Sunday, Dec 20, 2015
Today was the actual start of the group tour!
And it was a very strange itinerary: The three largest cities in Morocco are Casablanca (3+ million people), Rabat (close to 2 million and also the capital), and Fes (1.1 million; yes, it is Fes, not Fez, and, no, the people there are not known as "Fesants"). But we only spent 2 hours in each of the first two before driving 3 hours to the third!
Driving from the hotel in Casablanca, we passed several shantytowns of newly arrived Syrian immigrants...but all featured satellite dishes. Our stop, apparently the only site worth seeing in town, is the Mosque of Hassan II, and it is indeed quite impressive. Depending on who tells you, it is the third, fourth, or seventh largest mosque in the world. But it does have the world's tallest minaret, at 60 stories high! It also has a retractable roof to let in more light and also cool the building in the summer (when Ramadan occurs) as there is no air conditioning. Our guide told us that they only open it 50 times a year, and magically it started opening just as we walked in. Fact or tour-guide-fiction? Who knows.
It can hold 25,000 worshippers, with an additional 60 - 80,000 on the plaza outside. Which gave us pause when we stopped at the W.C. on the way out and there were only 4 stalls each for men and women. Those must be some looooong lines!
For those of you who have been paying attention, you will recall that Hassan II was the father of the current king. So, despite its classical styling, it is really only 22 years old! It was built from 1987 - 1993 by 10,000 workers who worked in shifts 24/7. Obviously, this is the largest of the 1,200 mosques in the city.
Then it was on to Rabat. There is a security checkpoint at the entrance to every big city in the country, although it seemed cursory at best, as all vehicles were just waved through. Our guide mentioned that these are staffed by gendarmes; security is their main focus. He also said that they, the military, and the police are the only people who can carry guns. Private citizens may have a rifle for hunting only, but there are stringent requirements including being fingerprinted. If only we had that at home......
Rabat gives a much better impression than Casablanca. The buildings have a more modern and well-kept look. No garbage in the streets. Many more parks and trees. Is this because it is the capital (political) center or is it because it is also the home to the Imperial Royal City, a compound where the royal family lives? Hard to say. But even here, there were only three things we stopped to see in the 2 hours we were there.
The first was the gate to the compound.....
We got to Fes around 6 pm, so it was dark outside, but the streets were still alive with people. We came in on a long boulevard (guess what its name is? Hassan II Boulevard!), that had a wide tree- and grass-lined median where many people were strolling and sitting on the benches. We drove past many boulangeries and patisseries and glaciers all filled with customers. There were many other brightly lit stores, too.
At last we got to our hotel, the Palais Faraj. This is truly an absolutely stunning place! It is a luxuriously repurposed riad. From our travels, sometimes the repurposed authentic properties don't work so well (ex: our hotel in Capadoccia which was charming but not comfortable). This property is awesome and highly recommended. We were greeted with mint tea and a platter full of those exceptional Moroccan cookies (cue up the sesame almond crescents!) and were escorted to our beautiful room where another platter of cookies and a plate of oranges awaited us.
At this point, we were beyond sated but out came the next course-- a deconstructed peach Melba-- Moroccan style (pastille).
To the best I could tell, this was built on a base of fried phyllo, with the next layer being a scoop of vanilla ice cream with peach preserves, then the final layer more fried phyllo dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Hard to serve, wonderful to eat-- though Wayne wisely took a pass.
Finally, another platter of the rapidly becoming ubiquitous cookies, this time including macarons.
We lumbered away from the table-- off to sweet dreams of tagines and cookies.
Before we close off Sunday, though, some of the salient points from chatting with Fatima. The current King is the first king in his line who is not a polygamist. His wife, a princess, is the first who is not from a royal line. There have been a number of other advances for women under his realm to date. Women are now allowed to divorce their husbands, and marriages need no longer be arranged. Fatima shared that most of the women currently wearing head scarves in Morocco are doing so to make a fashion statement (highly unscientific, but she noted that there are many short skirts worn with head scarves come summer time). She told us that these changes, though quite "radical", were done via the joint effort of the King and the ruling majority in the Parliament. And all without any violent, or even significant, push-back.
Monday, Dec 21
We are awakened by the first call to prayer of the day. There is a minaret very close to the hotel and the speakers were quite loud. Additionally the effect was magnified because we could hear others being sung across the valley of the city. We noticed that the call to prayer sounded different here than in Turkey. Hisham agreed that the Moroccan calls are more atonal than calls heard in other countries.
Our first stop on this mega-cultural day was the old medina / old Fes, the cultural heart of Morocco, and specifically the souk inside. This medina dates from the 8th century and has over 9,000 alleys, and one could easily get lost and never be heard from again. The alleys are very narrow, with very few windows (as the windows of the houses all face inwards toward a courtyard). In fact, the only way things (goods, garbage, etc.) move around in here is by hand-pulled cart, or by donkeys! We saw many of them carrying heavy loads, and had to learn a new Arabic word: "Ballak". This means watch out, and we said it many times as a donkey quickly came upon us (from either direction) or we looked down and saw what the donkeys had left behind.
The souk is the market area, what most of you think of when you hear the word "bazaar". The people who live in here can get anything they want, from meat of all kinds, to vegetables, to clothes, brass lamps, and even Galaxy S5 phones! The sights and sounds (very crowded!) and smells (god only knows what we breathed in) were almost too much to behold. All told, we took over 100 pictures during our walk. We include a few here to give you a sense of it; later we will create a slideshow of the rest and publish that in a post after we get home. And yes...that is a camel head between us...in front of the camel meat butcher shop!
Next, we went to the obligatory carpet shop dog-and-pony show with the hot tea, the theatric unrolling of a dozen or more rugs, and the explanation of how they're made. There were many interesting rugs, both in the Berber style and in the Arabian style. Some of our group made purchases, of course. And this was all done in a magnificent house dating from the 14th century!