Tangier: Saying Goodbye to Morocco

After two amazing weeks in Morocco—the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the Jemaa el Fna in Marrakesh, a camel trek to the Sahara, Meknes, Volubilis, Fes—our last stop in Tangier just couldn’t compare.

It’s a beautiful old port city, but it’s also a border town, dirty, seedy, with souvenir shops and hustlers offering tours of the casbah. It’s the drive-thru version of Morocco, offering a sampling platter of the culture, perfect for those on a one-day tour from Spain.

My first mistake was getting off at the wrong train station, one stop away from where I needed to be. We walked down the highway trying to flag down a taxi. One man stopped to offer us a ride in his van, but we knew better. We kept walking until we finally got a taxi to the Hotel Continental.

The hotel was charming in its own way, old and clinging to its former glory. I imagined it was once glamorous, its interior a mix of classic Moroccan design and art deco—black-and-white checkered floors, bright pink walls and stained glass. Our room had mildew and a shoddy lock, but the drapes were red velvet and the room overlooked the port.

That evening, we grabbed a bite to eat in a café and walked around a park. It was after dark but there were still people out. We walked toward a monument in the park and a man sitting on a bench stopped us, warning us about “bad men” who were just around the corner. We weren’t sure if he too was a “bad man” but we left and headed back for the hotel, looking over our shoulders as we walked.

We had had an amazing time in Morocco and it wasn’t worth the risk to try and squeeze in one more good night. Not in Tangier anyway.

The next morning we had an hour to kill before our ferry so we walked around the city, which felt much safer in the daylight. A man approached us to offer a tour, and though we said no, he was persistent. He practically begged us, so we gave in.

He led us around through the alleys, pointing to different doors, telling us stories about their meanings and insisting I take pictures. I obliged. We walked toward the port, looked at canons, and eventually, and as expected, the tour led us to a scarf shop. By now, we knew the game. We would get a demonstration of how to wrap the scarves on our heads, Moroccan style, a cute photo op popular among tourists, a show we had seen before. Then we would get a special offer, just for us, just for today, and our tour guide would get a cut of the sale.

Having already bought all the souvenirs we wanted—a box made of camel bone, marble tablets with Arabic writing, hamsa door hangers, scarves and tons of knickknacks—we weren’t obliged to buy anything else. So we ended our tour, paid our guide, and said goodbye to Morocco. Then we took the ferry to Algeciras to begin a new adventure in Spain.

Tangier

Tangier

Tangier

Tangier

 

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A Tour of Old Fes with Najib the Berber

After our first day in Old Fes, we agreed with Nat Geo’s advice to hire a guide for a tour of the city. So, we asked the riad staff to make arrangements for us and the next morning we met Najib the Berber.

Najib had a round belly and a mustache and wore sandals and a striped djellaba. He told us about his five sons and his thoughts about family and money, how one was obviously more important than the other though not everyone realizes it. He told us to be happy and to enjoy life. Najib clearly did.

Najib enjoyed telling us about local customs and gave a well-rounded tour that included everything we wanted—the public oven, rug shops, the tanneris—plus a lot more we didn’t expect. He walked us through the food markets with fresh meat, fish and vegetables. There were eggplants, cucumbers and artichokes, mountains of olives, sacks of live snails and wheelbarrows of mint, chamomile and orange blossoms. Najib insisted we sample the dates and take photos with donkeys, what he called “Fes taxis” since there are no cars in Fes el Bali.

Everywhere we went, the locals greeted Najib and I felt comfortable asking questions and taking pictures. We were also afforded a glimpse into local workshops. We visited one shop where a father and his sons made decorative doors. They traced designs onto wood using a stencil and then chiseled it out, piece by piece. We watched coppersmiths pound intricate details into lanterns. We learned how cactus is used to make scarves, and we sat with rug makers for a demonstration. The women sat at their looms, their fingers precise and methodical, placing a white thread, then a blue one, then a black one, each just one dot in the larger design. Many of the items we saw in the souks of Marrakesh were being made right here in front of us.

Najib also took us to wedding shops and pharmacies, an old madrasa, and finally to the tanneries. I had been warned about the rancid smell of the tanneries and was not looking forward to it. But perhaps because it was early in the year and still cool, there was virtually no smell. At the entrance, we were given sprigs of mint to hold under our noses, but we didn’t need them.

The tanneries were the most surprising part of the tour. I had low expectations but quickly understood why it was so popular. Perched from above, we could look down at the men working below. Most were barefoot and wore cutoff denim and straw hats. They walked along the edge of the dye pools, carrying stacks of hides in their arms. Above them, there were bright yellow hides drying in the sun. And inside the shop, there were rows of leather jackets, wallets and souvenirs of all colors. I didn’t buy anything but I now wish I had.

After several hours with Najib, our tour was over and he led us back to our riad. We thanked him, paid him and parted ways. There was still much to do in Old Fes so we headed out to shop, meet new people and try some new dishes—the pastilla had been calling my name.

Volubilis and Moulay Idriss

After breakfast, our driver met us at our riad and we headed for Volubilis, a site of Roman ruins built in the 3rd century B.C. It was a short drive, around half an hour north on cactus-lined roads.

When we arrived, we had an hour and a half to see the site while our driver waited in the car. There were a few other cars and a few tour buses, but the ruins weren’t crowded.

At the entrance, several guides were waiting to offer their services. We discussed prices with them, but in the end, I just wanted to wander around, imaging what it used to look like.

Some pieces were obvious. A large gate. Columns of a temple. Tiled mosaics. Other pieces were not, but I enjoyed the mystery.

Grass and wildflowers grew inside each empty room, around each column, between every crack in the stone. Empty doorways framed the scene behind us; it was sunny with rolling hills and olive trees in the distance.

After walking around for a while, I tagged along behind a tour group. A guide led us to a stone covered with a sheet. Then he asked two volunteers—one male, one female—to stand on either side of it. He positioned them carefully and then unveiled a stone penis, evidence that we were standing in a former brothel. The guide called his act a “Berber surprise” and everyone laughed.

I laughed too, but I realized that each part of the ruin had a story to tell. I left knowing only a few.

From Volubilis, our driver took us up the hill to Morocco’s holiest place, the town of Moulay Idriss. It was here in the eighth century that Moulay Idriss I brought Islam to Morocco.

Our driver waited for us while we took a short tour with a guide who showed us the best places to view the town’s most photographed attractions: Moulay Idriss’s tomb, with its signature green roof, and Moulay Idriss’s mosque featuring the only round minaret in Morocco.

Then we drove back to Meknes to spend the night. The next morning, we would take the train to Fes.
Moulay Idriss Moulay Idriss Moulay Idriss Moulay Idriss Moulay Idriss Moulay Idriss Moulay Idriss

Exploring Meknes

When we arrived in Meknes, we took a cab from the train station into the old city, passing a McDonald’s and a post office and entering a world with high defensive walls, elaborate gates and an abundance of mosques built hundreds of years ago when Meknes was the capital.

The sidewalks were dirty, crowded, the main street busy with cars trying to make three lanes out of two. It was a modern, urban culture thriving in the remains of the old.

We wandered around until we found the sign for Riad Zahraa where we would be staying. Then we turned into an alley and wound our way through the maze of shops. Some carried what we had come to expect in Morocco—rugs, mirrors and vases—but many carried clothing and shoes. They were stylish, European. Most of the young people dressed that way.

We found our riad, then dropped off our bags and headed for the center of town. We first noticed Bab Mansour, a large gate iconic of the city. Across the street was the main square, Place el Hedim. It was supposed to be the Jemaa el Fna of Meknes, but it was quite small. There was a row of restaurants and at night, vendors filled the square with items meant more for locals than tourists—things like DVDs and shoes.

In front of each restaurant, young men hustled for clients; there was a friendly competition between them. We chose a small café and took our seats inside near a television. There were very few tourists in the city and our server seemed pleased we had chosen him. He was tall and lean with a friendly smile. He bragged to his friends that his restaurant was the best; he was the winner. Next to us, three local men sat at a table drinking mint tea and watching a movie on the television. It was Battle: Los Angeles, in Arabic.

My husband ordered chicken kebabs and I ordered pizza; I had had success in Rabat and wanted to try my luck again. Once we ordered, we watched the kebabs being prepared on a small grill a few feet away. As usual, they were served with French fries and they were delicious. My pizza on the other hand was interesting. It looked just like a pizza, but it was made Moroccan style: the sauce was unseasoned tomato paste, the topping kofta meatballs. When our server asked me how I liked it, I told him it was delicious. I ate most of it and fed the last of the meatballs to a cat under the table.

That night we retired to our room and were greeted with ice cold showers, which happened many times throughout our trip. Each time, you have to decide which you hate more: being dirty or being cold.

The next morning we asked for a new room with hot water and then walked through the town with our guidebook. We had one day to see the city and were deciding what we had time for and what we would skip. It didn’t take long, however, for a guide to offer us a city tour on a horse-drawn carriage.

Our first stop was Habs Qara, an underground prison that had once housed tens of thousands of prisoners, including many Christian sailors. We walked through the tunnels with a guide who wielded a flashlight and told stories of people who had gotten lost and died in the tunnels.

Next was the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, one of the few holy sites in Morocco where non-Muslims may enter. We removed our shoes and entered quietly. Much like the many mosques and mausoleums we’d already visited, the inside had colorful mosaics, intricate carvings, and that special beauty that comes with age—all of Morocco has this beauty.

For the rest of the tour, we visited Moulay Ismail’s horse stable and granary, which was peaceful, with massive ceilings and wildflowers growing outside, and the Agdal basin, an artificial lake frequented by locals and tourists.

After our tour, we went back to the same restaurant as before. Our new friend was pleased to see us again. After dinner, we took a picture with him and his friends asked that we take pictures with them too. Then we retired to our new room at the riad. It was brightly colored with stained-glass windows that opened up to the interior courtyard.

The next day, we would meet a driver who would take us to the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis—the very reason for our trip to Meknes.

 

 

Meknes

 

Meknes

Meknes

Meknes

Meknes

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Meknes

Meknes

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Meknes

Meknes

Meknes

Meknes

Meknes

Meknes

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Riad

Riad

Riad

View from riad rooftop

Modern and Historic Rabat

After a week of exploring Morocco and immersing ourselves in the old world—eating tagine and couscous, shopping in the old medinas, visiting the Berbers—Rabat was a nice change of pace. We went there just to spend an afternoon visiting the Hassan Tower, but we found Rabat to be special, a unique, modern city that incorporated the old world into the new, a city worth more of our time than we had planned, a city we could see ourselves living in.

When we arrived, we walked around downtown, admiring foreign embassies, the Royal Palace and other government buildings. There was a newly built tram system and an abundance of pizzerias. Rabat is Morocco’s capital city and it felt like one. In fact, it felt so “normal” that I didn’t even think to take photos.

Next, we checked into a hotel to drop off our bags. It was a nice hotel, nicer than most we stay at in the US and also more expensive than we wanted—a drawback of last-minute travel and not booking ahead. There were a few hours left of daylight so we headed toward the Hassan Tower.

Once at the tower, I was surprised that it didn’t feel like a tourist attraction. There was no admission charge, no one selling trinkets and no one hassling us to pay them for a tour. Most of the visitors were locals. Families ate popcorn and other treats sold by vendors. Mothers sat and talked while their children played games in adjacent gardens. For them, it was just another day at the park.

For us, it was a step into an unfamiliar history. We stared up at the strange tower, a 140-foot cube made of red sandstone. Around it stood 200 columns of varying heights and crumbling walls that were bright orange in the sun. The tower, we learned, was an unfinished minaret of an unfinished mosque that was started in 1195 and stopped four years later at the death of the sultan who had commissioned it.

At the other end of the courtyard is the Mosque and Mausoleum of Mohammed V. Royal guards in bright red uniforms stand at the entrance of the mausoleum. Emerald green tiles adorn the roof, and inside visitors crowd around a balcony to look down at the ornate room holding the tomb.

At sunset, we left the courtyard to sit in a nearby park that overlooked the Bou Regreg River into the city of Sale. We sat on a concrete bench reading our Nat Geo guide while locals sat on blankets in the grass, the tower looming behind us all. It was peaceful, a much needed pause from our breakneck pace.

Once it was dark, we went to Big Fresh—a pizzeria we had passed earlier near our hotel—to eat pizza and burgers and use wifi to book a riad for the next day in Meknes. I had enjoyed the Moroccan cuisine the past week, but it was nice to just have a pizza.

Back in our hotel, we indulged in a few hours of television and the unexpected gift of sleeping in. In Marrakesh, we had awoken each morning at 5 a.m. to the call to prayer. It was loud and deep, the unfamiliar sound of an unfamiliar language echoing through the city. In Rabat, we didn’t hear this at all. But for those who did want to pray, there was a sticker on the ceiling pointing to Mecca.

The next morning, it was back to our usual pace. We had breakfast and hurried off to spend an extra half day in this city that had caught us off guard. We walked toward the coast along the old city walls and arrived at the Kasbah of the Udayas.  We climbed the steps to the main gate, admiring its massive size and beauty, and then entered this city within a city. We walked among the gardens and orange trees, visited the Oudaya Museum, and explored the maze of blue and white streets.

When we reached the ramparts, we looked out to where the ocean met the mouth of the river. The water was murky with gentle waves and people were surfing in wetsuits. Looking west, there was a long boardwalk along the coast and a cemetery just opposite.

By then, it was nearing time for our train so we took the long walk back to the station. Along the way, we stumbled upon the old medina and walked a path straight through the center. We looked at furniture and souvenirs and no one pushed for a sale. We were free to just look, undisturbed.

Once on the other side, we were back in downtown Rabat. We strolled the palm-lined stretch of Mohammed V Avenue and then boarded the train for Meknes.

Walls of unfinished mosque
Walls of unfinished mosque
Hassan Tower
Hassan Tower

Inside Mausoleum of Mohammed V
Inside Mausoleum of Mohammed V
Unfinished columns near Hassan Tower
Unfinished columns near Hassan Tower
Outside Mausoleum of Mohammed V
Outside Mausoleum of Mohammed V
Mohammed V Mosque
Mohammed V Mosque
Big Fresh Restaurant
Big Fresh Restaurant
Big Fresh Restaurant
Big Fresh Restaurant
Hotel ceiling; sign points to Mecca
Hotel ceiling; sign points to Mecca
Kasbah of the Udayas
Kasbah of the Udayas
Bab Oudaia
Bab Oudaia
Kasbah of the Udayas
Kasbah of the Udayas
Kasbah of the Udayas
Kasbah of the Udayas
Kasbah of the Udayas
Kasbah of the Udayas
Courtyard in Kasbah Udayas Museum
Courtyard in Kasbah Udayas Museum
Blue and white walls in Rabat
Blue and white streets in Rabat
Blue and white walls in Rabat
Blue and white streets in Rabat
Blue and white walls in Rabat
Blue and white streets in Rabat
Surfers in Rabat
Surfers in Rabat
Rabat
Mohammed V Avenue

From Marrakesh to the Sahara: A 3-Day Tour

From our hotel in Marrakesh, we booked a 3-day tour of Morocco that would take us through the Atlas Mountains to Merzouga. From there, we would ride camels to the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi to see the Saharan sunset and spend the night in Berber tents. We would also make a few stops along to way to see Aït Ben Haddou and tour a Berber village near the Todra Gorge.

Day 1
We met our driver in the Jemaa el Fna and loaded into a van with four strangers—three women from London and a man from Germany. Then we headed toward the Atlas Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks could be seen from many points in Marrakesh. As we rode, we watched the landscape change from green valleys to dry, rocky terrain. We snaked our way through the mountains on narrow roads, stopping a few times for photos and to close the broken side door of the van which occasionally whipped open as we drove. Eventually, our driver tied the door shut with rope.

After a few hours, we arrived at Aït Ben Haddou, a fortified city of earthen buildings built hundreds of years ago. There were camels sitting near a narrow stream and donkeys carrying loads of vegetation. The sky was cloudless with the sun beating down us. Palm trees dotted the landscape. It was easy to understand why this site was used in dozens of movies like Gladiator and why it was designated a UNESCO world heritage site. It was a place that had preserved time.

We walked through the village with our guide as he discussed the few remaining families that still lived there and name dropped some Hollywood actors he had once met on set. Our guide himself had been an extra in several movies. We called him a celebrity and took a picture with him.

Before heading back down for lunch, we climbed to the top of the old granary for a view of the area. The landscape was layered around us, green and fertile near the river, then dry and rocky, the mountains a third layer in the background.

From there we drove toward Dades Gorge to have dinner and stay the night at Hotel Tamlalte which was surrounded by immense rock formations that reminded me of the American West. Before dinner, we wandered a short distance from the hotel to see the area and catch the last of the sunset. Then a local boy approached us on a bicycle. He asked us for something, but we didn’t know what he wanted. I had heard that children ask for pens, but I didn’t have one to give him. Since we couldn’t understand one another, he rode away and we headed back to the hotel.

At dinner, we made friends with an American woman named Mimsie who was teaching English in Korea, and a Japanese woman named Ayano. Our waiter, like others we encountered on our tour, yelled “Japan!” at Ayano. Apparently Japan is known for teaching the Berber language, something the Berbers in Morocco quite appreciate.

For dinner, we ate large hunks of bread, a staple during our two weeks in Morocco, plus Moroccan soup served with a wooden spoon, and chicken tagine with couscous. Then we retired to our rooms, excited that the next day we would see the Sahara.

 Day 2
After breakfast, we drove to Todra Gorge. We parked our van on the highway and started walking through fields toward a Berber village. There was a narrow stream, palm trees and olive trees, and fields of alfalfa. Beside us, women were picking the alfalfa, hunched over at the waist, and we were asked not to take photos of them.

When we reached the village, we gathered for a demonstration on making Berber carpets. We sat on the floor in a small room whose walls and floors were covered in colorful rugs of different shapes and sizes. Then we were served mint tea while we listened to our guide explain the Berber lifestyle and watched a woman make a rug, weaving the fibers in and out with her fingers.

Afterwards, we browsed the rugs for sale, but instead purchased a blue scarf, a traditional Berber color, which later came in handy on the camel trek.

On our way out of the village, a small boy approached me and asked for something. Again, I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but I gave him my pen. It was short with a floral design, part of a Vera Bradley stationery kit I received as a gift. He smiled and walked away.

From there we headed back to the highway and left for Merzouga, our meeting place for the camel trek. After a couple of hours on the road, a sandstorm began, turning everything into a uniform wall of beige. At points, we could hardly see the road ahead. The driver seemed nervous, which made us nervous too. I was also worried about how this would affect our camel trek, whether it would be cancelled, and if not, whether we would miss the famed Saharan sunset.

When we arrived at our meeting point, we were told to leave our luggage. We were to be led by Berber guides to Erg Chebbi and we would stay overnight in tents. I kept a small bag with my passport and a few necessities and left my backpack behind.

While waiting on the others, I noticed a map on the wall that showed how close we were to the jagged Algerian border. At that moment, I felt very far from home. It was a little frightening, but also freeing, knowing I was about to be led into the desert in a sandstorm.

We gathered outside to be paired with our camels. The buildings and the palm trees offered a slight reprieve from the wind and sand. The camels were tethered together in a line, each with a saddle and bridle. I was expecting them to be tan so I was surprised to see them in white, brown and black. My husband was assigned to a pretty white one and I assumed I would be placed next to him. Instead, I was seated two camels away with one more suited for my height.

The camels remained seated as we mounted them, their legs folded neatly beneath them, the knees on their back legs bending backwards. Then the guide instructed them to rise, back legs first, slinging each of us forward until the camel was on all fours. Once my camel stood, I felt very small on top of it.

By the time everyone was saddled up, it was late afternoon and we headed toward camp. As we rode, the wind and sand whirled around us, creeping through the pores of our clothes and bags. Even with sunglasses and a scarf wrapped around my face, I got sand in my mouth, eyes and ears. The trek was supposed to take an hour and a half but it felt much longer. Perhaps the storm slowed us down.

As we rode, the palm trees and shrubbery of our meeting point vanished. At some point, I realized there was nothing around but the sand and we were finally in the desert. Everything was dull and hazy as we rode through the storm, quiet, listening to the wind and watching evening creep upon us. We wound our way through the dunes and by the time we reached camp, it was pitch black. That night, there was no sunset.

We each dismounted our camels and the Berbers assigned us to tents for sleeping. Then we gathered in another tent to wait for dinner. Our guides left to prepare our meal while we sat with our new friends on pillows that surrounded small tables.

For dinner, our table shared a chicken tagine with rice and onions, followed, of course, by hot mint tea. Afterward, the Berbers entertained us with music. A young man sat next to me and showed me how to beat the drums. It was a simple beat, but I had a difficult time. Some people have rhythm and others do not. He was persistent so I tried a few more times until I was able to recreate his beat well enough to satisfy him. Then I excused myself from the tent. Outside, the storm had stopped and the stars shone bright in the black sky.

Soon after, I went to sleep. I was so tired that I didn’t bother changing or brushing my teeth. I slept in my clothes under a pile of heavy blankets inside the tent. The tent was flapping in the wind and the night was getting cold. In a few hours, we would wake to see the sunrise.

Day 3
We woke the next morning to the sounds of shouting. Our guides wanted us up and ready to see the sunrise. My husband and I were quick to rise and we walked around the sand dunes alone taking pictures just before the sun peeked over the horizon. Then we saddled up and headed back to Merzouga.

With the sandstorm over, our camel trek was a different experience. This time we were able to see the desert and appreciate the immense height of the dunes, their soft, shifting peaks, and the wind-blown pattern the desert had taken. It was a different desert than the day before.

As the sun rose higher, the sand changed colors from gray to tan to the deep orange you associate with the Sahara. We could also see our shadows as we rode, gently bobbing with the camels gait.

The trip back was much faster and toward the end, several in my group opted to walk instead of riding their camels; a few of them had motion sickness.

When we reached our meeting point, breakfast was waiting for us. There was coffee and sugar, plus bread, cheese, honey and several kinds of olives. Then we loaded back into the van for the long ride back to Marrakesh.

Along the way, we stopped for a lunch of chicken kebabs and French fries. Then I walked around to take pictures of the valley and shop at the store next door. I bought rose-scented moisturizer and a scarf. On our next stop, it snowed. I’ve only seen snow a few times in my life, and it felt like the perfect addition to our trip.

In the same day, I had ridden a camel, seen the Sahara desert and felt snowfall in the Atlas Mountains.

The ride back was long, eight or ten hours, and we were exhausted. But the roads were so dangerous we were afraid to sleep. It was raining and the roads were narrow and winding so we talked to stay awake.

I listened to stories from the others—Peter’s work-a-year, travel-a-year method, and Mimsie’s decision to move from a small town in Mississippi to Korea. Everyone had such interesting lives and I was glad to have met them, realizing they enriched my trip as much as the locals I was so fond of.

When we arrived back in Marrakesh, we all went our separate ways. My husband and I went to bed to rest up for our last day in Marrakesh before moving on to Rabat.

Drive toward Ait Ben Haddou
Drive toward Ait Ben Haddou
Drive toward Ait Ben Haddou
Drive toward Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou
View from granary atop Ait Ben Haddou
View from granary atop Ait Ben Haddou
Coca Cola
Coca Cola
Hotel Tamlalte
Hotel Tamlalte
View from Hotel Tamlalte
View from Hotel Tamlalte
View from Hotel Tamlalte
View from Hotel Tamlalte
View from Hotel Tamlalte
View from Hotel Tamlalte
View from Hotel Tamlalte
View from Hotel Tamlalte
Hotel Tamlalte
Hotel Tamlalte
Moroccan soup
Moroccan soup
Tagine dinner at Hotel Tamlalte
Tagine dinner at Hotel Tamlalte
Todra Gorge
Todra Gorge
Todra Gorge
Todra Gorge
Berber village
Berber village
Berber village
Berber village
Berber village
Berber village
Berber village
Berber village
Rug demonstration
Rug demonstration
Sandstorm
Sandstorm
Sandstorm
Sandstorm
Camels
Camels
Camel trek
Camel trek
Night creeps in
Night creeps in
Berber entertainment
Berber entertainment
Berber tents
Berber tents
Berber tents
Berber tents
sunrise
sunrise
sunrise
sunrise
Sahara
Sahara
Sahara
Sahara
Sahara
Sahara
Sahara
Sahara
Berber in Sahara
Berber in Sahara
Berber in Sahara
Berber in Sahara
shadows
shadows
Camel
Camel
green pottery I wish I had bought
Green pottery I wish I had bought
View from Cafe Almanadir
View from Cafe Almanadir
 Col du Tichka road
Col du Tichka road

 

Marrakesh [PHOTOS]

 

 

Ben Youssef Medrasa
Ben Youssef Medrasa
Ryad Marrakiss Rooftop
Ryad Marrakiss Rooftop
Synagogue in Mellah
Synagogue in Mellah
Bahia Palace
Bahia Palace
Marrakesh
Marrakesh
Marrakesh Vendor
Marrakesh Vendor
Bab Agnaou
Bab Agnaou
Bahia Palace
Bahia Palace
Storks at Bahia Palace
Storks at Bahia Palace
Souk Entrance from Jemaa el Fna
Souk Entrance from Jemaa el Fna
Marrakesh
Marrakesh
Moroccan Spices
Moroccan Spices
Moroccan Souvenir
Moroccan Souvenir
Menara Gardens
Menara Gardens
Moroccan cuties!
Moroccan cuties!
Marrakesh Museum
Marrakesh Museum
Marrakesh Museum
Marrakesh Museum
Marrakesh
Marrakesh
Making Argan Oil
Making Argan Oil
Koutoubia Mosque
Koutoubia Mosque
Arabic and Berber Language
Arabic and Berber Language
Saadian Tombs
Saadian Tombs

The Jemaa el Fna, Marrakesh

I did a lot of research before traveling to Morocco and what I read about the Jemaa el Fna scared the hell out of me. One blogger described it as a chaotic and terrifying place where monkeys and cobras roam the market, where aggressive vendors yell at tourists, and pickpockets creep in your shadow.

But, as it turns out, the Jemaa el Fna is a fantastic place—perhaps the most memorable place of my entire trip. Everywhere you look there are heaps of colorful spices and dried fruits, tagines and decorative hamsas, camel-skin lamps and argan-oil cosmetics. Vendors compete for your attention selling famed Moroccan orange juice, kabobs and mint tea. Snake handlers and monkey wranglers show off their animals and offer once-in-a-lifetime photo ops. Simply put, the Jemaa el Fna is everything I imagined Morocco to be.

Yes, it’s crowded. Yes, vendors are aggressive. And, yes, you do need to carefully guard your wallet—but the same goes for many places in the U.S. In reality, the Jemaa el Fna is just an interesting market with some interesting characters trying to sell you their interesting wares.

If you’re skittish, as I assume the aforementioned blogger might be, it’s important to remember that everyone in the market is just trying to make a living. As you walk around “just browsing,” you will be approached by vendors and they will make every attempt to sell to you. It is, after all, a market.

For example, if you walk by the man selling olives, he will try to sell you olives. If you admire an artisanal lantern, the vendor will ask you to name your price. And if you walk past a woman selling henna tattoos, she will grab your hand to give you a “sample” and then charge you for it. Okay, the henna lady is a little too aggressive for my taste. Just pull your hand away, give a polite but firm “no thank you” and move along. No harm done. As long as you keep this in mind, the Jemaa el Fna can be a fun and exciting place.

Taking Photos
The Jemaa el Fna is an ideal location for taking photos. But before you start snapping away, you should know the rules of the game. Basically, you will often need to pay to take a photo in the market.

If you want to take a picture of someone’s goods, you should buy something from them first and ask if you can take a photo. For animal wranglers and anyone in costume, you will likely be told the photo is free. They will pose with you, take your picture, and then surround you to demand money. Now, you will need to negotiate a price. Don’t be alarmed by the seemingly harsh tone—it’s just the way business is done in Morocco. And don’t get upset because you feel tricked. Just remember to keep things in perspective: paying 8 Moroccan dirhams (about 1 US dollar) is an amazing price for the pictures you are getting. And once you pay, everyone goes back to smiling and laughing. To avoid the drama altogether, try negotiating a price beforehand. (I paid about 1–2 dollars per photo op.)

The Jemaa at Night
At night is when the Jemaa really comes alive. Large crowds form around musicians, storytellers and games, and the market fills with steam from bustling food stalls. This is the perfect time to escape to a rooftop café for a mint tea. From there, you can enjoy an insanely pink sunset and an amazing view of the market.

Jemaa al Fna

Jemaa al Fna

Jemaa al Fna

Jemaa al Fna

The Jemaa el Fna, Marrakesh Morocco Jemaa al Fna Jemaa al Fna Jemaa al Fna

The Grand Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

When I saw the mosque from afar, I knew it was going to be impressive. It juts straight into the Atlantic Ocean with the tides ebbing and flowing around it. As I got closer, I was amazed at the meticulous detail that went into every square inch of the exterior—the intricate carvings, the massive doorways, the colorful tiled mosaics.

The inside was just as impressive. Unlike most other mosques in Morocco, the Hassan II Mosque allows non-Muslims to enter, but you must pay for admission. Your entrance fee includes a guided tour and you will be asked to remove your shoes and carry them in a plastic bag they provide.

The tour guide walked us around describing different parts of the mosque, focusing on its construction and the amount of people and man hours it took to create. Even more so than the exterior, the interior reflects an unfathomable attention to detail that helps you understand the mosque’s cost; estimates hover above half a billion dollars.

The one thing the mosque lacked, however, was that feeling of someplace old and sacred. After all, it was built in 1993 and under controversial circumstances. Many see the mosque as a misuse of funds, and construction of the mosque displaced nearby slum dwellers.

Ultimately, as an unattached visitor, I was able to appreciate the mosque for its beauty and I highly recommend seeing it if you ever get the chance.

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca IMG_0083IMG_0086IMG_0092