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Three Days in Northern Morocco

Shel posted a few photos at http://twitpic.com/photos/shelhorowitz (scroll down)

4/24/2009

Our Morocco tour organizer, Abdel, was exactly on time to meet us at the ferry terminal, and we liked him immediately.

Organized tours are not our usual choice. But with only a two-night stay, a language barrier, legitimate security concerns, and a lot of ground to cover, it seemed foolish to waste precious hours on logistics and activity planning. And to our good fortune, if not Abdel's, there are only fourteen of us—25-30 is more typical, apparently—and it seems like a nice group. At least four of the fourteen are European, and there's one person older than us. Most are in their early twenties; our son Rafael is the only teenager.

The ferry ride was smooth, fast, and scenic, with great views of Gibraltar. The boats are quite large, with airline-style seats, a cafe, even an onboard liquor store—but unfortunately, no outside decks. Landing is at Ceuta, a Spanish territory, and then just a few kilometers to the massive and confusing border complex. Abdel had to bring all our passports to some office while we waited on the bus; the whole crossing took about an hour (longer than the actual sailing time!)

And then, Morocco at last! We picked up our very charming guide, Abdul, who delivers his extensive information alternating between English and Spanish, but not repeating content—plenty of jokes, too.

Right from the border, we began to pass mosques, teahouses—and a ton of new construction along the Mediterranean coast.

Going in to downtown Tetuan, we passed a beautiful green and white castle that turned out to be the former train station, now a museum. The downtown itself is a hubub, people moving in all directions along the many streets that radiate out from the fountain in the central square. Our first trip there was just to change money and take in the ambience, and then off to our hotel. For me, oddly enough, what cemented the "not in Kansas anymore" feeling was seeing a LybianOil gas station.

The Hotel El-Yacouta is several miles east of the center, along the Ceuta highway. With clean, comfortable rooms furnished 1930s-style, willingness to accommodate vegetarians, some waiters who speak Spanish, and plenty of parking, it's an understandable choice for Abdel. It reminded me of some of the places we stayed in on our first trip to Mexico, back in 1984.

Unfortunately, both of the dinners there were terrible for both vegetarians and carnivores. Breakfast buffet was at least decent, if not exciting.

4/25

On our first full day, Abdul led us for several hours on a fascinating tour of the medina: a labyrinth of over 1000 streets and alleys, the vast majority without any street signs as far as I could see.

A city native, he stopped continuously to greet acquaintances—and to share information with us.

The medina is both commercial and residential, including both market-stall areas and actual shops—offering foodstuffs, clothing (separate shops for men's and women's), housewares, plant-based cosmetics, toiletries and medicines, hardware, and more—in different neighborhoods.

A bit of what he told us:

  • The Royal Palace in Tetuan—most Moroccan cities have one—combined two adjacent palaces, one built by the Caliphate and one by the Spaniards
  • Morocco's pentagram flag is the Star of Suleiman, representing the five principles of Islam: 1) Allah is the one God and Mohammed his final prophet; 2) pray five times a day; 3) keep the Ramadan fast; 4) charity to the poor; 5) make the pilgrimage to Mecca
  • Before entering a mosque, Muslims ritually wash in a prescribed order, starting with a thorough cleansing of the face and continuing through arms, hands, and feet
  • Arabic words: jalaba (hooded outer robe, different for men and women, but same word); waha (I want); la (no); medina (city); casbah (fort)
  • Afer Fez, Tetuan has the largest and most interesting medina in Morocco
  • A certain succulent is good for diabetes; a gooey green paste is special soap for the Arab steambaths; what looked like quartz with bits of silver is a deoderant/anti-perspirant
  • Henna creates different colors when mixed with hot vs. cold water
  • Typical Morrocan medina homes: cooler first floor for summer living, warmer second floor for winter—built around a central courtyard/patio that lets in air, sun-and rain; these houses are very cheap to rent, typically €50-60 per month, and a palace goes for around €500
  • Because the medinas are hundreds of years old and not all the houses have been retrofitted with indoor plumbing, all the medina neighborhoods have public drinking water and public baths
  • Decoration is mostly inside; home exteriors are typically plain
  • The few outside windows are usually in the kitchen, not just for ventilation, but also to find out who's at the door; if a woman is home alone and a man unrelated to her knocks, she sends him away saying, "sorry, no one is home."
  • Several of the artisanal handcrafts are dying out because apprentices are hard to find; tailors all used to have young boys moving the jalaba threads in and out while they hand-stitched, but now, the stitching is still done by hand, but a machine moves the threads
  • Many families will make breads, pastries, and tagines at home, but bring them to a (wood-fired) neighborhood baker for the actual baking (I'm guessing this custom, which we saw in all three medinas—Tetuan, Tangier, and Chefchouen—arose to reduce the risk of a devastating fire that could spread all-too-rapidly)

    The last two stops were a Berber carpet/craft cooperative and a traditional Moroccan restaurant. At the former, the salsmen unrolled carpet after carpet, describing the different styles (Moroccan—similar to Persian—Berber, nomadic, and Jewish), techniques (knots, weaving, Kilim embroidery), dyes (saffron, indigo, mint, absinthe, poppy, etc.), and materials (wool, cactus fiber, cotton, silk, camel hair). As they took each one off the stack, they asked if anyone was interested. Then, for each person who had a pile, a salesman came over to haggle, in a private corner.

    We had several items on our pile, and came away with a small woolen prayer rug and two pillowcase-sized Jewish-style embroideries.

    The best thing about the restaurant was the decor, which was elegant and traditional. The food was decent, actually our best meal in Morocco—but I've had better in Moroccan restaurants elsewhere. Still, it was absolutely gorgeous.

    From then, Tangier. First a scenic tour of some of the wealthier neighborhoods, with excellent views of the Mediterranean—including the street where the king of Saudi Arabia, a Kuwaiti oil baron, and Tangier's mayor all have estates. (The king's has a private mosque on the grounds.)

    Then a stop at the lighthouse and cafe where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic (very scenic, and great coffee), and a silly stop to take pictures on camels (we declined).

    Finally, a short walk through the medina, and half an hour of free time, which was just enough to walk to the beach, cross the deliciously cool sand, stick our feet in the water, then return.

    4/26

    Today is our 30th anniversary as a couple, a good day to explore the beautiful city of Chefchouen, deep in the Rif Mountains.

    If I understood Abdul-Salem, our Chefchouen guide, correctly, the inhabitants paint the outsides of their houses and stores six times a year! Usually, they're blue, but for certain festivals, they paint everything white temporarily.

    Fortunately, today was a blue day. And what a magical palate of blue! Every hue from turquoise to lavender, with emphasis on a vibrant, shimmering set of indigos. It rained much of the day, which made walking challenging but the colors more intense.

    Other things I learned about Chefchouen:

    Like Tetuan (which once had 20 synagogues in the medina and has one remaining), Chefchouen once had a thriving Jewish community, starting after the Spanish expulsion in 1492—but currently, there is just one Jew left, and the Muslims consider him a holy man

  • Chefchouen is the regional hub for about 500 little villages of 100-500 families each; a family is typically three or even four generations, each with several children
  • Rectangular minarets are Berber-style, while octagonal ones were built by Arabs
  • The medina was moved half a mile, centuries ago, because there was a better source of water
  • In the medina, strict historic preservation rules make metal doors illegal, but we saw several nonetheless
  • Many of the craftspeople live way out in the hills, but come into the medina to make and sell their artisanal goods

    Following the tour, we had free time before lunch. Rafael was interested in one of the small, jacket-style jalabas and had failed to come to terms with a rather pushy merchant in the store our guide had brought us to, so we stopped outside a store that had a few on display. Here, we got the low-pressure royal treatment, complete with little glasses of mint tea (very much like our experience years ago buying a rug from an Arab merchant in the Old City of Jerusalem, except that then, it had been Arabic coffee).

    His name was Idris, and he started unrolling rugs for us. After he'd shown a few, we told him that we were actually more interested in the jackets. His response: "after the tea, I'll show you the jackets." And then he showed us more carpets!

    The tea was a long time coming; I think he may have actually sent the small boy in the shop elsewhere to get it; I saw some coins passed). And true to his word, after we'd been sipping for a while, he gave Raf several jackets to try on.

    In three bargaining sessions in two different cities on successive days, the pattern was similar:

    Once we got "into the zone," rather than lower the overall price, they prefer to make the package larger. So yesterday, we ended up with three pieces, today, two: the jacket and a gorgeous scarf that we'll give to Alana.

    In both consummated deals, he accepted our lower price if we added something extra outside the negotiated price, directly into his pocket.

    We enjoyed dealing with Idris in his small shop more than with Salim in his large showroom; it was much more low-key. The merchandise was beautiful in both cases.

    A Few Culture Observations

    Although the population is almost entirely Muslim, the country is a constitutional monarchy with a guarantee of religious freedom. Women walk the streets freely in all three cities we visited—mostly alone or in pairs and groups, occasionally with husbands and/or children. Most wear hijab (head scarf)—often quite elegant. A significant minority, maybe eight or ten percent, are bareheaded, a tiny handful more covered than that: face masks or very occasional, the full chador that's common in pictures from post-revolutionary Iran.

    There was even a female attendant who squirted soap on my hands in a restaurant bathroom, and then wanted a tip.

    Women do run some of the market stalls, especially food vendors—but not, as far as we could tell, any of the craft shops. But the absence of women in teahouses, restaurants, and other public socializing venues is quite noticeable; I think the only exception we encountered was a modern Moroccan tourist who sat smoking in a Chefchouen hotel lobby with her European husband and two daughters; both wearing similar jalabas ; we promised to send a picture of the three kids. Dina said she'd never before felt so much like a second-class citizen.

    Crafts are beautiful, particularly the textiles.

    Local cheeses sold at the market looked wonderful—my guess is something resembling a goat brie. Unfortunately, the only market where we had free time was in Chefchouen, and we didn't see it being sold there, so we never got to try it. We did try a similar looking cheese in Spain, which was delicious.

    Shel Horowitz is the Editor fo Global Travel Review and author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty With a Peasant's Pocketbook.


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