Left the kids behind. Left the husband behind. Left the dog behind. And hopped on a plane with my mother to discover the wonders of Morocco. A two-week adventure. A dream come true.
I plan to write about the incredibly special experience of traveling with my mother for a future piece. In the meantime, here’s Part I of a two-part photo essay about our trip, which was an eye-opening behind-the-scenes look not only into Islam, but into an exquisite country and people straddling the traditions of a distant past and the promise of a prosperous future.
The coastal city of Rabat is the capital of Morocco. Less well-known than Fez or Marrakesh, it’s worth the detour for its lovely gardens, colonial architecture, a gorgeous medieval kasbah and a low-key souk that serves as a great training ground for the more frenetic markets in Fez and Marrakesh.
Muslims and Jews who fled to Morocco from Spain during the Inquisition settled in Rabat’s 12th century kasbah. As I climbed up and down the steep, narrow streets with views of the Bou Regreg River and Atlantic Ocean, it wasn’t difficult to imagine what life was like here 500 years ago.
Fishing remains one of the country’s most important industries. As we walked along the riverbank, the fishermen were busy unloading their daily catch from brightly colored boats.
You can find run-of-the-mill pigeons in Morocco. But regal storks are plentiful and have exquisite taste. They can be found in spectacular settings, building their nests atop the most beautiful Roman-era ruins and majestic minarets. Our first sighting of this avian population was on the breathtaking grounds of the medieval Chellah necropolis and ancient Roman city of Sala Colonia.
During the course of our voyage, our trip leader sought spontaneous opportunities for us to meet the locals and learn about the country through their eyes. One of our first such encounters occurred on our way from Rabat to Fez, when we came across a Fantasia festival, in which local Berber tribes take part in a team equine competition. Both man and beast are decked out in full celebratory regalia. The goal: for all members of the team to ride their horses in concert, arrive at the finish line together and simultaneously shoot their guns into the air, making a single sound. It’s essentially the Berber equivalent of synchronized swimming.
The leader of one of the tribes invited us into his tent, where his wife served us mint tea, a staple of Moroccan hospitality, and he showed us the ceremonial rifles they use during the days-long event.
Everyone we met, whether rich or poor, whether living in a tent in the middle of the Sahara or in a modern middle-class apartment building in Fez, offered us mint tea. We drank a lot of mint tea.
I greatly anticipated our arrival in legendary Fez, a fascinating city whose “old” section is about 1,200 years old and whose “new” section was first established in the 13th century. A few fun facts about Fez:
- The 9th century medina is the largest car-free urban space in the world. However, just because there are no cars doesn’t mean you don’t need to be on high alert for mopeds, donkeys and carts. There are 10,000 alleyways in the oldest part of the city. It would be an understatement to say it’s easy to get lost.
- The oldest university in the world is in Fez. It was founded in the 9th century by a woman from Tunisia named Fatima.
- In the 14th century, the largest Jewish agglomeration in the world could be found in Fez.
- The city’s 11th century Chouara tannery is the oldest continuously operating tannery in the world.
Our visit to the tannery was a fascinating study in olfactory overload. We held sprigs of mint under our nostrils to mask the stench. It’s here that artisans make leather from sheep, goats, cows and dromedaries, and use natural ingredients to dye their goods: saffron for yellow, henna for orange, poppy for red and kohl for black.
If you’re in the market for dromedary meat, look no further than the souk. And if you’re in the market for a dromedary head, you can find that in the souk, too.
Roman ruins never cease to move me. About an hour’s drive from Fez is Volubilis, a UNESCO world heritage site that was active from 25 B.C. – 285 A.D. An earthquake in the 8th century destroyed much of the city, which was formally abandoned in the 14th century until it was rediscovered in 1915. Scenes from “Patton” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” were filmed here.
As I wandered through this treasure trove of archeological wonders, I saw ghosts. Berber slaves building the town from the ground up using limestone transported from the Rif mountains. The rich olive oil merchant hosting a dinner in his spacious villa. Gluttonous Romans visiting the vomitorium to purge themselves of the food and drink they’d already ingested to make room for more. Lustful men paying for sex in the brothel. Women meeting at the neighboring baths to cleanse and socialize. The wealthy governor lording his power over his subjects. Citizens seeking justice at the capitol, which served as the town hall and courthouse before the arrival of Christianity when it became a church. Wine merchants selling casks of their product, made of grapes grown on nearby vines…
On our way through the Middle Atlas mountains towards the Paleozoic era fossil-rich town of Erfoud, we had another serendipitous encounter with a family of semi-nomads who spend half the year in the desert and other half in the Middle Atlas range. The family spanned three generations, including a few young children – and a newborn – who will start school at six years old. Access to education brings knowledge and a greatly expanded worldview, but it also means the approaching end of a centuries-old Berber way of life, as the kids will likely leave nomadism behind when they get older.
During our long drive from Fez to Erfoud, the landscape changed dramatically several times. From the lush cedar forest on the outskirts of the Alps-style ski resort of Ifrane, to the rocky green and brown slopes of the Middle Atlas range, to the desert oases that were so much larger than I’d ever imagined (you mean one palm tree does not an oasis make?), it was hard to believe we were still on planet Earth, yet alone in the same country.
Click here for Part II of our Moroccan adventure: camping in the Sahara in stifling heat (with rain and a sandstorm to boot), getting lost – on purpose – in Marrakesh, and a quick visit to Casablanca.
Small group tour with OAT Travel: Morocco Sahara Odyssey. At 47-years old, I was the youngest of 16 participants and probably the least-well traveled (and I’ve traveled quite a bit). Our tour leader’s passion for his beautiful country was infectious, and his encyclopedic knowledge about Moroccan history and culture, comparative religion and world affairs was simply amazing.
Getting there: if you’re in the New York area, it’s a seven-hour nonstop flight on Royal Air Maroc from JFK to Casablanca. The airline gets fair to middling reviews, however, and although both of our flights were smooth and uneventful, the rest of our group flew through Paris or Madrid, adding hours to their trips.
Hotel: Cantor Hotel Terminus. A recently renovated boutique hotel with a lovely rooftop terrace that overlooks the heart of Rabat. Their buffet breakfast was excellent; their wi-fi a bit slow.
Notable Restaurant: Dinarjat. A gorgeous dining spot in the Rabat medina, located in a beautifully restored villa.
Hotel: Riad Salam Fes. My favorite hotel of the trip. A stunningly restored 17th century guesthouse in the “new” (13th century) medina, with a beautiful rooftop terrace, a lovely pool in the atrium and a small spa. The food was delicious, too.
Hotel: Kasbah Hotel Chergui. Disney World in the middle of the desert. A sprawling hotel that appears out of nowhere and serves as a pit stop for large groups and tourists before they embark on their desert adventures. A bit of luxury before the stifling heat, whirling sand and canvas tents.