We also saw the process and skill it takes to make mosaic pieces. Each tile is hand carved and all the pieces are then put together like a puzzle. Except this puzzle is upside down and the puzzle maker has to memorize each pieces' shape along with their color. It is then glazed, sealed, and only when flipped over can you see if there are any color mistakes within each mosaic. We were in awe at the detail that went in to making these intricate tables and mirrors. Definitely a one-of-a-kind art form.
So, remember how I had mentioned about the classic Moroccan tourist trap? Well it turns out, the reason we quickly walked through the streets of old town, was to be able to make it to the couple of stores where we would be haggled into purchasing products and our guide would make a percentage. This is a very common phenomenon and one should definitely be aware when booking a tour through any Moroccan medina. Little did our guide know, that we were way beyond the 'it looks beautiful, you cannot leave Morocco without it' and 'Fatima, come my sister feel this silk, its handmade'. Although we couldn't exactly leave that easily while the shop owner had wrapped our heads in silk scarves, or bracelets were thrown on my wrists. We did manage to get away with all our money in our wallets. Sorry, I guess no profit made on this tour for our guide.
Which brings me to our next tourist trap stop. A women's coop rug store. We enter this luxurious white marble riad, where rugs are hung all over the walls and piles and piles of them are stacked up against the corners of the house. They give us a history of the building and informed us that all the rugs we see are hand woven by women in this coop who were abused and escaped persecution or widowed. We climb to the second floor and a woman is sitting hand weaving a rug. She shows me how to do it, and I manage to get one thread across in the time she has gotten four. We laugh and I try again. We are then taken into a room where we are offered tea, which we kindly accept. It is then we realize that we are about to have a full on rug show, and that we would be pressured in to purchasing our very own Moroccan rug. Rugs of all colors and styles are rolled out in front of us like fresh fishes laid out in a market. The owner of the coop starts telling us stories about each rug. He asks us questions about us, we laugh, we drink tea, we see more rugs and narrow our selection down (meanwhile Marco and I have no intention of purchasing anything, but it is custom to go through this process). We are down to two rugs. He gives me a price that is as much as a down payment on a new car. We laugh. We drink more tea. I ask for more than sixty percent less just to see what he will say. He tells me about the women of the coop and their stories. He asks me to tell him a final price and it will all be over. How much would I give for a handmade rug (not really hand made, can't fool me!) the size of a desk? My final offer was $50. He politely declines and we walk out of there the same way we entered, empty handed and happy. Our guide not so much.
Our last stop on our guided tour was the Fez leather tanneries, one of the oldest in the world. The smell is the first thing that you notice as you start approaching the leather souq. At first it is unbearable, but the smell is worth braving, to be able to witness a process that has remained unchanged since the 11th century. From a balcony, overlooking down you can see numerous stone vessels filled with different colored dyes and liquids. Each dye is composed naturally according to its natural element. Yellow from turmeric, red from saffron, and green from mint. The hides are dyed, then laid out to dry on the roofs of the surrounding buildings. The tannery processes the hides of different animals turning them into quality leather to make bags, belts, and shoes. This is a process all done manually, and the men have to work under very harsh conditions, especially in the summer time. Next time you purchase a leather belt and its says 'made in Morocco' you have a bit of an idea of what it takes to make it
Four days in Fez can seem quite much for many tourists, but we absolutely fell in love with the city. We learned to walk the streets of the medina without getting lost, we enjoyed delicious street food, walked through the public gardens, met some really great people and hung out with our friend Lukaz again. We realized after our stay how this city could be called the Mecca of the West.
Leaving Fez behind, we jumped in our 4x4 Jeep with our amazing guide Hassan and started to make our way slowly down to the desert. We listened to Tinariwen, as he told us stories of his childhood as a Berber nomad in the Sahara. We began to see the change in the Moroccan landscape, as soon as we left Fez. From the bustling city we made our way over serene mountainsides and then through a sprawling oasis. After eight hours of driving we sensed the rays of the sun beating down on the car and started to see the earth change color. Red and orange began to seep through the earth. Novels and movies cannot prepare you for the beauty that lies in the desolate desert. We began to see small sand dunes of deep orange sneak up close to the narrow road, as camels roamed freely all around us. And then in the far distance we saw the mountain tips of sand and realized we have arrived.
We left the Jeep behind and climbed upon camels for the trek into the Sahara. The camels trekked up and down the massive dunes, as we held on tightly and stared out in awe. Not a sound to be heard except the hoofs of the camels coming down on the heated sand. After an hour of trekking we reached a Berber camp on the desert where we would stay the night. We climbed the massive dunes next to our camp and watched the sunset. The desert stretched for miles and miles, and we realized that we had barely scratched its surface. We spent the night playing Berber music under the stars with the men of the camp and some fellow travelers until the desert called us to sleep. In the morning we awoke early to catch the sunrise and headed back on our camels, and back to civilization.
We spent the next day visiting a Berber nomad woman named Mama and her son. She had currently set up her house, made of blankets, sheets, wooden sticks, and tarps, close to a small oasis (yes they exist and it is unbelievable that water flows within the driest part of the earth). In the winter she moves location depending on the weather, thus her house is portable. She invited us in to a sitting area and made us some Berber tea with many spices. She showed us how she made her bread and where she cooked her food, in a makeshift pit inside the earth. We ate some bread together and played with her son. As simple as they lived, Mama and her son were happy and content with their lifestyle, they are the true nomads of the world.
As we left the desert behind, we left a bit of our heart there too. We began making our way up towards Marrakech, passing through the high Atlas Mountains, the big Dades Gorge, and Ait-Ben-Haddou leaving behind Southern Morocco, along with the never-expanding Sahara.
After being in the desert for the last three days, Marrakech seemed like a hectic jungle with a mixture of tourists and hagglers, swinging from tree branches and getting in your way. We arrived in the afternoon and after dropping off our bags at our riad, we were excited to see what all the fuss was, about the Dja Jemma el Fna- the most famous square in Marrakech. What an incredible environment. Upon entering, you find a strand of fresh juice stands (mostly orange but usually they can mix together any fruit of the season) for just $1. In the center, food stalls after food stalls are aligned serving anything from vegetable tagine and kebabs to chickpea soup and Moroccan sausages, with the aromas of the grills penetrating your nose. Musicians slam their tambourines, little Moroccan boys dance, snakes come out of their woven baskets to the tunes of the flute, and people line up to take their picture with monkeys. I always thought that the best place to people watch is at an airport, but I was completely wrong. The best place is in fact, sitting on a balcony in Cafe Oscar, overlooking the Dja Jemma el Fna, enjoying a soda and listening, smelling and watching the commotion below. If you delve in deeper, past the square, you will find small streets of clothes, fabrics, leather goods, metallic lamps, argan oils, and spices (similar to Istanbul's Grand Bazaar).
We had the opportunity to experience the market first hand the following day upon arrival, the day of our cooking class with Gemma from Souk Cuisine. Definitely one of our favorite memories from Marrakech. After meeting up with Gemma, she handed us lists with ingredients and walked us around the medina, allowing us each to purchase our items. We got to taste the different olives before buying, smell the different spices, walk up to the bakery and purchase fresh bread, then bring the bread to a man across the street who spread a delicious parmesan cream cheese on it as we quickly devoured it while walking. We met with the local taverns that only served goat that had been cooked in an non conventional oven underground for the past 4 hours. We experienced the medina early in the morning with all the locals, before the tourists came swarming in to buy their silk scarves and babouche slippers. After our morning shopping was finished we headed to Gemma's riad and began our cooking lessons. We spent the next hour chopping and mixing ingredients, as the kitchen began emitting the beautiful smells of Moroccan cuisine, specifically all their spices. We made an array of dishes and had a great lunch enjoying our masterpieces. We left with a happy stomach, a recipe book, and big smiles on our faces.
Our last day in Marrakech was spent strolling the beautiful and quiet Majorelle Gardens. Talk about some garden goals. Different cacti from all over the world placed all together in the center of this garden. As a big fan of cactus (the only plant I don't manage to kill with my poor green thumb skills) I sat in amazement. What a serene place amongst the bustle of the city.
After taking in Marrakech's beauty, we were ready to leave the tourists behind. So we boarded another bus and started to make our way to the West coast.
Alas, we made it to the west coast of Morocco, a small town with a laid back surfer vibe. After being in Marrakech for the last three days we were happy to be in a small coastal village, surrounded by less tourists and more locals. Not that all the locals in Essouaira are Moroccan though. In fact, the amazing owners of our Riad Dar el Paco, came from Italy and now call Essouaira home, similar to many of the ex pats living and working here. A very windy town, famous for its kite surfing, Essouaira boasts some of the freshest and yummiest seafood. Little shacks line the seafront, where you can select your choice of seafood from their window, grab a seat and relax, while your selection is grilled on a hot fire, and then ready to be devoured. We lived at these little shacks, sadly only open during lunchtime. Besides eating, we explored the old medina and ventured outside its walls for the Sunday flea market.
The Sunday Flea market; a market that happens every Sunday and that contains anything imaginable. Besides your classic clothes, books, and kitchenware booths, you can find remote controls galore, cables of any choice, stacks of fishing rope, a section of fruits and vegetables, a section of furniture either found in the garbage or brand new, and a section of rugs. This is where we bought our gem. Our pride and joy for a great buy of $5. I am proud to say that we have mastered bargaining, and have this rug to prove it. We enjoyed the last couple of days relaxing and walking around the small medina of Essouaira. Our time was slowly coming to end in Morocco, as we boarded our last bus and train for Casablanca.
We arrive in Casablanca on the first day of Ramadan. We made sure to have a hearty breakfast before we left, and on the train we try to sneak sips from our water bottles. We had the evening to get a glimpse of Casablanca, one of the largest and busiest port cities in Africa, which also contains the largest mosque in Morocco- Hassan II Mosque. You can see the minaret from a distance as you drive towards this grand mosque situated right on the Atlantic Ocean. As we walked up to this grandiose masterpiece, as prayers radiated through speakers placed all over the ground floors of the massive courtyard. They were in preparation for tonight after the first day of fasting for Ramadan would soon be over. A man began to lay straw mats all over the floor were expected over 2,000 people would come worship for the night prayer. We sat on a bench and gazed up at the intricately designed mosque, and felt minute in its presence. The sound of the prayer echoed along as we watched the waves crash behind Hassan II tall structure.
For our last meal in Morocco, we decided to go to an Italian restaurant. Unfortunately, I am not joking. When you choose to dine out on the first day of Ramadan, your chances of eating at a place you wanted are, lets say, very slim to none. The waiters were prepping a large buffet style feast for the families that would pour in after sundown, and we walked in asking if they were open to the public. They happily seated us and served us, but it was definitely one of the most awkward moments of our trip since we were the only people in the restaurant eating. Glad to finish, we walked out to the main street to hail a taxi. The main street that was filled with Moroccans and full of traffic an hour earlier, was now apocalyptic and empty. Ok. Looks like we are walking to our hotel, which is about 50 minutes away. Luckily after a ten minute walk we manage to hail down an occupied taxi. The driver spoke not a hint of English but he let us hop in, and we managed with hand signs and various noises to get to our hotel.
Three and a half weeks had flown by and our hearts and mind had been awakened with all the many beautiful experiences Morocco had to offer us. A country that definitely has us yearning for more.
Illustration by: Guido Fusetti