Sunday, April 15, 2012

Morocco Part 1

Hello from Vienna, Austria!  My post about Morocco ended up being super long and containing a bunch of pictures, so I divided it into two posts so that my blog will load faster.  Anywho, here it is, finally!

It seems like ages ago that I went to Fez, Morocco.  I flew there on the afternoon of February 23.  Morocco is part of the North Africa region that was conquered by the Arabs.  It forms the other half of the Strait of Gilbraltar with Spain and is how the Arab armies were able to reach the southern-most tip of Spain.  It is literally the most Western tip of the Arab world and figuratively the most Western in that it is far more open and friendly with the West than the rest of the Arab world.  Even though it is so close to Spain, getting off the plane you instantly feel the difference between the Western and Eastern influence. 

The first night we met the owner of the hotel at the gates of the medina so he could lead the way and went straight to the hotel.  Our hotel was inside the medina where you can’t drive cars, so we got dropped off at Bab Boulejold and followed from there.

Bab Boulejold, translated to Blue Gate:

Basically, the medina is the oldest part of a Moroccan city; in the case of Fez, one of the royal cities meaning that it houses a palace for the royal family, the medina dates back over a thousand years.  The cool thing about Fez is that it was recently named a UNESCO world heritage site and ever since then a lot of money has been put into restoring the ancient architecture of the city.  The medina was developed long before cars existed so the streets were never designed to be wide enough for cars.  The medina is like a maze through buildings, all about five or six stories high so you feel more like you’re in a tunnel.  Sometimes the buildings are actually built over the streets so you really are walking through a tunnel.  That first night it would have been impossible for us to find our way to the hotel without a guide because it would be impossible to truly map the medina since there are so many tiny alleys and dead ends, plus most of the streets don’t even have names.  Thankfully the people at the hotel were cooking that night because we would have never been able to find our way around!  So, we just hung out there, ate dinner, drank delicious Moroccan tea, and got to know a bunch of our fellow travelers!    

We booked our hotel online through, but it wouldn’t be really correct to call it by Western terms a “hostel” or a “hotel.”  Really, it was a “riad,” and old Arabic term that is generally translated to hotel.  It’s basically an architectural style where you have a central courtyard which is open up to the sky.  In our case, they had a gazebo tent over the opening on the terrace level to protect the ground floor from rain, but all four levels still opened up to fresh air.  Our hotel had recently been restored and all the mosaic work was gorgeous and very well done.  In fact, it was one of the nicest hotels that I’ve stayed at in all my travels, and it was also one of the cheapest. 

Check out this tile work:

And the fountain inside:

What’s interesting about the Moroccan style of architecture is that it feels somewhat “inside-out” from a Western perspective.  In the West, I’m used to the streets feeling open so that you can see the sky and feel like you have space then you go inside for shelter and a more cozy atmosphere.  In Morocco, it’s completely the opposite.  The streets are so narrow you can hardly ever see the sky and there are so many people pushing and shoving it’s crazy.  Even in the heart of downtown Chicago with some of the tallest sky scrapers you can always look up and see the sky and feel like you’re walking through open air.  In Morocco where the buildings are hardly ever more than six stories tall, you still feel like you’re walking through a caged maze.  Then, you walk inside the “riad” and suddenly everything is open and airy.  Sunshine is pouring into the courtyard and all the noise and bustle of the streets seems to fade away.  Going up to the top floor and sitting on the terrace was my favorite.  The weather was perfect, hot enough to feel comfortable in a t-shirt but not too hot to start sweating, and the sun was magnificent.  I hadn’t realized how much I missed the sun in dreary London until I got a taste of the great Moroccan sun. 

Another thing that makes the streets feel caged in is that sometimes they put wood “roofs” over them such as the one shown in the picture below.  Cats roam the medina freely and we often saw them making their way over these “roofs.”  One time we even heard a full on cat fight happening on top of one!

Our first night, we had a great time eating delicious Moroccan food and getting to know our fellow travelers, even without leaving our hotel.  The courtyard on the ground floor provided a great place to hang out, drink some of the addictive Moroccan tea, and relax.  We met some people who had been backpacking Europe for months and their Schengen visas (the agreement that allows you to travel to multiple European countries on one visa) were expiring so they had to leave the Schengen area for a while.  Pretty much everyone there seemed to be a wayward traveler exploring the world.  I was surprised at how many people had given up their jobs back home to spend a year or more traveling and living off their savings.  I’ve only been in Europe for four months and my savings have already taken a severe hit!  Many of them didn’t have plans for what they would do when they finished traveling but they all seemed to have adventurous spirits.  I guess it’s just the logical engineer in me that would never be able to simply give up everything for a year and simply travel without any plans or itinerary or anything but at the same time it seems like a very romanticized idea. 

For our first day, we organized an official guide through the tourism office to show us around the medina.  It was definitely a good decision since we would never have been able to find all the different places on our own!  Our first stop was at one of the leather tanneries, a type of craftsmanship for which Fez is famous.  The smells of the dyes that they use are absolutely awful so when you get up to the terrace overlooking the tanneries they give you a little mint leaf to hold in front of your nose.  It helps, but the stench is still pretty awful.  At one step of the process, they mix in pigeon droppings because it helps for some reason.  In this picture you can see all the different colors.  Some of the milky colored ones are baths to remove the fur from the hides. 

This shows a big stack of hides and a large wheel that they use to spin and wash the hides.

Here you can see the hides hanging to dry.  In the windows are the rooms where the women work on sewing the hides into sellable goods.

And here I am overlooking it all, temporarily not holding my mint leaf to my nose for the photo.

I spent WAY too much in the tannery but I got a great cross body satchel that I love and use all the time so I guess it was worth it!  I have a cross body travel purse which is great for traveling when I don’t want to carry too much, but sometimes I want to bring around my guidebook or my London A-Z or a water bottle and my travel purse just isn’t quite big enough.  I can also fit my laptop in my leather satchel so if I ever want to bring it around I can! 

Throughout the medina, there is such detailed mosaic work everywhere.  Everything is decorated in the most detailed patterns.  There are also fountains throughout the medina with water that comes directly from aqueducts outside the city.  For example, check this one out:

On our tour, we also went and saw a few mosques.  Mosques that are still in use are not open to non-Muslims, so unfortunately we never got to see the inside of most of them.  There are a few, however, that are no longer active mosques where we were allowed to walk inside and take pictures. 

Here I am inside a mosque with my brave travel companion, Olivia.

Another view of a mosque

Our guide explained that green is the holy color of Islam, so holy buildings such as mosques and religious universities always have green roofs.  Here is a famous university, the first university in Morocco.  As it is a religious building, it is topped by a green roof.

We were not allowed to enter the building, but we were able to look through the outer gate.  Our guide explained to us that the two sets of stairs lead up to the two different sections of the university.  The green stairs led up to the religious part while the blue (the color of Fez) stairs led up to the secular part.  Here are the green stairs.

We also stopped by a fabric making shop.  Like everything in the medina, it is all handmade according to ancient traditions.  Here is a man working on a loom.

As always on that tour, I ended up spending more than I meant to, but I got a great purple fabric.  My room in London was really lacking for purple since I got a pretty bland white and green duvet cover.  So, now I can put my purple fabric over my duvet and it keeps me a little bit warmer and brightens up the color quite a bit!  The fabric is silky so it’s smooth to the touch and it rolls up in a nice tight cylinder so it doesn’t take up too much room.  At another stop on the tour we visited a sort of perfume and spice shop.  We got to watch a couple of girls grinding argan nuts into argan oil.  The argan tree is a particular type of knotted bent-over looking tree which grows only in the Morocco region.  It’s very popular in cosmetics.  I wasn’t sure I believed that since I had never heard of the argan tree before until I was at a perfumery in France and they mentioned the argan oil that they use in their products.  So, I figure it’s legit!  I got a couple bars of soap, some perfume bars, some tea, and some smelling salt-type things which are supposed to help clear your nasal passages. 

Our guide also took us into an old courtyard to demonstrate the traditional Moroccan household style.  The home has now been turned into shops, but just like our “riad,” the central courtyard was open to the sky and the bedrooms all had windows looking into the courtyard. 

Along the way, we stopped at a carpet shop while our guide went to Friday prayer.  The owners of the shop offered us Moroccan mint tea to drink while we sat on the terrace to appreciate the great view of the whole medina. 

As you can see in this picture, all the buildings are built up on top of each other.  Looking down from above, it’s like looking at a bunch of squares and rectangles all fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.  Almost every building has a terrace and a courtyard.  Sometimes the only way to feel like you’re “outside” is by going inside and sitting on a terrace or at a courtyard since the streets are so crowded, narrow, and dimly lit.  Beyond the medina, you can see the hills in this photo.

For dinner that night, we wondered close to Bab Boulejould where there are many shops and restaurants that cater to the many westerners who enter the medina through this gate.  I ordered couscous since it is a Moroccan specialty even though I don’t normally like couscous.  To my great surprise, it was absolutely delicious!  Pretty much all the food that I had in Morocco was great even though I was hesitant since I don’t normally like Middle-Eastern food. 

In addition to the medinas, another aspect of a Moroccan city is the so-called “Nouvelle Ville.”  When Morocco was a French colony, the French came in and built roads, Churches, shops, and other Western amenities right outside of the old Medinas.  French is also taught in all the schools and more Moroccans speak French than English.  This gave me a chance to practice my French a bit!  I did find that the Moroccan accent was a bit difficult to understand sometimes, but most of the time I was able to get by.  Here you can see a bit of the western influence in this fountain in the Ville Nouvelle. 

For our second day, we heard that close to the city of Fez, we could also visit Moulay Idriss, an ancient holy city, Meknes, another royal city, and Volubilis, a site containing ruins from an ancient Roman city.  I knew that the ancient Romans had conquered the coast of North Africa, but I had no idea that they had settled and built cities as far inland as Fez!  If anything, that just goes to show how awesome ancient Rome was!  Anyway, we hired a driver for the day to take us to these near-by sites and be our quasi tour guide.  He didn’t speak English, so this was the true test of my French-speaking abilities.  Along the way, we stopped by this nice lake just outside Fez.  From what I could understand, I believe it provides some of the water for the city.

Our first stop was just outside of Moulay Idriss.  From my guidebook, this city is supposedly a pilgrimage site because it contains a particularly holy mosque.  We didn’t actually go into the medina, but we drove through the outskirts and got a good look.

And here we are.

At one point, our driver saw this bird and had to stop so we could take pictures.  I couldn’t really understand why this bird is important, but our driver seemed very interested in it. 

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