Memories of Morocco: Essaouira

Essaouira, Morocco (2001)

Essaouira, Morocco (2001)

After the heat of the desert, and the frenetic energy of Marrakesh, it was time to complete our circuit back to Casablanca. So we hopped on a bus and headed to the coast – to the old port and pretty little fishing town of Essaouira.

Boat in Essaouira, Morocco (2001)

Boat in Essaouira, Morocco (2001)

The shore wasn’t really for swimming, but more for walking along. However, Essaouira is quite windy – apparently famous for it, so you get blown all over the place. We soaked up the sun and enjoyed more time wandering through shops. I came away with a lovely silver ring.

We explored the harbour, where there are some cool historic wall fortifications, known as the “Scala”. The plaintive cry of seagulls added to the seaside atmosphere. I was really taken by all the colourful boats lined up in the harbour.

And after our day on the beach, we headed north to Casablanca to end our fantastic Moroccan adventure. Some of my most vivid travel memories were from this journey – and it was 15 years ago! I’d go back in a heartbeat – but there are other places I need to explore.

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Memories of Morocco: Mountains, Desert and Marrakesh

After the northern leg of our Morocco visit – Casablanca and Rabat to Meknes and Fes, we wanted to head south to see us some real desert and then go westward to Marrakesh. To do that, we first had to go through the Middle Atlas Mountain range.

There isn’t a train that does that, and though we considered a bus, we decided instead on hiring a car and driver. So civilized! If there’s a patron saint of travellers, they were looking out for us that day. We’d had such great luck with our driver in Meknes, we backtracked from Fes to hire the same guy.

We drove south – through the Middle Atlas mountains, where we had some pretty bad snow squalls I hadn’t expected (it was late May) – to the desert. But our driver persevered, slipping and sliding, until we made it out the other side. He spoke no English, and we had no Arabic, so our schoolgirl French came in quite handy. We were able to learn a few things about Moroccan industry and crops (saw lots of olives growing) and culture and music and history. In honour of our Canadian heritage, our driver unearthed his Celine Dion cassettes for our listening pleasure. Despite this French-Canadian serenade, it was a lovely drive through the country.

We eventually made it to Erfoud, where our driver helped us hire a 4 x 4 (aka: a “quatre-quatre”) to bring us even further into the Sahara – to Merzouga, where the big sand dunes are. The first thing the three of us did was walk out in the sand:

Sahara, Morocco (2001)

Sahara, Morocco (2001)

Merzouga is right on the edge of the Sahara, and close to the border of Algeria (still closed and under dispute). It’s stunning. And I remember noticing how silent it was. All those graceful waves of golden-orange sand cutting a silouette into the deep blue of the sky. The light was incredible.

We also visited a very nice, fresh-faced young man who gave us mint tea and told us histories (in his flawless Parisian French) of “les tapis”. I know I took two of those lovely Moroccan carpets home from that trip (you can see one of them here).

The next day, we set out for Marrakesh, stopping along the way in a wonderfully photogenic little town called Ouarzazate. It’s not hard to see why it’s a big Hollywood filming location favourite – from Lawrence of Arabia and The Mummy to Gladiator and Game of Thrones. The place to go is the Taourirt Kasbah, now a restored historical building that you can wander around in. It’s amazing.

And of course there were things for sale. Check out those lively carpets set against the terracotta walls.

We had another brief stop in the High Atlas Mountains. Certainly no snow here, just wide, gorgeous vistas with layers of rusty reds, orange and green. During these two days of driving, I began to understand the whole oasis thing – the bright green lushness that ribbons along the bottom of the valleys where all the water is.

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco (2001)

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco (2001)

And finally, Marrakesh. This is where we parted ways with our fab driver and enjoyed the sunshine on our hotel balcony (with pool) and a fully stocked hotel bar. In our couple of days there, we spent some time wandering around the souks (where you could buy almost anything) and the Djemaa el-Fna, the city’s main square:

Djema el-Fna, Marrakesh (2001)

Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh (2001)

We started with a civilized cool drink on a balcony, looking out onto the largely empty square, and ambled up to minaret (in the distance above). The real action, however, happens when the sun goes down and the temperature drops to a reasonable level. The street vendors come out and the entertainment begins. I ate delicious dates and almonds and fresh squeezed orange juice, and any number of grilled foodstuffs. It’s very lively.

Our budget accommodation was adequate – clearly well past its glory days – but it had a bar in the lobby. We hadn’t had much alcohol on our trip (it’s not really readily available in many places), so we took advantage and had an evening of slight overindulgence. The wine they had was pretty terrible, so I switched to beer, which was cold after a hot day in the sun. A fine way to end our time in Marrakesh.

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Memories of Morocco: The road to Fes

Fes was one of the highlights of my 2001 trip to Morocco, for so many reasons. After visits to Casablanca and Rabat, we got on an eastbound train. On the way to Fes was Meknes, a city of a million people that I’d never heard of before. I soon discovered it was a place not to be missed. Lovely, even with ominous clouds rolling in:

Meknes (2001)

Meknes (2001)

Unfortunately, we weren’t there long, because we wanted to visit a couple of places outside the city. After chatting with the friendly and helpful owner of our hotel, we were able to arrange a car hire (with a driver) to squire us to and fro. Not very expensive, and so worth the relatively small expense. We went to Volubilis, the archeological ruins of a first century Roman city (and Unesco World Heritage site). Fascinating. To imagine the people her two thousand years ago in a far-off corner of the Roman Empire. The biggest surprise was the storks nesting atop the columns of the ruins.

After Meknes, we took the train to Fes, and after staying in very modest (read: “extreme budget-conscious”) digs for a week, we were in the mood for a little more indulgence. We tried to get a room at the top hotel listed in our Rough Guide, but it was full. They referred us to a tiny little guest house/hotel called Arabesque, further in the medina — and I’ll forever be grateful to them for it.

It was a stunningly beautiful traditional home where, in the main floor courtyard, they served Morocco cuisine every evening. We had lovely breakfasts on the rooftop patio. They helped us find a traditional hammam. They also connected us with a wonderful guide who took us all over the maze that is the Fes medina. We explored the architecture, visited the tannery and the king’s residence, and had tea with carpet sellers, fabric makers, and silver smiths. I learned some history, a little more about culture and ate some fabulous food – from tagine, couscous and pastilla to delicious marinated olives.

The most amazing thing about Fes was the old medina. Another Unesco World Heritage site, it’s a vibrant, lively and beautiful place. We’d wander down narrow and nameless streets that would surprisingly open into wide courtyards, busy marketplaces. So many nooks and crannies to explore. I’m glad we had someone to take us around, or I likely wouldn’t have made it back to the hotel every night.

Memories of Morocco: Casablanca & Rabat

At a recent dinner party, my friend’s daughter asked me about my long-ago trip to Morocco. I promised to bring along my giant photo album (yes, in 2001 I still made up giant photo albums) to the next dinner, so I dug it out of the shelf yesterday. So many memories…

I embarked on the trip with my two friends, A and K. We set off from Toronto to Amsterdam – and had a whirlwind 18 hours of trying to stay awake and see as much of that city as possible before our flight – to Casablanca, and my first trip to Africa.

Our route was circular. Casablanca – Rabat – Meknes – Fes. Then, a drive through the Atlas mountains (where we encountered snow) and Errachidia to the desert at Erfoud and Merzouga, near the Algerian border. Then we turned westward, travelling through Ouarzazate to Marrakesh, and out to the coast to Essaouira and north to Casablanca.

Casablanca (2001)

Casablanca (2001) – view of medina and local minaret

Casablanca. Just the word evokes all kinds of mystery and romance. A really good movie, and a whole bunch of not so memorable ones about the French Foreign Legion. Oppressive colonialism.

The names of the various hotels we stayed at are lost to time (or at least, to my memory). Oddly enough, I believe the first one was a Best Western. We didn’t stay long in Casablanca because, in the end, it’s a city like many others. We went to Rick’s Cafe, where we had some very decent cocktails. We visited the medina, which wasn’t all that big, yet still mildly intimidating (it’s difficult to find your way around an area you’re a stranger in when there are no street signs). I also have a strange memory of a visit to a weird Casablanca Pizza Hut at the tail end of our three-week adventure – mostly to get an ice-cold Coke.

Some of the architecture in Casablanca was interesting. The tiling, the wrought iron detail. So wonderful. This stairwell below, for instance, was in one of our hotels:

Casablanca stairwell (2001)

Casablanca hotel stairwell (2001)

A couple of days later, we headed up to the official capital, Rabat. From the plethora of lovely old administrative buildings, you can tell it’s the capital.

Rabat coastline

Rabat coastline

Rabat also has the amazing Hassan Tower, a 12th century unfinished mosque and minaret that would have (at the time) been the highest in the world. Construction was halted in 1199 when the Sultan died. It’s a serene and beautiful place, and the red-orange of the minaret and the walls against that gorgeous blue sky… just stunning:

One of the things I really noticed when we got to Rabat – because it’s a smaller city than Casablanca – was the hauntingly lovely sound of the call to prayer coming out over loudspeakers in the city a few times a day. Check out this video this tourist made at Hassan Tower with the call to prayer in the background:

There’s more Memories of Morocco coming soon – stay tuned for Fes, the desert and the coast!