“I am Berber. My home is south Morocco – the Sahara. After school I became a camel trekking guide, then I worked in a hotel reception and as a waiter. Next I trained as a four-wheel driving guide on desert tours. Today I am a driver.” Ali, our personal host from Your Morocco Tour, was happy to see us when we finally walked through the sliding doors at Tangier Med’s extensive commercial port. It was the first time we’d opted for a private tour, yet loading our backpacks into Ali’s silver 4WD Prado, I’d never felt more at ease arriving to a foreign country – in Africa no less.
After much debate we’d decided to leave finally my darling safely moored in La Linea, taking a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar. We’d been longing to visit Morocco for years, so we intended to do it justice. With little notice, Your Morocco Tour efficiently tailored a diverse itinerary to fit our timeframe and interests. And in Ali’s hands, we were gifted the perfect host.
Nestled amongst the Rif Mountains in Morocco’s northeast, Chefchaouen has carved a unique identity thanks to the legacy of its past Jewish residents. In honour of their religion and spiritual homeland Israel, the medina (old town) was painted a charming blue-wash: Judaism’s colour of the sky and heavens.
With the onset of winter, it was damp and cool when we arrived. Though in return, tourists were thin on the ground. Wandering the working village amongst its peaceful non-assuming locals (though we did fall into the smooth rug salesmen trap more than once), we immediately felt immersed in the essence of Morocco. As if having walked straight out of a Star Wars sequel, local men were cloaked in woollen, pointy-hooded djellabas; gathered in simple cafes sipping sugary mint tea. Muslim ladies, veiled in colourful silk hijabs, carried soft bags filled with fresh produce or chatted quietly together in laneways. We peered inside miniature workshops of painters and fabric weavers, watched warm loaves collected from communal bakeries and sidestepped loaded donkeys delivering supplies to tiny shopfronts. After hiking to the Spanish mosque for a ‘panoramic view’ (a favourite reference of our guide Ali) the sun broke through the clouds and on returning to the mesmerising medina, it was awash with a dozen new shades of blue.
Our 10-day itinerary allowed for two nights and one full day to explore the enchanting mountain town. Hidden down a quiet blue lane at the top of the medina was welcoming Dar Meziana – the first of several characterful accommodations pre-arranged by Your Morocco Tour. Intricately painted doors, mosaic tiles, ornamental lamps, tasselled cushions, well-worn rugs, silver teapots and a swath of other textures and colours decorated the small property. Up several flights of narrow stairs, the view from our large room was over Chefchaouen’s flat rooftops where elderly women tended to aerating laundry or chicken pens. Awaking to the Islamic call to prayer – a spellbinding sound we’d not encountered since late last summer in Turkey – we devoured our first of many Moroccan breakfasts: a multi-plate collection of spreads, sweet and savoury breads, eggs, olives, soft cheese, dates, strong coffee, mint tea and juice.
Another of Morocco’s impressive imperial cities, though a short distance from Fez, Meknes was quiet with few tourists in sight. Protected behind towering terracotta-coloured ramparts, Ali showed us the striking gate of Bab Mansour (one of Morocco’s grandest) and the serene mausoleum burial place of legendary sultan Moulay Ismail.
Any extended tour of Morocco will include a lot of driving. A lot. Fortunately, I found the journey to be just as intriguing as each destination. Passing through working townships and observing locals go about everyday life, untainted by the influence of tourism or many Western conveniences. We passed countless people commuting on donkeys and mules, farmers tending fields with horse and plow, women hauling water pails from communal wells, trucks piled precariously high with cargo and nomadic Berbers herding sheep across desolate rock tablelands. In villages, markets were bursting with activity; Muslim ladies strolled together cloaked in flowing black niqabs; men spilled onto mosque sidewalks, knelt in Friday prayer; dusty-kneed teenagers played soccer on rocky fields and smiling children walked each other to school.
The landscape too was constantly changing. From the rolling Rif Mountains, to endless fertile-soil farming fields on approach to Fez and the snow-strewn Middle Atlas Mountains – where temperatures dipped to six degrees, before reaching mid-20s later that evening in the Moroccan desert. The diversity was enthralling. Film-worthy backdrops unveiled around every bend (not surprisingly many have been shot there) including regal kasbahs and intriguing mud brick villages swathed with palmeries (oasis-like date palm plantations) cast against a red-rock panorama.
Granted our smiling guide Ali knew interesting back roads, vantage points for the perfect ‘panoramic view’ and narrow-street communities that could not be visited by tour bus. He confidently answered endless questions on everything from geography to religion, politics and local insights. We particularly enjoyed his stories about King Mohammed VI who – even though had inherited numerous palaces, golf courses and vacation properties around the country – was an idealist and diplomatic; making positive changes for Morocco, particularly for women’s rights and the underprivileged. It is said the King regularly goes incognito, sending decoys or slipping out of military escorts to inspect developments or parts of town local dignitaries had not intended him to see. What a legend.
Another advantage of our personal tour guide, Ali effortlessly provided trip conveniences such as where to stop for a decent lunch, clean toilets, Wi-Fi or in Mike’s case, stocking up on beer in a VERY dry Muslim country.
Some may consider the only way to explore Fez is to follow your nose and concede to being hopelessly lost. But when time is limited (again our itinerary allowed for just two nights and one full day) we didn’t wish to miss the heartbeat of Fez’s beguiling and chaotically disorientating medina. With our Fassis guide Khalid – a local celebrity with friends and hand-over-heart handshakes around every corner – we walked for hours through a twisting labyrinth of narrow streets and seemingly dead-end lanes.
Originally the capital of Morocco before it was moved to Rabat in 1912, Fez el-Bali – Fez’s 1,200-year-old UNESCO protected medina – contains over 9,000 lanes, alleys and thoroughfares and is the world’s best-preserved medieval city. Living inside the impenetrable ochre walls, 150,000 Fassis are serviced by a myriad of markets and tradespeople who continue to function as they have for centuries.
Sunlight filtered through bamboo and cedar awnings; below, Fez’s bustling bazaars were fascinating and overwhelming – a pure sensory assault. There were souks (markets) dedicated to blacksmiths toiling in charcoal-blackened workshops over red-hot steel and anvil. Nearby in Place Seffarine, a rhythmic orchestra emanated from coppersmiths hand-pummelling copper cooking pots. “They are deaf by the time they turn 18,” Khalid explained. Down the next lane cobblestones were slick with water and die as men re-purposed old denim and clothing, then hung to dry. Atmospheric produce souks sold dates, almonds, olives, lychees, pomegranates, chillies, spices, cured camel meat and snail soup. We wandered souks selling colourful silk bobbins, hand-tailored djalabahs and silverware in every imaginable variety; one store simply piled high with a jumble of silver teapots. Entering a corner of the medina occupied with butcheries, halal-killed goat heads were gathered in stacks and, underfoot, cats scampered and gutters ran with blood.
Narrow streets of the medina were often dark, dank and wafted with odours, yet so incredibly raw and real. Simply put, Fez was mind-blowing and one of the most intriguing places I’ve ever visited. Nothing was manufactured for tourism and we felt transported to another era and a fascinating world that time forgot.
A spiritual sanctuary amid the hectic medina, Kahlid introduced us to one of Fez’s delicately restored education institutions: Medersa el-Attarine and its lavish decorations of zellij (geometrical tilework), inscriptions, carved plaster and cedar wood.
Earlier in the day Khalid and Ali drove us to the ceramic district – another of Fez’s renowned handicrafts. Sheds lining the streets were filled with men sat cross-legged on concrete floors, painting or chipping tiles for mosaics. In the visitor display compound, ceramics were hand moulded, fired and painted or chipped up and crafted into mosaic tables, mirrors and water fountains (we watched as one project was constructed for a Tasmanian customer). Morocco is an interior decorator’s dream and once again we were left wishing we’d a room or courtyard at home waiting to be revamped.
Nothing assaults your nostrils like the pungent odour of animal excrement. Ammonium-filled vats occupy a quarter of Fez’s 11th century Chaouwara Tannery complex where cow, sheep, goat and camel hides are soaked to remove flesh and hair. Braving the leather-shop viewing platforms without handfuls of mint leaves offered to mask the stench; the sprawling scene below was again like being transported to another time. Born into the backbreaking trade, hardened men were often barefooted and barelegged, labouring waist-deep in dye as they plodded and hand-churned the leathers for suppleness. It’s filthy, grungy work and the smell wafts for blocks. Though Fez leather is world-renowned and the tannery’s location inside the medina walls is a captivating cultural treasure; functioning unchanged since medieval times.
For two weeks hides are soaked in vats filled with colourful natural dyes: cedar wood for brown, poppy flower for red, indigo for blue, henna for orange, wild mint for green, mascara for black and “very expensive” is saffron for yellow leather. Next skins are dried on the surrounding rooftops and hillsides, before again being washed and soaked, then distributed to local leatherworks and distant factories for manufacture and export.
We accessed the tannery viewing platforms via strategically positioned leather markets selling jackets, belts, handbags, shoes and babouche slippers. And after some swift haggling, Dad added his own authentic Fez leather jacket to his wardrobe!
Following Islamic custom, wives or daughters were not to be seen by strangers. As such riads (houses or palaces) were traditionally constructed around a sun-drenched communal courtyard, pool or garden. Balconies, doors and shuttered-windows faced inwards where Muslim women could unveil and seek privacy. Fez’s first tourist riad opened in the mid 1980s and in recent years increasingly more homes are being converted to these striking guesthouses.
Along a chipped stucco laneway, a tiny sign and heavy brass studded door indicated the entrance to the grand Riad Layali. The welcome was warm and our suites massive – easily 50 per cent bigger than Mike and my last Sydney apartment!
Although all this terrain deserves a week or two to explore, this was just four incredible days with Your Morocco Tour and our gracious host Ali… Please be sure to check back soon for video plus our visit to the enchanting Sahara desert and Arabian nights in a luxury desert camp!