Here we are in Morocco, smack bang in the middle of summer, and it has been scorching. Desert trips, further south, have been talked about, but not with any real ferocity. We know all too well what hot really means, from our recent experience in Egypt. I can only thus begin to conceptualise the brutality of the heat further south. Yep, we opted to be “wooses” on this one, and took a rain check. We have literally followed summer around the world, and after almost a year, I can truthfully say that I would not mind being in Melbourne in the throes of winter. That’s a pretty big statement coming from a serious sun lover!
Fes, or Fez, as it is also known, is the third largest city in Morocco, and is one of the country’s four imperial cities. It has a huge and exotic medina with an interesting Ville Nouvelle ( or new town in English). It is the term used to describe the newer areas outside of the medinas in Morocco’s larger cities. They are surprisingly modern, and in some cases you feel like you are in Europe. I repeat, Morocco has a cosmopolitan flair which I would never have envisaged.
Having said that, the medina in Fez is a hive of activity, and once in the depths of its interior, another and very different world comes to life, and you barely realise that a modern world exists outside of it. It’s a place that challenged ALL of my senses ALL at once. Old women sell their wares, from fruit and vegetables to other bits and bobs like they just stepped out of the middle ages; chunks of cows and other beasts hang outside in the souks ( a market; or commercial quarter in an Arab city) enticing more flies than humans; men hammer away and create metal objects before your very eyes; and you can SMELL the leather shoes and handbags before you see them! Nestled in amongst the 1000s of stalls, were the shops whose workers’ job it was to take the wool off the sheep hides (my stomach did a quadruple somersault)…as my friend Rita Garcia would say, ” A scratch and smell experience”.
There was one smell however, that was worse, and which made all the others pale in comparison….the famous (or infamous!) tanneries of Fez. This is the area where they dye the sheets of leather before they become our bags, shoes and leather goods. As we rounded yet another windy road, there was another vomit inducing whiff, and before I had enough time to say, give me a bucket, there we were getting whipped into a tiny doorway, and viewing handbags and shoes which smelt like the local abattoir. As I held my hand over my mouth, I was promptly handed some mint leaves, which supposedly curbed the smell. As my eyes scanned the products however, I decided that it would be unfathomable to purchase anything which smelt so vile. For the rest of the duration of our time in Fez, I would do a runner each time I saw leather goods…I SAW shoes, I SMELT flesh rotting!!! What I saw and what I smelt simply did not seem to match up!
Fes is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination and many non-Moroccans are now restoring traditional houses (riads and dars) as second homes in the Fes medina. We stayed in one of these. As soon as the local lads see someone with a backpack, they follow you, surpass you, tuck into the hotel before you do, make it look like they took you there, and then seek commission. We are not supposed to work this out, but, we obviously have! As we walked into the riad we ended up staying at, Dar Bouanania, I said hello, and “He didn´t bring us here”, all in the same breath, which, I suppose, is not that hard for me to do. We ain´t paying anybody a commission, especially if we found our own way there.
The souks are amazing, if not for the interesting products, for the people, both locals and foreigners you see there. What a juxtaposition…whilst tourists are sometimes being ripped off blindly (depending on their nationality and negotiating skills), the locals continue with business as usual. We not only walked in and around the medina, but also outside of it, which provided some interesting views and landscapes. It never ceased being hot, and we cannot tell you how many 3 dirham (50 cents AUD) glasses of orange juices we had. There were vendors everywhere.
In Fez, Alex and I felt very privileged to be able to enter the home of some local people. It started out with a man called Mohamed asking Alex some questions on how to use his new camera, and ended up with being invited into his mother’s home. Here we shared several hours with not only Mohamed (who lives in Casablanca with his family), but his brother Youssef (who lives in the United Arab Emirates, and was here on holiday) and their gorgeous elderly mother, Neftsaha, who despite her total lack of English was a delightful hostess. She could not offer us enough, including food, cookies and rosemary tea. By the end of our visit, she was hugging and kissing me and telling me that I was beautiful. I told her that she too was gorgeous! It is amazing how much “talking” you can do with your hands! Well I am the daughter of Italians, so that has given me a pretty good head start. We visited her again before leaving Fez, and told her how honoured we felt at not only being invited, but being re-invited to her home. Yet another priceless experience, which will remain in my heart forever! For me, this is the true essence of what travelling is all about!
Time for a quick getaway from all the hustle and bustle, and something a little cooler too. We decided on a little Berber town called Azrou. It means rock in Berber, whose meaning was obvious upon arrival. As it was nestled amongst the mountains, it was rather refreshing at night, which was welcome relief. We really did not do much here, except for sleep, eat, relax and wander around the not too large souk. During the lunch hours, the people seem to disperse, partially due to the heat, and partially to chill out over and then relax after lunch, but at night time, it is like one big party! We found much of Morocco to be like this.
Next was Azilal, which was really only going to be a stop over in order to see the Cascades d´Ouzoud, supposedly the most spectacular in Morocco. Unfortunately, yet again, the “show stealers” were all the trash and cigarette butts, many floating in the water. It detracted substantially from the “show”, and as I saw the multitudes of the people (mainly men, as the woman do not bathe in public unless fully clothed) bathing, my brain was doing a silent cataloguing of all the potential diseases. It seemed like a great place for dial-a disease to me! On a serious note, the falls were rather pretty, and I have no doubt that if cleaner, they could indeed profess to be “spectacular”.
Marrakech here we come………enticed by your exotic image and the likes of real snake charmers in your central square, we figured we could cope with the 43 degree heat! No documentary or travel show could have prepared us for you, however! You were scathingly hot, but with your constant action and commotion you provided us with such an elevated assault on the senses, that we often fell asleep standing up, that is to say exhausted, as we battled with the incessant barrage of information! Marrakech you are like an exotic liqueur, ready to consume those of us who taste you!
We splurged in Marrakech and stayed in a couple of truly beautiful riads. One was called Riad Noga and the other Riad Kaiss. They were both beautiful in their own and very different way. Whilst Riad Noga had an attention to detail that was unrivalled, from the shampoo and body gel in the shower to the sweets and fruit by our table side, Riad Kaiss was so very much in the style of a typical Arabic house, with lots of spectacular tile work and interior gardens. Please click on both of the links above, they were both well earned, as well as hidden luxuries! The former even had a pool, but who had the time! The latter was owned and had been decorated by a French architect called Christian Ferre. Very tragically, he died of a heart attack whilst we were actually staying there. We offer our sincerest condolences to all his family, as well as all his staff at the hotel. May he rest in peace.
I should mention that Marrakech is in the south west of Morocco, at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Hot, hot, hot is its middle name! In the days following our stay there, the temperatures rose until they hit 50 degrees celsius. I seriously forewarn all who choose Morocco as a vacation destination – July´s temperatures are the hottest, and the heat is brutal!
Marrakech has the largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco and also has the busiest square in the entire continent of Africa, called Djemaa el Fna . As you would expect, there were people selling everything from shoes to meat. I must say, those chunks of protein hanging up in the “fresh” and open air made me thankful that I was a vegetarian! On a serious note, Marrakech is famous for exactly that……weaving in and out of alley way upon alley way and being both enticed and/or hassled to buy, buy, buy! On a few occasions, I had to tell myself to breathe in and breathe out…very, very deeply! I must say, I seriously lost it on one or two occasions. This is “coffee chat” however, and if you are interested I will tell you all about it when I get home! Needless to say, it did involve me being rather brutal and blunt about the way I, and subsequently, other women are treated. I know I should zip it, but sometimes the part of me that wants equality for all, just rips out of its seams! Let’s say, body in 1st gear and mouth in 5th!
One day we did “Marrakech Tour”, which is a bus which takes you to several points all over Marrakech. The beauty is that you can get on and off as you like. We decided to visit the “famous” Menara Gardens. You know that famous view seen on all the postcards….blue lake, and palm trees with a frosted mountain backdrop…..what can I say, perhaps, thank goodness for photo shop!? It was pretty Joe average, but once we were there we felt that we at least had to walk around the lake…….in searing heat, and despite the fact that we had to buy a bottle of water which cost three many times as elsewhere! We also visited many other interesting sites, like the the Koutoubia, which is the largest mosque in Morocco. Its architecture and richness of decoration make it one of the masterpieces of Hispano-Moorish art. We also visited the El Badi Palace, which dates back to the 16th century, and the Kasbah, which is basically the old fortress.
And then there are all the quirky places, things and people, which seem to pop up in the most unexpected places. We particularly liked the snake charmers in the main square, the “camel” in the internet cafe and the man we saw taking a nap in the unlikeliest of places. A good laugh, a great photo opportunity, or both!
Note: I am sorry but we are several weeks behind with our blog updates. Please be patient as the others will soon follow. Since leaving Morocco, we also passed briefly through France, Germany and Japan. We arrived in Hong Kong on the 16th of August, and we are now in the process of organising visas for both China and Vietnam. D-day has come and gone, and…….no we are not returning to Australia……yet!! We decided to let our ticket”expire” and will continue travelling through China and South-East Asia for a few more months. When are we coming home? Sorry, cannot answer a question that I do not know the answer to, so…..stay tuned!
(OK, so I would have used “people” instead of “men”, but even all those years ago, this dude realised that taking the lead was far more exciting than following the crowd!)
Next: Relaxing on Morocco’s coast.
(Photos: 1.- Fez as seen from up high. Of course we walked there to get the view! 2.- Entering the Fez medina through the main gate. 3.- The tanneries of Fez – look interesting, smell revolting! 4.- The heartbeat of the medina, Fez. 5. Local, hand-made, edible delicacies. 6.- At home with Neftsaha, Fez. 7.- Azrou at sunset. 8.- Cascades d´Ouzoud. 9.- Riad Kaiss, Marrakech. 10.- Marrakech’s central square by night, Djemaa el Fna. 11.- Cloth seller, Marrakech medina. 11,12,13.- (L to R): Snake charmer, afternoon nap, using the camel express….ooops, I mean internet. 14.- Time to jump to the next destination.)