After being on travel hiatus for many months, the Magic Carpet and I were ready to take wing on an adventure to Morocco.
I had little inkling of what to expect from this exotic foreign country and my curiosity was piqued. What I was prepared to see and what I actually experienced were two different things. Morocco simmers like a delicious meal in a tagine (to be explained later) because of many diverse cultures with a complex history partially due to its location at the juncture of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. There is evidence of Paleolithic people going back to at least 90,000 BC in addition to the African influences, in particular the Berbers. There are footprints of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs along with many others in this multi-faceted country.
What struck me most when we first arrived in Casablanca, and our drive toward the north coast, was how much Morocco looks so much like California. Without the road signs, you might think that you hadn’t really left home. There were mountains, rivers, waterfalls and thousands of acres of tilled fields growing every kind of crop imaginable. Each little town had its farmers market laden with every kind of fruit and vegetable that I was familiar with, plus a few that I had never seen before. There were meat shops where carefully butchered cow, sheep and goat parts were on display. One shop even had a camel’s head hanging out front to indicate that particular delicacy was available. Tubs of ice were bursting with fresh seafood. Later when we drove through the Atlas Mountains, which reach 14,000 feet in height (think Mt. Shasta), we saw chalet-style homes with peaked roofs to shed the winter snowfall … in Morocco, of all places. Who knew? There were seaside resorts that looked very similar to ours with outdoor bars and restaurants, and baskets filled with flowers. And conversely, there was the seemingly endless Sahara Desert in the south. Morocco satiated my senses every time I turned around.
We spent our first few days in Casablanca, a typical, bustling, large city presenting stark contrasts between old traditions and modern life. The atmosphere reflected an aura of prosperity and entrepreneurship. The most prominent feature in the city was the Hasan II Mosque, portions of which were constructed over the adjacent Atlantic Ocean! It is one of the largest mosques in the world, covering more than 22 acres, seating 25,000 people inside, and 80,000 people outside for prayers. The minaret is 689 feet tall, topped by a laser light aimed toward Mecca. The construction details were what took my breath away as every square inch of the building was covered with zellige tiles, hand-carved plaster, Venetian glass and beautiful Moroccan cedar wood. There was a huge portion of the ceiling that electronically slid open to let in light and the ocean air when the weather allowed. This mammoth mosque was built in less than seven years and finished in 1993, and employed more than 1,400 workers during the day and another 1,100 throughout the night.
It was while we were on the road from Rabat we experienced our first multi-layered taste of tagine (or tajine), a Maghrebi dish named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. The earliest writings about the concept of cooking in a tagine appear in the famous One Thousand and One Nights, an Arabic story collection from the ninth century.
After a brief stop at a roadside vegetable stand, we continued to Chefchaouen, also known as the Blue City, located in the northern Rif Mountains. It was founded in 1471 as a small fortress to fight the Portuguese invasion of northern Morocco. Many Jews settled here after the Spanish Inquisition drove them out of Spain, although over the past few centuries, most have returned to Spain or emigrated to Israel. Our home for three days was the lovely Casa Hassan Guesthouse in the heart of the medina*. This was our home base for excursions to Tetouan, a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Cultural Heritage Site owing to its diversity, architecture and artisanal community and the following day a trip to the infamous city of Tangier on the Mediterranean coast.
*This might be a good place to provide a simple differentiation between a medina, souk and Kasbah. A medina refers to a city, often surrounded by walls; a souk is the open-air market within the medina; and a Kasbah is the political center that includes the police or army.
Our first full day in the north included an early morning walk through Chefchaouen’s steep, cobblestone streets to get a closer look at the beautiful blue facades. We observed children walking to school, shopkeepers sweeping walkways to prepare for impending customers, and we watched some women washing huge carpets in the nearby river. I took the opportunity to look, listen and absorb the sights, sounds and smells of a world so different than mine. Then we were off to visit to a local farm where we walked through their fields to look at the various crops and pick some vegetables to be included in our lunch. We joined the family in the kitchen for a demonstration of how they prepared couscous (Maghrebi dish of small steamed balls of crushed durum wheat semolina usually served with a stew spooned on top) and helped ready the mid-day meal. Dessert was a decadent flan with fresh strawberries. Yummy.
Evening included a discussion with a young Moroccan woman named Fatima who spoke about women’s rights (or the lack thereof) particularly in the rural areas. Cooperatives are on the rise, which help women in the countryside become more self-sufficient. Morocco has a new Family Code that is supported by the King and Parliament of Morocco to better protect women and children in a still patriarchal society. It was an informative discussion helping us to better understand the customs of the country, particularly the different mores in rural and suburban areas.
A couple of hours north of Chefchaouen lay the city of Tetouan. The Berber name means literally “the eyes” and figuratively “the water springs.” Tetouan is one of the two major Moroccan ports on the Mediterranean Sea a few miles south of the Strait of Gibraltar and southeast of Tangier. The use of Spanish and French is still widespread especially by the businessmen and intellectual elites due to past colonial ties and geographic location to Europe. The majority religion is Islam; small Christian and Jewish communities also exist. The traditional industries of tilework, inlayed silver wire jewelry and leather goods co-exist with goods imported from the Far East.
Each trip I have taken has provided “special memories” and one of these occurred in Tetouan where I got lost in the souk. I took a wrong turn at the fruit stand while taking a photo and suddenly everyone else had disappeared. While our guide and local police were searching for me, a good samaritan rescued me for which he received 100 dirham with heartfelt thanks. But the best part of being lost was getting a photograph with the local police, highly unusual in a Muslim country…no photos of faces! They were laughing and enjoying my chagrin.
The morning ended with a short drive to the Mediterranean coast where we enjoyed a memorable seafood lunch right on the water’s edge. A variety of locally caught fish was served on huge platters. We returned to Chefchaouen through a mountain pass where we saw beautiful rivers and waterfalls, again a reminder of California. The evening ended with a fava bean soup in a tiny family-run cafe, then a walk in the medina, making for a magical night. We wandered amongst the locals and took note of the varied fare that the shops had to offer.
Breakfast was served each morning in the dining room of our guesthouse, including several different kinds of homemade bread, warm from the oven, eggs, cheese, fresh-squeezed orange juice and fruit along with hot coffee or tea. What a lovely way to start the day. We then hopped onto our small mini-bus for the trip to Tangier, a city where many civilizations and cultures have impacted its history starting in the fifth century BC. Between the period of being a strategic Berber town, then a Phoenician trading center to the independence era around the 1950s, Tangier was a nexus for many cultures. Writers, painters and musicians were drawn to this eclectic and diverse city. Currently there is a construction boom to expand the harbor to allow room for more ships, enhancing commerce and tourism. Its location at the mouth of the Mediterranean makes it a prime spot for trade.
Prior to and during World War II, Tangier acquired the reputation of being a spying and smuggling center that attracted foreign capital due to political neutrality and commercial liberty. In 1943, the Bank of England obtained samples of high-quality forged British currency produced by the Nazis in “Operation Bernhard.” As we all know, the city has also been the subject for many spy fiction books and films.
Our adventures in the north ended here and we turned south and traveled along the Atlantic coast back to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Five travelers joined us here to bring our group to 16 in all. Dinner was served on a small boat in the harbor with the requisite fish dinner and red wine for me. As you can tell, I am not much of a traditionalist! It was a festive evening.
Rabat is the business and political center of Morocco as well as the home of the primary Royal Palace of the King. He has, however, numerous other palaces spread throughout the country, none of which were open to the public. We viewed the impressive Gate of the Winds, named because it is constantly being battered by coastal winds and was constructed in 1197. It is the most majestic and well preserved of all the five original main gates to the city. We also enjoyed the extensive gardens surrounding the palace.
Just outside the metropolitan area of Rabat lies Chellah, originally named Sala, which is a medieval Muslim necropolis (burial site). The ruins of the fortress still exist including a tall minaret of the now-ruined mosque built of stone and covered with zellige tiles (mosaic tilework made from individually chiseled geometric tiles set into a plaster base). This work is incredibly time consuming and is still being taught to young artisans to preserve the skill. Proximity to the ocean resulted in the ubiquitous pelicans nesting on the top of this minaret as well many building cornices and even cell towers. It was quite a sight to see huge beaks peaking over their nests from on high.
We visited Hassan Tower, which is the minaret of an incomplete mosque near Rabat. Both the mosque and its minaret were begun in 1195 and were intended to be the largest in the world. In 1199, Sultan Yacub al-Mansour died and construction on the mosque stopped. The tower reached approximately 140 feet, about half of its intended 260 feet in height. The rest of the mosque was also left incomplete, with only the beginnings of several walls and 200 columns being constructed. Instead of stairs, the tower is ascended by ramps, which would have allowed the muezzin (man who calls Muslims to prayer) to ride a horse to the top of the mosque’s minaret to issue the call to prayer.
We were more than a week into the trip and yet we found ourselves just leaving Rabat and the Atlantic coast to travel eastward toward Fez in another part of the Rif Mountains. However, before we reached Fez, we came upon two more fascinating places to explore, Meknes and Volubilis, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
There was so much to see and do in Morocco. Each day was filled with “learning and discovery,” and meeting locals to learn firsthand what Morocco was really all about. Stay tuned to read the next installment of my Moroccan Odyssey. It’s not to be missed!
“People don’t take trips—trips take people.”