We made a morning stop in Meknes, one of the four historical capital cities in Morocco, located in the north-central part of the country and founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids as a military settlement. Meknes became capital of Morocco under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl. He restored the city into an impressive Spanish-Moorish style, surrounded by high walls with massive entry gates, where the harmonious blending of the Islamic and European styles of the 17th century Maghreb are still evident today. Along with his architectural proficiencies he is rumored to have fathered more than 1000 children. He was a busy man.
We entered into the city through the magnificent Bab el-Khemis Gate and stopped to peruse the local souk where we saw everything from pottery, to snails to shoes, all artfully arranged. Everywhere in Morocco we admired the effort to showcase everything that was for sale from meat and produce, home décor and clothing sold to locals and tourists alike. The markets were filled with the buzz of energy among the bargain-hunters as well as the local housewives doing their weekly shopping. We met many Europeans, especially French and Germans, who find Morocco a wonderful place to vacation as it is a short fight from the EU and costs are low. We did not meet many Americans other than occasionally crossing paths with another OAT group.
After a delicious lunch in a festive restaurant overlooking the main square we journeyed to nearby Volubilis, which is a partly excavated archaeological site located between Fez and Rabat. It was developed during the 3rd century BC as a Phoenician settlement and then grew rapidly under Roman rule in the 1st century CE. The city expanded to include a number of major public buildings in the 2nd century, including a basilica, temple and triumphal arch. As I walked down the wildflower-lined streets I was taken back in time and could imagine a thriving city just like one we might live in today. The footprints of many homes peeked through the rocky ruins with beautiful mosaic floors in surprisingly good condition. Volubilis is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed as being “an exceptionally well-preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire.”
Toward the end of a busy day visiting many wonderful sites in Morocco we were ready to settle into our home for the next few days; Riad El Bali. Two previously private homes had been conjoined and refurbished as a guest house with just enough rooms for our small group. We entered the courtyard of the riad to the sound of a water fountain, the smell of fresh flowers and the chirping of birds; an oasis and our home for the next two nights. Surrounding the courtyard were small rooms for meals or lounging, just like you see in the movies. My room was at the top on the fourth floor but I didn’t mind as I was next to the rooftop garden that had a view of the entire city of Fez.
That evening we had an opportunity to help the kitchen staff prepare a variety of small-plate appetizers to whet our appetites. Everything was prepared on site with fresh ingredients from the local markets. The main dish for dinner was a chicken bastila, which is a pie featuring crisp layers of thin phyllo dough, savory meat slow-cooked in broth and spices and then shredded, and a crunchy layer of toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. It was delicious! But it takes at least two days to prepare, so it is off my personal menu.
After a great night’s sleep we were treated to a delicious breakfast at tables staged on a balcony draped with curtains that overlooked the courtyard. Our local guide, Mohammed, was waiting to take us through the historical city of Fez. He took us to the medina, which is listed as a World Heritage Site and believed to be one of the world’s largest urban pedestrian zones (car-free areas.) It was huge! We visited the Jewish quarter — or Mellah — and visited an old temple. We viewed a circumcision chair, which was a little creepy. At one time there were numerous Jews in Morocco, the result of the Spanish Inquisition, but after WWII many moved to Israel, leaving only a small contingent of resident Jews.
While wandering through the souk with Mohammed, we were filled with sights and sounds and smells familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. We stopped at a cooperative bakery where locals without ovens in their homes bring bread dough for baking several times each week. We went to a huge ceramic factory where Fez clay, sans lead, is touted as some of the best in country. We saw the artisans working at each stage of the process and then we able to fill our need to purchase items to bring home.
Mohammed proudly mentioned that Fez is the home of the University of al-Quaraouiyine, established in 859 CE, and considered to be the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. This was just another example of an unexpected bit of information to store in our diaries. After lunch in a local restaurant we visited the Chauara Tannery, which was established in the 11th century. Camel, goat, sheep and cow (In descending order of quality) are primarily the animals from which jackets, purses and shoes are made. I purchased an absolutely gorgeous red goat-skin jacket that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Dinner this evening was a home-hosted event that is keenly looked forward to as we get the opportunity to have a conversation with a local family. Five of us met Amina in her home and learned more about her daily life. We are always on our own to get the unfiltered opinion of every day folks. This was our last night in Fez and tomorrow we leave for the Atlas Mountains on our route to the Sahara desert. I took one last look at the city lights from the rooftop patio where I contemplated what I had seen during our time in Fez before heading to bed.
Today brought us another adaptation of Moroccan culture, vastly different than what we had previously seen. We traveled ever upward from Fez on a winding mountain road bordered by pine and cedar trees as we headed for the resort town of Ifrane. This small town was originally established in the 16th century, but it was the French who popularized it in the 1920’s as a respite for Europeans from the Moroccan summer heat. Houses with peaked-roofs abound and look just as you would imagine them in the Alps. We stopped at a local coffee bar where skis for rent were available during winter time. Quite a change from the cities and towns we had visited earlier.
I had read about a variety of monkeys called Barbery Macaques which are indigenous to only the Atlas Mountains and southern Spain but I had not expected to see any. Amazingly we spotted one on the side of the road who had apparently had other positive interactions with travelers and willingly posed for photos! Fantastic!!!
Our last foray before leaving the mountains was an unscheduled stop at a sheep herder’s camp where the husband encouraged us to come meet his family, including his wife and two small children, and the opportunity to take a look at their tent homes. We were very eager to see how they lived in an area that gets as much as five feet of snow each winter. There was a large main tent with the main living quarters and a kitchen. It was heated with a wood stove, but they also had television fed by satellite! The down side was that they have to drive six miles several times a week to fill up 5 gallon cans with water. There was a separate tent for sleeping. Both tents seemed cozy and livable, just not something I would like to do for a long period of time.
We rolled on toward our next big adventure…the Sahara Desert. As we left the High Atlas Mountains we were able to observe the movement of tectonics plates along the Ziz River. The rising and falling patterns of the formations were definitely photo worthy. This area was dotted with farms where dates are the prevalent crop. Since we are never far from our next meal, we stopped in Midelt for lunch under a gazebo covered with vines and flowers, and enjoyed a meal that consisted of fresh trout, along with the usual myriad side dishes.
Before we reached our hotel we stopped to purchase headscarves to wear when trekking or riding camels through the desert. The shop keeper was gracious and showed us how to wrap the scarves for maximum coverage. It took a few tries to attempt to master the art. We also visited several small towns and had our first ice cream bars. We were greeted at the Chergui Hotel by a small band of musicians and a gentleman serving tea in the Moroccan fashion which is filling the glasses from a tea pot several feet above the table. We have seen this often and have even tried it ourselves. It will take a lot more practices to be successful. This hotel is a favored dropping off point for desert travelers before they journey into the Sahara.
The Chergui (meaning desert wind) has lovely and spacious rooms and a beautiful infinity edged pool. Two of us were determined to take a swim but the water was COLD; in and out quickly. The next thing we knew there was a camel wandering in the patio and drinking from the pool; only in Morocco. I had a bit of trouble sleeping as I was very excited about our Sahara visit the next day.
Part 3 of this post will bring us full circle back to Casablanca, with so many interesting adventures in between. You will hear about our Sahara experience, the huge souk in Marrakesh and finally a few days in Essaouira on the Atlanta coast. There is much more to hear about in the land of One Thousand Nights.
“You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world.” William Hazlitt