Experiencing Morocco

This post covers 2 days, several hundred miles, and a cornucopia of culture.

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.....
...which was guarded by representatives of 5 different organizations (military, gendarmes, etc.). We were allowed no closer than 50 yards. Flying above the gate was the national flag: a green 5-pointed star on a red field. The red symbolizes the topography...there is a lot of red soil throughout the country. The green of the star has religious symbolism, but with a twist. It used to be a 6-pointed star, but when Israel gained independence they decided to change to five points "to avoid confusion". And the five points makes more sense as it can be tied to the 5 Pillars of Islam. 

We then stopped for lunch at a lovely French inn, Villa Mandarine (so named for the many orange trees which line the streets). The guide said it would be a "light meal", but it was typical tour-group overload, with four courses of delicious food including the "Butcher Mixed Grill" plate that Wayne had:
C'est trop!!

Next we drove to the Hassan II Mausoleum (as we've seen many times, these monarchs sure like to build things in their own honor / memory!). He built it to house his own body and that of his father, Mohammad V. His grandfather and uncle are also interred there.

Facing the mausoleum is a courtyard with the remains of Roman columns which were moved here from Volubilis (we will go there on Wednesday); they are here just for decorative purposes, though the space serves as an outdoor mosque. Just beyond that are what's left of the 12th Century city wall and it's accompanying minaret; a large rectangular building. Unfortunately, as with many such ancient structures, it is undergoing restoration and is completely covered in scaffolding. Oh well...use your imagination:

Finally we went to the Kasbah of the Udayas. Kasbah means "fortress or citadel" (perhaps a cognate of "castle"?). This one is on the banks of the Bouregreg River (which was the lifeblood of the city) and was built in the 12th century. Basically, it was a fortified city surrounded by walls. Inside there were (and still are) beautiful gardens. Even today, about 240 families live there. It reminded us somewhat of the favelas in Rio with its narrow alleyways, but is much cleaner and in better repair. The walls on the inside are painted white and blue and many of the doors are also decorated.

Then it was time for our 2 hour drive to Fes. Along the way our guide told us many things about the culture of Morocco. One that stuck with us is that it is customary (in Islam) to name the first-born son Mohammad (or some variation) and the first daughter Fatima. Our first thought was that this must be hard on the teachers when all these kids with the same name go to school! 

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 riadFrom 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.


Note the tile floor, the rugs, the ornate ceiling, and the sculpted walls. And the hotel is on a hilltop overlooking the entire city and the mountains beyond.
We had just enough time to freshen up and then...another meal! Hisham had told us that we'd have excellent Moroccan food in Fes. Wow, was he right. Any concerns we'd had about tagine or Moroccan food altogether (from our fly-  and smen-filled cooking class) evaporated as soon as the first dish was brought to the table. Plus, we were joined by Fatima Rhorchi, a professor of linguistics and women's studies at the university in Meknes, who clued us in on the role of women in Moroccan society and of all the advances that have been made in that regard since Mohammed VI ascended to the throne in 1999. But more on Fatima's perspectives in a bit. The food first!
We were served a 5 course feast-- and keep in mind, this is not Ramadan and we were not fasting all day. The first course was more of that wonderful bread with a vegetable soup (harira, often served to break the Ramadan fast) with honey cookies (chabakiya) and dates. The soup was tasty, but the little cookies were delectable.
Next, the first of two tagines, beef with caramelized and fried eggplant.

The beef was very tender and delicious and the eggplants were sweet. Really yummy and enough for an entire meal.
But, no-- next came the chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives and this one was beautiful and very delicious as well.

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
5:39 am
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 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!

Then we went to a tannery. This was a new experience for us. We were shown (from the rooftop of the building) how the worker take the hides, wash the skin off, soak them in lime vats for several days, dry them, then dye them.

They do all this for about $1.50 a day, and because of the physical work and the chemicals, their life expectancy is 50 years.
Then we went inside the shop to see the purses, slippers, jackets, etc. that they had for sale. We were told they use 4 kinds of leather: from cows - the worst quality (who knew!?!) mostly for shoes and things like saddles; then sheep - very oily and slick; then camel - very high quality; then goat (especially kid), which is the smoothest and softest.
After a quick look around, one of us bought a beautiful jacket and a purse.
Then, time for lunch (it was actually 2:00!). We walked to a small inn / restaurant, again in a very old riad. We were served Moroccan salads, what we would call tapas (or the mezzes that we had in Turkey). There were several kinds of peppers, beets, two kinds of eggplant salad, tomatoes and cucumbers, French lentil salad, Moroccan carrot salad, marinated cauliflower....we think that's all! Needed a wide-angle lens to get it all in!

Next they brought out a tagine with spicy beef meatballs and poached eggs (kefta), and a vegetable tagine:

Dessert was a plate of orange slices with cinnamon and mint leaves.

It was a lot of food, but because it was mostly vegetables, it was not overly filling.
Then we went to a small synagogue, Aben Danan, which dates from the 17th century. The Torah is actually written on gazelle skin!

Our final stop was to a pottery factory, where we got to see how they actually make the ceramic tagines! Also, how they meticulously hand-chip the glazed tiles to make the wonderful mosaics that are all over the country.

Got back to the hotel after 5 and decided to skip dinner tonight. Too much today to digest!!!

Tomorrow, it's on to Meknes and the Roman ruins of Volubilis, both UNESCO Heritage Sites.

w & w 

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