Morocco borders both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.
On Dec 6, 2012 at 10 am we crossed into Africa.
The fast ferry from Tarifa Spain left at 9 am. We docked in Tangiers, Morocco.
We are met by our guide, who else, Mohamed. He is wearing a jalaba, traditional Moroccan dress. He looks a bit like a wizard, his jalaba is black, long, and has a loose pointed hood. The driver's name is also Mohamed and he is wearing western style clothing.
We decided to take a bus tour of Morocco, worried about safety issues, various things, so booked this four night tour of Marrakesh, the High Atlas Mountains and points in between.
We are the only Anglos on the tour. The other nine travelers are Spanish. This is Thursday and Spain has a bank holiday, a four day weekend.
Our guide explains things in Spanish and English. He is fluent in German, Italian, Portugese and of course French as well.
Three of the Spaniards were an hour late, likely held up in the odd passport stamping process that is mandatory on the ferry. It takes so long to process as at least fifty percent of the passengers do not bother to complete their customs paperwork.
The lone employee is obliged to do the documenting for them. Jeff pretty well stood in line for the entire crossing, I was sitting, fidgeting and guarding the packs. I thought I could see him, a big guy wearing a toque, pretty much standing in one spot for half an hour. Yes, now he is motioning for me, or is he just waving hi, I cannot tell, but I make an executive decision to find out what's up and ask an American couple to watch the bags.
I got to jump the line and we were processed in thirty seconds.
When Mohamed does his spiel in English the Spanish people talk and laugh so I have to really concentrate when we are in the van. They are talkative, exuberant people. The noisiest bus we have taken was the coach from Seville to Tarifa. Nothing like Stockholm, where you could converse in a whisper on a crammed subway.
We drive through Tangiers, have a comfort stop for fifteen minutes about two hours in, then stop at a few sights in Rabat, the capital of Morocco.
We visit Mohamed fifth's Mausoleum. He is buried there with two of his sons. The Mausoleum is finished in typical fashion of elite design here: Wood on the ceiling, carved alabaster on the upper walls and tiles on the lower walls. Very opulent, intricate.
We also walked the extensive grounds of the royal palace. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy now, since March 2012, a result of the Arab spring. The king is still head of the military and the mosque. Pretty substantial influence still.
Lunch is at a gorgeous restaurant on the Atlantic Ocean on the outskirts of Rabat. We sit on the terrace overlooking the ocean. It is four pm and we have an hour.
This meal is our dime and to be polite I say I will have the set menu, salad, assorted grilled fish, dessert and also order a sparkling water. Jeff is not about to fork over twenty dollars for lunch and requests a menu. We are now ignored at our table for two, the other tables are getting baskets of bread, beverages, all we have, eventually, is the menu.
Since the French occupied Morocco from 1912 to 1956 it is a bilingual country and the menu is in French. OK I can read most of it. Time passes, I am checking my watch, we are craning our necks looking for service.
Finally another waiter comes over, Jeff orders a salad and coffee. A basket of bread materializes, he gets his coffee and eventually a nice big salad arrives and is set between us. So I have a sip of his coffee and some of the bread and salad, it is twenty to five.
We admire the ocean view, people are surfing. Now I am satisfied, and the original waiter shows up and asks if I still want the fish. No but I would like a coffee.
Time passes, I am wondering if all of a sudden a salad and grilled fish will show up, no here is the coffee, and at 515 the bill is presented.
Jeff is a very laid back kind of guy so I was surprised how quickly he got to his feet, anxious to pay, no they had charged us for the fish. This took ten minutes to straighten out and in the end we had enjoyed a nice lunch in a beautiful environment for eight euro with tip included,
The Spanish had all ordered the set menu and wine so they were even more talkative when we got back in the van at 530.
View from the Restaurant, Atlantic Ocean
One more fifteen minute, more like thirty, comfort stop and we drive now quietly in the dark. Nobody mentioned a time change so I marveled as the sun set at 7 pm, orchids and pinks, then a deep blazing fuchsia. The sun had set in North Africa. The roads are good, multi-lane, modern, lots of toll stops.
We got to our hotel in Marrakesh at ten pm.
From the hotel balcony Marrekesh
As soon as we check in and deposit our bags it is dinner, which is included in our tour fare. Big salad bar, fish, chicken, dessert table, a fine meal, hard to settle down for the night, but we start our tour of Marrakesh at 930 am. We are sleeping by midnight.
The hotel lobby is opulent, chandeliers, marble floor done in mosaic, indigo blue tiles on a kind of reverse dome ceiling, wrought iron, fancy. I had a long time to admire it as I waited for the rest of the tour, we were ready an hour early due to my confusion about the time change.
The Spanish feel right at home, this could be Seville, which has a strong Moorish influence. Our room has a balcony and a large flat screen tv with several channels in English but no wifi. Weefee the Spanish say. It is available in the lobby, the signal is weak.
Morocco is home to the oldest university, located in Fez. It is a country of culture and contrast. Fishing is an important industry, lots of coastline and agriculture supports the economy by over 50 percent, wheat being a major crop, and of course fruit trees, olives, sheep, etc.
A national dish is a tajine, cooked in a clay pot - various stews are made this way.
7 Vegetable Couscous Tagine
The major square in Marrekesh is a Unesco world heritage site.
Djemaa el Fna Square. Snake charmers, dancing monkeys, motorcycles, bikes, horse carts, cars, mingling with the crowd. Music, exotic smells, camels, donkeys name it, a happening place. Colourful, noisy, crowded, traffic weaving around the people.
Merchants are everywhere, calling to you, adding to the din. Tiny stalls sell souvenirs, carpets, leather, olives, mint tea, spices amid the jostling, horn honking, dancing and drums. A big movie screen is set up, it is the Cannes of Morocco here this week, major film festival. A real hullabaloo.
Kasbah means fortress and all these medieval old towns have one.
Medina means old town and jiad is a euphemism for palace. If you are invited to someone's jiad they are pretty well off. They say jiad so it doesn't sound like bragging. The jiad is actually the central courtyard/garden complete with a fountain.
All the windows of the palace face into the courtyard which have tile walkways and fruit trees to attract songbirds. We visited a palace where the owner, long dead and no wonder, had four wives, a harem and eighteen concubines.
His concierge kept a schedule, ok today it is lunch with wife one, dinner with wife four, etc, etc, etc. Each wife had her own quarters, the concubines had to settle for more of a dorm set up. Four wives is the legal limit. Or at least back then it was. We met a carpet seller who currently has at least two wives, one makes ceramics in the city, the other weaves rugs in the mountains.
To the west is the Atlantic, to the east the Sahara dessert. Berbers live in the mountains.
Morocco has twenty percent unemployment and fifty percent of the population is under 25.
Marrakesh is a city of two million people. Winston Churchill loved it here and has a reservation at an elegant hotel in Marrakesh to this day. His family still use it.
The couture designer Yves St Laurent owned a jiad here for forty years, his ashes are in the garden.
We visited the Saadian Tombs, lots of geometric mosaic tile as well as marble. Muslims are not cremated.
One thing about Morocco, you see all kinds of different clothes. Modern, conservative and traditional. Almost as many men as women are wearing the jilaba so it doesn't seem as one sided as Turkey, for example. Lots of headscarves, not too many burkas. A real mix.
Marrakesh is located near the foot of the High Atlas Mountains.
High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
The mountains are about an hour's drive from the city, we drove there Dec 8.
Here the roads are dirt, we bounce along, the mud and hills are a rusty red colour. Lots of adobe buildings and fences, stacks of pottery for sale along the road, sort of reminded me of Mexico.
The people selling their wares to the tour bus crowd kind of swarm around, make me an offer, they speak at least four languages, Arabic, French, Spanish and English. They are good-natured but persistent and hang on the bus til you buy something or drive away with them practically hanging off the sides. Good quality, madam, berber made, I'll make you a good deal....
We enjoyed our foray into The High Atlas Mountains but were disappointed that we did not meet a Berber family like the brochure had said. I had envisioned introductions, some kind of tour of their home or yard, sitting on the floor while food and tea were offered. Unless that pack of necklace salesmen were related, we did not meet a Berber family.
High Atlas Mountains
We saw people with donkey carts but you see those right in Marrakesh. I did see a lady carrying her laundry on her head and of course lots of men in jalabas, this is kind of practical. Many are made of coarse wool, they are loose enough to fit over street clothes, long, almost floor-length and have a roomy, pointed hood. This would keep you pretty toasty, a simple garment, Berber origin, unisex.
Most of the buildings in Marrakesh are ochre and only a few stories high. A low profile, homogenous look, very pretty with a profusion of rose bushes growing in the boulevards and parks, still blooming in December.
On our last afternoon, Saturday, we had free time from three to eight. We decided to walk to the main market and look at the monkeys.
Along the way an older man on a bike rode beside Jeff chatting to him in English. He suggested we detour into the berber old town, lots to see, it was their Saturday market. To shake this guy we were agreeable and thought we would just loop around the block and continue.
What do you know a guy on foot gets in step with Jeff, he would show us where the market was, he lived close by....the next thing you know we were climbing stairs, they were steep and narrow, but I did notice shops on the way up. We were now on a roof with five foot high walls.
Jeff stood on an overturned tin pail and took a few pictures. I was thinking about how this was going to play out, up here on a roof, just the three of us.........oh, now we are going back down the stairs, a shopkeeper is on the landing, thank goodness, we were being taken to a carpet shop.
We went through the drill, not interested, meeting somebody in five minutes, drank the tea, got out, there was the guy, cheerful, chatting away, and after about two blocks he bid his adieu, what a relief.
What were we thinking!!!! We followed a stranger onto a deserted roof. Once again we trusted in the goodness of people and it had turned out ok. Let's never do that again!!
We headed straight for jemma el fna, it is a zoo there, so much smoke from bbq it appears to be burning, the snake charmers are there, camels, donkeys pulling carts, mopeds, bikes, cars, people, all in the square, my head is on a swivel so I don't get hit by a motorcycle, we find a rooftop cafe and survey the scene, drinking mint tea, listening to the drum beat, the honking, the shouting of merchants advertising their wares. The monkey is all dressed up, getting off and on his little stool, the sky turns pink, the sun goes down, we take a cab back to the hotel.
The hodge podge of Marrakesh Square
There are a lot of stray cats here, also some stray dogs and quite a few storks.
Morocco is home to 35 million inhabitants, mostly berbers who were converted to Islam by the Arabs who invaded in the eighth century. Morocco has also been occupied by the French and the Spanish. There are still two Spanish cities on the north coast of Morocco, Cueta and Mallila.
Our guide, Mohamed, only wore his jalaba the first day. After that he wore ordinary street clothes.
He took us to a spice market and a huge miscellaneous market that sold everything from silver to leather to old doors. I think he gets a cut when his group makes a purchase. It is that kind of an economy. Inshallah.
Unless the shop has fixed prices, bargaining is expected. Offer one quarter to one fifth of what the shopkeeper first indicates as a price. Do not pay more than fifty percent of his opening price. They can be pretty aggressive, you have to be prepared to walk away. We are not too comfortable with bargaining but sometimes it was fun.
If you have room to carry one, buy a wool jalaba. There are nice scarves, spices, trinkets. And of course, carpets.
Moroccan money is the dirham. One dirham is about twelve cents. So if they say one hundred dirham then it is twelve dollars. So you offer twenty five dirham and try to remember not to go over fifty dirham which would be six dollars. I found this fairly confusing. Sometimes they quote in euros so then you have to switch gears, do the conversion, offer one quarter, remember one half, etc.
We spent two nights in Tarifa, Spain at Hostal las Margaritas, 37 Euros a night, clean, walking distance to everything, twin room, private bath, no breakfast.