(Morocco: Part II)
Salam Alekum, welcome back to Morocco! Come mes amis, delve deep into the alleyways of spice-scented souks, lose yourselves in the star-studded Sahara skies and experience the share-worthy wonders of this exotic kingdom with me….
Blame it on Bogart!
Our Tour du Maroc began in Casablanca. I hate to tell you, but the city was nothing like the film. Although Morocco’s commercial hub, it was remarkably wanting in attractions and wasn’t even the set for the movie which was shot almost entirely at Warner Bros Studios in California. I know, I was bummed about that too.
To compensate for Casablanca’s dearth of important monuments, King Hassan II ordered the construction of a massive religious site, which he humbly named the “Hassan II Mosque”. Completed in 1993, it fits 25,000 worshippers, sports the tallest minaret in the world, and has a vast subterranean hall for ablutions (washing). I had no idea that in the Islamic faith washing certain body parts is a form of ritual purification to prepare the faithful for prayer. Clearly cleanliness is next to godliness.
Rome’s Remotest Outpost
After leaving Casablanca, we saw our fair share of historic monuments and Moorish-style architecture in the Imperial Cities of Rabat (the country’s capitol) and then Meknès, but I was more impressed by Volubilis - a Roman city near Meknès.
Forty atmospheric hectares of temples fragments, dazzling floor mosaics, the remnants of over fifty villas…and they’re still digging. We wandered freely, as there were few rules restricting access. I felt guilty just stepping on those stunning mosaics.
These ancient ruins created a powerful vision for me of the grandeur the wealthy Romans enjoyed before their Empire cratered. It wasn’t hard to imagine King Juba II standing on the stairs of the basilica surveying the extravagant villas of his 20,000 subjects and the fertile fields and olive groves beyond. Fun fact: Berber born (but Roman raised) Juba II was married to the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra. I’m thinking the Romans had something to do with those nuptials, Juba’s payback for placating the unruly, indigenous Berbers and thus securing Rome’s foothold in Morocco.
The “Blue City” of Chefchaouen
From Meknès we drove to the northwest corner of the country to Chefchaouen. Immediately upon arriving, I asked the inevitable question, “Why is it blue?” Several theories were offered to explain its striking color: blue repels mosquitos; the color keeps the interior of the homes cool; and Jews, expelled from Spain, settled there and painted their homes blue to mirror the sky and remind them of God. The real reason was about as clear to me as indigo paint.
Whatever the motivation, nowadays the blinding, blue hues are great for tourism. Even so, Chefchaouen felt authentic and was probably one of prettiest towns we visited in Morocco. Nestled below the peaks of the Rif Mountains, it felt like its own artsy, little world.
Chefchaouen’s medina (i.e. the old Arab section of town) was not overly large, nor crowded. Our guide told us it was impossible to get lost in its depths. We showed her! Before long, we needed Google Maps to extricate ourselves from the labyrinth and find our way back to the hotel.
Not only famous for its blue buildings, Chefchaouen has a rep (at least with backpackers) for the easy availability of Kif, the cannabis grown nearby. For the record, we did not indulge - although the lack of readily available wine made it tempting.
After a four-hour journey in the Marrakech Express (our mini-van), next up was mind-boggling Fes (or Fez, we saw it spelled both ways).
Deep in the dense, dilapidated heart of this city is the medieval medina, the largest car-free urban area in the world. It’s home to more than a quarter of a million people and nothing could have prepared me for the perpetual pandemonium of this maze to end all mazes! It’s a jumble of souks, palaces, mosques, monuments and about 9,500 twisted laneways so narrow goods must be either hauled or carried in by people, bicycles, donkeys or mules.
It’s simply insanity and, if you plan on visiting Morocco, you mustn’t miss this expedition back in time. Hire a guide because getting lost is a given. Local kids are eager to help with directions, but it will cost you. The souks (i.e. Arab markets), crammed inside the sandstone walls of the medina, haven’t changed much in 1,200 years. Crowded, dark and teeming with exotic sights, sounds and nose-punching smells, the place was claustrophobic, with an almost frenetic, yet fascinating underworld energy.
Dodging people and pack animals, we followed the flow of humanity, while around us skilled tradesmen practiced their centuries-old crafts. The stores and workshops lining the tangle of alleyways were loosely separated by products: wood and metal items, carpets, jewelry, spices, cosmetics (including henna), ceramics and so on. There was even a wedding souk offering sparkling attire and ornate bridal furniture. What bride wouldn’t want to carried into the ceremony on a wedding throne?
The souks weren’t only about the tourist trade. The merchants and craftsmen catered equally to locals. I was struck by the contrast in what was on offer. Pomegranates and piles of fresh produce were artfully displayed next to rainbow pyramids of aromatic spices and row-upon-row of fat, juicy dates. Then further down the street, fishmongers hawked baskets of live, writhing snails and other grotesque (and pungent) sea creatures. One butcher we passed had a severed camel’s head mounted on a spike next to his storefront. Apparently, he specialized in meat from the other parts of the camel.
The smelly star of the medina was Chouwara Tanneries, where we saw world-class leathers being produced using methods that have changed little since medieval times. The entire process is done manually with no modern machinery and minimal attention paid to the welfare of the workers. Men standing for hours at a time waist deep in caustic nastiness like cow urine, quicklime and ammonia-laden pigeon feces, cannot be healthy. WorkSafeBC would come unhinged.
We watched the action from the back terrace of a leather shop built into the walls surrounding the tannery yard. The sprig of fresh mint we were given by the shop owner to hold under our noses didn’t help much, but our malodorous vantage point did provide great views of the tannery below.
Round stone vats filled with dyes and white liquids spread out before us like a tray of watercolours. Dozens of bare-chested workers moved between them kneading the animal hides with their bare feet. I was told the white liquids break the tough leather down and loosen excess fat, flesh and hair. The men then scrape that away to prepare the hides so they will absorb the natural dyes. Frankly, I’ve never seen (or smelled) anything quite like it.
The leather is butter-soft and you can have clothing made-to-order within hours. But to get a fair price you must be prepared to bargain. Haggling is an extreme sport in Morocco. You have to maintain a relentless sense of humour, be able to feign disinterest and even walk away to get the best price - often about half of where you started.
I know, I promised a two-part series on Morocco, but guess what? There’s just too darn much to share, so stayed tuned mes amis for Part III, the last instalment - where, from Fes, I’ll take you south to the Sahara Desert and the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, and then onwards to magical Marrakech! I leave you now, with another Moroccan proverb:
“Even the loftiest of mountains begins on the ground.”
Happy New Year, my friends. May you dream big and live large in 2019…
À votre santé