morocco

Moroccan Inland

Moroccan inland. This is second part of travel journal documenting trip around Morocco. Coastal regions in the first part can be found here.

December 2016. Marrakech. Djemaa el Fna square is an old Berber marketplace. It is intermingled with nearby souk’s, and a heart of the city. Snake charmers, touts, sellers and performers are attracting locals and tourists alike with their shows, stories and music. Both the market and souk’s are integral part of old town, and judging 100+ year old photographs, has not changed much in its general outlook. Large minaret of Koutoubia Mosque is towering nearby and providing scenic background of all the hustle and bustle in the square.

Saadis were Moroccan ruling dynasty in 16th century and Marrakech was their capital. This was the time when Ottoman Empire was pushing its borders from the east. Saadian Morocco became a region of contest between Ottoman expansionism and emerging Portuguese and Spanish Empires from the north. Christians had recently completed the Reconquista, the occupation of lands from Muslim Moors in southern part of Iberian peninsula.

Ruins of El Badi Palace, Marrakech. Atlas mountains can be seen in the horizon.

For Ottomans, Morocco was a distant land. Besides some military expeditions, occupation was never really attempted. Having a neutral state next to Ottoman North African coast was enough, and achieved with means of diplomacy and military support. Portugese crusade by king Sebastian I ended in defeat in Battle of Three Kings, 1578. Saadian Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur aided by Ottoman’s, decisively winning the battle. For Portugal, result was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the lack of a body, Sebastian was presumed dead, at the age of 24. In his piety, he had remained unmarried and had sired no heir. With the ransom money from Portugese, Saadi’s set out to improve their capital in Marrakech. El Badi Palace was largely funded with Portuguese gold.

Saadian Tombs were burial site that may have been used also before the period. Earliest known burial dates from 1557 and all the main buildings were constructed under Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603). Sultan was powerful ruler who fought several wars and started large building projects around his country, especially in the capital Marrakech.

Another Moroccan strongman, Ismail Ibn Sharif laid a bitter siege of Marrakech during the civil war in 1677. After siege, his forces sacked the city and destroyed many of its prominent buildings, including El Badi Palace of former rulers. It was perhaps superstition kept the burial ground in tact. Instead, entrances to Saadian Tombs were sealed up silence fell down for centuries.

Tombs lay hidden and forgotten until 1917, when they were discovered during a French aerial survey. Photographs revealed there was something at the centre of building complex, that nobody at streets knew and could not see. A new passageway was built from the side of the Kasbah Mosque. The tombs long neglect as well as dry climate ensured their preservation. Today Saadian Tombs have been fully restored to their original glory, and are not to be missed if visiting the city.

Another place worth the visit in Marrakech is Bahia Palace, it bears similar name as nearby ruins of El Badi, but is newer and was not destroyed during the turbulent history.

The Bahia Palace is a palace and a set of gardens located in Marrakech. It was built in the late 19th century and the name means “brilliance”.

Palace was built by grand vizier of the sultan for his personal use, craftsmen from Fes were brought to ensure the prominence of the building. The harem includes a vast court decorated with a central basin and surrounded by rooms intended for the concubines.

Menara Gardens, Marrakech.

Complex of souk’s is large and varying, and in Morocco its second to none except perhaps the one in Fes. Souk has spread through the medina and its hard to tell when one ends and other begins. On sale are literally everything, from modern plastic stuff made in China, old antique collectibles, Berber carpets and clothes, spices, fruits and food. Buildings are mostly in low height, also in new town adjacent to the medina.

While air is cold and one can see breath in the morning, its dry and sunny at day, laundry dries fast outside. Summer in Marrakech is a different story, temperature will raise above 40 Celcius!

Views from Marrakech souk and medina.

Leather tanneries of Marrakech. Google “Marrakech tannery scam” to avoid expensive “guided tour” by touts loitering and waiting for unaware tourists.

January 2017. Ouarzazate. Came today from Agadir to the edge of Sahara. Views are arid although true Sahara begins further south-east in Mhamid oasis town. Trip went fine and views from front of the bus were interesting. Had a dinner in tajine joint at the back alleys, went sleep early and tried to stay warm. Room is absolutely freezing, but least the WiFi works pretty well. In morning, sun fails to warm even at 10am although Saharan light is radiant. In the afternoon wind raises and brings dust from the desert, corners of my old hotel begin howl.

Aït Benhaddou is a ksar along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech in present-day Morocco. Inside the walls are half a dozen merchants houses and other individual dwellings. Aït Benhaddou has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site and several films have been shot here.

Bus through the Atlas mountains. Serpentine road is traversing the mountain region at above 2000 metres. Average elevation of the snow-covered mountains lies above 3000 metres. Passengers are having motion sickness, not having strong stomach myself either. Am leaving the region with a bit of sigh. There was whole world am feeling of having barely scratching the surface.

January 2017. Fes.

While approaching Fes in the afternoon, rainy weather, and sloping green fields and agriculture made me feel like traveling somewhere in France. Fes is ancient city with rich history behind it. It rivals Marrakech in prominence as centre and former royal capital. Medina resembles European medieval city, rather than African. Cold and rainy winter weather does its part to bring the image to mind. One can really photograph and walk oneself to exhaustion in narrow streets and alleys. Visual bombardment is coming from all directions.

Large Fes medina at night.

The University and Mosque of Al-Karaouine. It is the oldest existing, continually operating educational institution in the world and sometimes referred to as the oldest university. The Al-Karaouine mosque-madrasa (religious school) was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859AD, which subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the historic Muslim world. For such a historic sight, its a shame its closed for non-Muslims.

The Bab Bou Jeloud is a gate that leads to the old medina, and a local landmark everyone knows.

Leather tanneries in Fes.

January 2017. Chefchaouen — blue city.

Chefchaouen is a small picturesque town in the Rif Mountains, around 700meters above sea level. Its also called blue city, for its trademark colour that is painted every house in historic part of the town.

There are several theories as to why the walls were painted blue. One popular one is that the blue keeps mosquitos away. Heard the same story also elsewhere in the country where blue is the favourite colour, so it may hold some truth in it.

Travel practicalities in Morocco.

Trains in Morocco are reliable and affordable method of traveling, going from centre to centre. If choosing a bus instead, use established bus companies of Supratours and CTM. Just walk by the touts loitering at the entrances of bus stations. Their “service” can end up to a no-name company not driving to centre (despite what they agree to get your money), but instead leaving you by the road at city outskirts before continuing next destination. Happened to me once in Agadir.

How to catch a taxi correctly is easy to forget when actually doing it: Before jumping inside, have proper change because driver will pretend of not having a change for tourists. If still not having the change, ask driver about it before letting him to start driving. Moroccan drivers usually accept using their meter, but sometimes claim its broken and negotiate price instead. Again, agree price before sitting inside and go. Dont wait until you have arrived, then its too late.

Couple lines from Wikitravel Fes matches my experience as traveler in Morocco.

There are many other scams and annoyances trying to get you into a shop/restaurant/hotel with various degrees of lying in the stories people make up. If in doubt, be independent and look for yourself e.g. whether the hotel you want to go to is indeed closed or under construction. This is unfortunately one of the sad things about Morocco, that you get to distrust every one, even those people who are genuinely friendly and hospitable, because sometimes this is only a facade.

Even if some slight annoyances can be expected down the road, no country is perfect. Morocco is welcoming, safe and developing country with lots to offer for curious and open minded traveler. Go see it yourself! 🙂

Kingdom of Morocco

Travel journal and photography of two month journey around Kingdom of Morocco, north-west corner of Africa. December 2016 to February 2017. This first part consists of Moroccan coastel cities, from Gibraltar in north, to Agadir and Essaouira in south. Part two dives into Moroccan inland.

Morocco is part of Maghreb. Greater Maghreb is defined of the region of Northwest Africa, west of Egypt. The traditional definition as the region including the Atlas Mountains and the coastal plains of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.

North African native Berber heritage have influenced distinctively Moroccan history and culture. Arab’s conquered the region early 8th century AD, but it was far away from centres of Arabia, Baghdad, Damascus and later Istanbul, and soon country break away to its own course. Successive local dynasties overthrow the Arab rulers and formed powerful regional empires of their own, such as Almoravids (10th century) and Almohads (until end of 13th century). Ottoman Turks and Europeans started arriving around 16th century.

With Arabs, bazaars common in Mid-East spread along the North Africa. Here they are called a Souk (find more about bazaar’s in Persia here and here).

Other common terms traveler soon will come across are: Ksar (fortified village), Kasbah (walled building where prominent local leader or tradesman and his family/court lived. A kasbah walls were high and usually without windows. They were often built on hilltops and/or near the entrance to harbours), Medina (labyrinth like old town), Riad (mansion, characterised by an open central garden courtyard surrounded by high walls. Recent times, old riads with good location have seen renovation and building boom around Morocco. These exotic houses are refurnished as hotels and houses for rent).

Tajine and Couscous. The main Moroccan dish most people are familiar with is couscous, the old national delicacy. Beef is the most commonly eaten red meat with a wide selection of vegetables. Chicken is also often used in tagines, or roasted. Both dishes are served in tangia, an urn-shaped terra cotta cooking vessel. It is also the name of the stew cooked in the pot.

Atlantic shores of Rabat.

December 2016. Rabat. As taxi from airport approach my apartment, warm 17 degrees wind, moist sea air from Atlantic were telling that chilly Europe was a thing of a past for now. Temperatures in coastal Morocco vary between 15-20 at day time at winter. Inland at night, temp can drop as low as freezing the water pools on streets.

Rabat is walkable developing city. Atlantic shore is magnificent with house size waves pushing against coastal rocks and wave breaker. More calm and pleasant waters can be found at river side of Bou Regreg, where fishermen are fixing their nets and boats, and people doing relaxing walkabouts at the shores.

Kasbah of the Oudaias is dominating the river mouth.

French coffee shops. Having a morning coffee in downtown cafes has quickly become my favourite past time during early morning. Coming here and sip the strong Moroccan drink, watch and chat with others, customers having their morning cafe noir and watch news on tv, reading papers, chatting. Waking to streets outside, traffic humming by and children walking to school, businesses opening.

December 2016. Casablanca.

City has given name for Hollywood block buster by Warner Bros Studios, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Today, center stage of the movie, Rick’s Cafe Americain can be visited by film noir nostalgia craving travelers.

Modern day Rick’s Cafe interior.

Casablanca is largest city and commercial center of the country. Although early settlements go long back in time, city really started as its current for in late 18th century. French style venues are long and wide. Building base is often not older than perhaps 100 years, although medina exists here too. Traffic police can be seen on foot on many street crossing and controlling busy traffic that passes by. Driving style on streets is fairly organised, although pedestrians are expected to give way to cars. Signpost and plaques are usually Arabic and French only, also in museums. Words boulangerie, patisserie, glacier, croissant, baguette come by everywhere.

Downtown Casablanca.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. It is the largest mosque in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world.

December 2016. Agadir.

Agadir’s is prosperity is emitting of being holiday and retirement destination. People arrive with family and friends, spend time relaxing at sun and sea and doing beach activities at day, clubbing and dining at night, and shopping in between. On its back streets and suburbs, poverty manifests itself in various forms. Agadir is fairly liberal city in Moroccan terms. Rhythms from salsa class are waving hips near the beach. Twenty meters apart devout Muslim men are doing their afternoon prayers, while bikini girls play beach volley and people are sipping caipirinhas like its Fortaleza Brazil. Winter morning light is strong and bright but air is cool. Jackets should be kept on while walking outdoors.

January 2017. Taghazout, north of Agadir. Atlantic waves are inviting surfers from over the world to enjoy waves. Small town has long since changed from sleepy Berber village to international Mecca for wave hunters, hipsters and nomads. All along the coast north from Agadir, large building projects are sprawling.

January 2017. Essaouira — town of trade winds.

Mogador island is the main island of the Iles Purpuraires near Essaouira. Island and its protection from Atlantic waves the reason why navigators have appreciated Essaouira as a natural harbor.

Essaouira medina.

Had a wonderful stay in Essaouira. The medieval town was originally founded by Portugese in early 1500’s. This fact is emphasised for tourists but not much from Portugese history is left standing today. Walled medina by the coast is two hundred years younger and built by local rulers. Nevertheless medina is the main drawing force to the town. Relatively compact and walkable in size, narrow labyrinth-like design provide fascinating experience for travellers. Corridors often lead to dead end at someones front door. Tunnel like streets are passing under peoples houses. Fishing harbour is another place not to miss. Every sunset fishing boats return from the sea with the daily catch. This ignites nervous activity in the harbour, as fish is processed and sold to local businesses and restaurants. It also awakes army of seaguls that have been impatiently awaiting the day. Irresistible smell of fish ignites chaos from the skies.


Hotel Des Iles, where Jimi Hendrix arrived to experience Essaouira in the late sixties.

February 2017. Tangier.

Tangier is probably oldest still habited city of Morocco. Wikipedia:

The history of Tangier is very rich, due to the historical presence of many civilisations and cultures starting from before the 5th century BC. Between the period of being a strategic Berber town and then a Phoenician trading center to the independence era around the 1950s, Tangier was a nexus for many cultures. In 1923, it was considered as having international status by foreign colonial powers, and became a destination for many European and American diplomats, spies, writers and businessmen.

American Legation in Tangier. Morocco was first foreign country to recognise independent United States of America. Legation complex contains the two-story mud and stone building presented to the United States in 1821 by Sultan Moulay Suliman. It is the first property acquired abroad by the United States government, it housed the United States Legation and Consulate for 140 years. Today building houses a museum with interesting display of exhibits from the past centuries.

Today, city is well connected to Europe, regular ferry lines operating to port of Tarifa in Spanish side of Gibraltar.

Sunset in Rabat.