Sunday, March 28, 2010

MOROCCO TRIP - Day Two - Fes

Today is all about Fes. Our travel company recommended that we have a full day to explore this extraordinary city and they were clearly right.
Fes has been in existence for 1,200 years and is considered by many to be the spiritual and cultural centre of the country.
We had an additional guide today specifically for the city, called Muhammed. Both Said and Brahim are from the south so I think they were more than happy to hand over guiding duties to a local and lord knows when you start exploring the rabbit warren of streets that make up the old city it is certainly very reassuring to have someone who knows their way around.
Our first stop was at what they call the Jewish Gate, this leads into what was traditionally the Jewish sector of the city.

As you can see they are very ornate, beautiful gates. That is me with Said our guide, just to give some scale to the structure.
I almost got into trouble for photographing the gate below though!

Apparently it leads into an area owned by the king and it is against the law to photograph it. With my crazy new zoom I had already got this shot off before anyone noticed!
After the beautifully decorated gate the actual Jewish sector seemed quite plain in comparison although it did have a certain charm.

After this we hopped back into the car and Brahim drove us down into the heart of the city so that we could begin our exploration of the true heart of this amazing place.

Some of the streets are incredibly narrow, one was so much so that my broad-shouldered husband had to walk through sideways!

Some streets are covered to give shelter from the rain and sun and some were almost subterranean and apparently a great relief in the heat of summer.

The souks (shopping areas) are an incredible sensory bombardment of sights, sounds and smells. One stall has piles of dates of every colour and shape, the next has drums of different spices giving out delicious aromas...

and the next, selling meat, has an intact camels head hanging out front - certainly not for the faint of heart!

The bustle of people was frantic but amazingly in spite of the tiny streets and the numerous people there was no bumping or pushing, everyone manages to maneuver around each other remarkably well.

The vast array of produce that was available for purchase really caught me by surprise. Having lived in an African country were standard fare in most shops consisted of soap, salt and sugar, the Moroccans really do have a wealth of produce. And don't be fooled, these were not tourist shops, the local Moroccans were the ones doing the buying here.

Every so often the cry 'Balak, balak' would go up and, as one, everyone would step to the sides of the streets as strings of hugely laden donkies made there way through the crowds.

Even the steep stepped streets were no problem for these four-legged porters.

Eventually it was time for us to see some of the Government run enterprises that have been set up with the tourist shopper in mind. First stop, the ceramics co-operative. A wonderful operation that we were led around by the director, he proudly showed us each step in the creative process, from the kiln

To the beautiful glazes

All of which are painted on by hand

To the literally mind-boggling selection of finished items in the store at the end. Everything was so precariously stacked on every square inch of surface area I was almost afraid to breath!

From the ceramics store we moved on to the local carpet store. Did I say store? Well look at it, it isn't exactly your local Target is it!? The carpet 'store' is located in a Dar. A Dar differs from a Riad in that the central area of the building is not open, it has a roof. The decoration is even more opulent

and the carpets aren't bad either!

We were led to our own little seating area (nothing fancy of course!!!) and immediately served sweet mint tea

while the parade of carpets began! Who knew there were so many different designs? It was just fantastic.

We eventually made our purchases and they were quickly and efficiently packaged up.

Then we were off to the tannery. This destination hits your nose long before you ever set eyes on it and as you draw closer you are handed a sprig of fresh mint to hold under your nose as you approach! I can only imagine what this place smells like in the heat of summer!

The leather store is on three levels and we were led up to the top floor to get the full view of this incredible operation.

The first section uses a mixture of lime and pigeon droppings to cure the skins

and then the next area dyes the skins to a rainbow of different shades. The base ingredient is cow urine and then poppies for red, turmeric for yellow, saffron for orange, wild mint for green and indigo for blue.

The array of products and colours produced was spectacular

By this point in the day we were beginning to flag so we made one more brief stop at a weaving shop were they were using silk made from the agave plant to produce exquisite work. I guess in a Muslim country you are not going into tequila production so why not!?

and then it was back to our Riad for a good nights sleep before we hit the road again tomorrow.

Photo Credits - CJT & Dominick V

Thursday, March 25, 2010

MOROCCO TRIP - Day One - Casablanca to Fes.

OK get yourselves comfortable, this is going to be a long one!
We are back from our trip to Morocco and my diligent husband is getting our many hundreds of photos sorted into files and categories so I have absolutely no more excuses to not start blogging about our fantastic trip.
Having arrived in Casablanca late at night after 22 hours of travel, we were met by our driver Brahim and our guide Said and taken to our hotel where we fell into an exhausted sleep.

Next morning, day one, we awoke to the hurly-burly of downtown Casablanca which I have to say is much the same as any other African city I have ever visited - grimy, rough, tough and rather daunting to a non-resident.

Brahim and Said came and collected us from the hotel and we drove down to the seafront. It is funny, it doesn't matter where you go, the Atlantic Ocean always looks the same - fierce and foamy! After a breakfast of coffee, almond croissant and orange juice (this did used to be a French colony after all!) our first destination was the Hassan II Grand Mosque.

It is amongst the largest in the world and the minaret is the tallest religious structure in the world. We were supposed to get a tour inside but it was a Friday (the most important day in the Muslim week) so we couldn't go in. Not that we really minded, it was plenty impressive enough from the outside and we were both more than happy to be walking around outdoors having spent the previous day in a plane.

It was a truly magnificent structure with amazing details of carving and mosaics seeming to cover almost every available inch. It was rather overcast but I can only imagine how much more spectacular it would look in bright sunlight.

I, of course, was quite delighted to find various pairs of kestrels in residence around the numerous nooks and alcoves of the building and with my new high zoom camera I was able to get a picture too.

We then headed out of Casablanca to Rabat which is the current capital of Morocco. This city had a far less frenetic feel to it, helped of course by the fact that the sun decided to shine for us!
Here we visited the mausoleum of Muhammed 5th and Hassan 2nd.

We walked into a very large courtyard type area which had rows of broken columns that were originally a huge mosque which was destroyed by a violent earthquake in 1755. There was an ancient tower where the distinctive call to prayer was echoing out around the neighbourhood.
People were beginning to arrive to a new mosque which had been built next to the mausoleum.

On either side of the courtyard were two gateways which were guarded by mounted soldiers with very fancy uniforms. After checking with our guide we were told that these were some of the few uniformed men that we were actually allowed to photograph!

Quite right too as they looked great!

After leaving this site we drove on to Meknes. This is one of the imperial cities of Morocco. A rather wicked sultan called Moulay Ishmail ruled this area with an iron fist at one time and during his reign was responsible for executing countless thousands of citizens and keeping their ears as souvenirs. Of course my question is - what does one do with thousands of human ears!?
After lunch we went to see 'bad-ass Ishmails' mausoleum.

It is one of the few shrines in Morocco that non-Muslims can actually enter.

And once again we were overwhelmed with the detail and artistry of the decor.
On the road once again we had one more stop to make before arriving in Fes. The ancient Roman city of Volubilis. This is the largest and most well preserved Roman ruin in Morocco and a Unesco world heritage site.

It was very impressive with many columns still standing

and numerous almost intact mosaics still on the floors.

It's pretty amazing that it has survived so well as there were numerous herds of sheep wandering around the perimeter and every so often they would leap over the walls into the ruins!

The icing on the cake for me was the white stork that had carefully built its nest right on top of one of the columns.

From Volubilis we hit the road again for the final leg of the drive to Fes.
We checked into the Riad Elamine our accommodation for the next two nights. Riads are quite extraordinary structures. You walk down a narrow, dirty little alleyway with windowless walls either side of you until you come to a door in the wall. When you step through the door you enter an entirely different world.
The distinguishing feature of a riad being the open courtyard inside where traditionally the women would have spent most of their 'outdoor' time as they were not supposed to leave the home. Hmmmmmmmmmm!!

Many of these traditional riads have now been converted into beautiful mini hotels. Unfortunately for us our riad was located towards the bottom of the hill that the city was built on and because of the recent heavy rains the drains were not coping too well so the bathrooms had a rather sewage-like aroma that took a bit of getting used to! But hey - it looks good!

After another long day we were more than happy to settle into our room for the night.

Photo Credits - CJT & Dominick V