Friday, July 25, 2014

Moroccan Adventure: Part 2

After three days exploring Marrakech and the Ourika valley, we headed out on a two day, one night trip through central Morocco to the incredible city of Fes.  We could have taken an eight hour train ride or a flight to Fes, but a drive through vast and various landscapes and small towns of Morocco seemed like a better way to see more of the country.

Our driver picked us up from our riad and we set off from Marrakech through the High Atlas Mountains.  We drove through the Tizi n'Tichka pass, which is the highest mountain pass in northern Africa at 2260 meters or just over 7400 feet above sea level.  We saw beautiful mountain views and traditional Berber villages that fit perfectly into the landscapes.  (Berbers are the indigenous people of Morocco and northern Africa.) It was so interesting to see the people near the villages going about their everyday life; transporting goods on donkeys, carrying straw on their own backs, working the fields, shepherding, etc.  It was like taking a step back in time.

We stopped at an incredible old fortified town, Ait Benhaddou, for lunch.  Ait Benhaddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is pretty amazing.  It's a great example of pre-Saharan earthen architecture.  Since it is pretty much made of earth, it is easily damaged.  The oldest of the buildings there probably dates back to the 1600s.  It was on an important trans-Saharan trade route.  If you think it looks like it's straight out of a movie, it is!  Many movies have been filmed there, some of the more notable movies being Jesus of Nazareth, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Mummy, Gladiator, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, Babel, Prince of Persia and parts of Game of Thrones.  

Ait Benhaddou

Camels, walking through what is a river in the wet season

View from the top

As we continued our trip the landscape gradually changed from the high mountain peaks to desert that looked like it would be in Arizona.  We passed through the town of Ourzazate where we saw the famous Kasbah Taourirt.  We also stopped in a silver shop where we bought traditional Moroccan teapots.  (They have the best mint tea in Morocco!)

An oasis of green along a river valley

We made our way to the incredible Dades gorge where we would be staying the night.  The drive was just gorgeous with deep red, orange and sienna rock formations, bright green oases along river beds and ancient kasbahs dotting the landscape.  We stayed the night in a teeny town in the middle of the gorge at a traditional riad.  They welcomed us with snacks and mint tea as we admired the views over the river valley.  They served a delicious traditional lemon chicken tajine for dinner.  Afterwards, a Berber lady from the village came and gave me henna on both of my hands.  (You're supposed to leave the henna paste on for the whole night, but I needed my hands so I only left it on for an hour or so.  It turned dark orange instead of black, but I liked the orange!)  The air in the desert valley was so dry, we kept getting shocked plugging in chargers, and my hair looked like a balloon had been rubbed on it after it was brushed!  That evening we sat outside for a bit in awe of the thousands of stars in the sky.

Don't do it, Jason!

Our riad

Our view from the terrace

Striking a pose...waiting for the henna to dry

The next morning, we drove to the top of the gorge for a great view before heading through the Tinrghir and Todra valleys.  We stopped to walk through a a gorge under 300 meter high red cliffs.  It's understandably really popular with rock climbers!

The road we took...

We had a long drive through the the varied, arid landscapes of gorges and canyons, past countless shepherds watching their flocks.  The landscape completely changed as we passed through the Middle Atlas mountains and the cedar forest where we saw wild Barbary apes!  After a few more stops at scenic overlooks, we finally made it to Fes at about 9 in the evening.  (When we stopped at scenic spots, it's amazing how kids seemed to come out of the wood work to try and sell little grass ornaments or to beg for money.)

Our riad was in the old medina of Fes.  There are over 900 tiny, twisting streets and alleyways in the medina. definitely not passable by car!  Our driver, Abdul, dropped us off as close as he could to our riad. Fes definitely had a different intensity than Marrakech.  As soon as our vehicle stopped, people gathered around wanting money to show us the rest of the way to our riad.  A man familiar with our riad helped us with our luggage and led us through the crowded streets to where we were staying.

We enjoyed breakfast on the terrace of our riad with amazing views of the Fes medina.  The entire medina of Fes is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it had such a look of age and history.  That morning, we journeyed back out with Abdul and his friend Kamel who is a certified Fes tour guide.  In doing research for our Morocco trip, it was recommended by everyone that you get a tour guide for Fes, and I'm so glad we did!  He was great at sharing historical and cultural information.  It was great to just follow and listen rather than looking at maps and reading guide books.  (Also, with a tour guide you're a lot less likely to be hassled.  It's hard for tourists in Morocco not to stick out like a sore thumb!)  In addition to the main historic highlights, he showed us many places of everyday life that we would not have been able to see otherwise.

Enjoying the (bright) view during breakfast

We started off at the impressive Royal Palace of Fes, or Dar el-Makhzen.  We then walked through the Mellah, or Jewish quarter.

The Royal Palace

The Mellah, or Jewish Quarter

A great view of the medina of Fes

It was very interesting to walk the streets of the old Medina.  I loved walking through the area that had all of the food!  The lives of the people that live there are so different than what we know.

Fresh escargot

The lady below is offering us a sample of the crepe that she is making.  She spreads the dough very thin, and cooks it on the hot iron spherical shaped thing in the front.  It was delicious!

Fes is well known for the handicrafts.  You can see into the tiny workshops of the craftsmen as you wonder the streets.

This knife maker was very nice, and showed us his pet hedgehog he kept in a box!

Fes is also well known for its leather.  They still treat and dye leather in the old fashioned way.  We visited a leather shop overlooking the tannery.  It was so fascinating to watch the men at work.  They make leather from many animals including cows, sheep, goats and camels.  Tanneries smell incredibly horrible.  They're always on the outskirts of town because of that reason.  The leather shop gave us sprigs of mint to smell as we watched the workers below.  They said the smell wasn't too bad that day...but it sure smelled putrid to my sensitive nose!

The picture below shows a man baking bread in a wood fired oven.  Women drop off their dough to him in the morning, marked with a little symbol to identify their dough.  He bakes it for them, and they pick it up in the afternoon.

A weaver making fabric out of agave silk

I know, we totally look Moroccan, right?  :-)

A little pre-school

We visited the beautiful Bou Inania Madrasa, founded in 1351.  It served as a place of education and a mosque.

After our long day of walking, we had tea with Abdul before parting ways.  We picked up some wine to take back to our riad to enjoy on the terrace.  We became friends with Hanane and Abdou, two people that had been working at the riad.  They came up to hang out with us on the terrace.  It was really interesting and fun to talk with them.  Abdou, who spoke English fairly well, had learned it mostly on You Tube!

The next morning we took about a three hour train ride from Fes to Casablanca where we would be leaving the following day.  We spent a few hours walking around Casablanca.  There are some pretty parts and interesting Art Nouveau architecture, but really there isn't much to see there.  They have the incredible Hassan II Mosque built right on the coast.  It's Morocco's largest mosque, and one of very few that non-Muslims are allowed to visit.  Unfortunately, since it was Friday, their holy day, there were no tours being offered.

A popular swimming place for the young boys of Casablanca

We spent the evening in the more touristy and beachy part of Casablanca at a nice wine bar and restaurant right on the coast.  It was nice after a long trip of touring to relax and enjoy our last evening with Jason in Morocco.

Kyle and I headed out early the next morning and took a taxi to the airport.  The cabbie tried to charge us more than the agreed upon price, which didn't really leave us with a warm and fuzzy feeling.  (Why are taxi drivers like that??)  Luckily, the many warm and friendly people are the ones that we will remember when thinking of our trip!

Morocco is such an incredible place, and I think we were especially captivated by Fes.  It was our first visit to an Arab country, and we would definitely like to visit others.  While the people just trying to make a buck might make the people seem abrasive and off-putting, there are so many more great people that were a pleasure to meet and talk to.  The chaos of the old medinas is like nothing we've ever experienced, and endearing in many ways.  Our trip with Jason to Morocco is by far one of our most memorable trips!

1 comment:

  1. Super post guys!!! and some great shots... I was looking for info on the Sabra Silk which led me to your blog ... the one of the man weaving is super.