Saturday, April 30, 2016

FES, MOROCCO: BUYING A RUG (OR TWO)

You really haven't visited Morocco if you haven't sat through at least one "How We Make Our Amazing Rugs (And We Won't Let You Leave Until You Buy One)" presentation. I actually went to Morocco with the intention of buying a rug, so when Hassan asked if we were interested in visiting a rug co-op "to see how rugs are made" (rather than the actual purpose, which was "to buy a rug so I can get a commission"), we said "Sure!"

We went to what must have once been a very, very fine home in the Fes medina. Based on other pictures I've found on the internet, I think we visited the shop with the lovely French name of "Aux Merveilles du Tapis" (or "Wonders of the Carpet" in English). The inner courtyard has become a rug display area, and the high balconies of the second and third floors are perfect for hanging large carpets.


This building was originally owned by a Jewish family. I have in my notes that it was built in 1325 AD, but a date carved on the wall says 1359. Either way, it's ancient by American standards. Judging by the wall decor and the level of maintenance, those who have lived here for the last 800 years have been very wealthy. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

FES, MOROCCO: THE TOMB OF MOULAY IDRISS II

After visiting the Madrasa Al Attarine, we went just down the alleyway (and around the corner, and down two more alleyways, and a sharp right turn, and up some steps, or something like that) to the Tomb of Moulay Idriss II.

The Arabic word "moulay"  [MOO-lay] means "my Lord" or "prince" and is commonly used  as a title preceding the names of the male descendants of Moulay Sharif Abn Ali, the founder of the Alaouite dynasty of Morroco that began in 1631 and of which the current King Mohammed VI is part. This ancestral line, also called the "Sharifian" line, is believed to have descended from the Prophet Muhammad. The word "Moulay" is also used as a sign of respect when addressing someone, kind of like "mister" or "sir."

Moulay Idriss II was (obviously) the son of Idriss I, who was the great-great-great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and is traditionally regarded as the person who brought Islam to Morocco and founded the Moroccan state. Unfortunately, Idriss I was assassinated by poisoning in 791 AD, two months before the birth of his son Idriss II. (Note: Our guide told us that some scholars believe Idriss II was actually born 9+ months after his father's death, which would cloud his connection to Muhammad and make the whole dynasty suspect. I haven't been able to find anything that backs up that rumor.)

Idriss II officially became sovereign at the ripe old age of 13 in the year 805. His father had founded the city of Fes on the right bank of the River Fes in 789. Idriss II built a companion city on the left bank in 809, and from there he ruled the country and united the people in the Islamic faith. He died in 828 age age 35 and was entombed in Fes. Five centuries later, a body believed to be his was found in Fes and an elaborate mausoleum was built on that spot. This is the holiest site in Fes and an important pilgrimage spot. Tourists are not allowed inside, but the various doors are often left open to give the curious a brief look.

We thought the Madrasa Al Attarine was beautiful, but it's the country cousin of the tomb of Moulay Idriss II:

The opulent entrance to the tomb is crowded into the standard Fes alley, so while it is impossible to miss, it was also hard to get a good picture:

Saturday, April 23, 2016

FES, MOROCCO: THE MADRASA EL ATTARINE

A madrasa (also "madrassa," "medersa," and a host of other spellings) is a school or college used primarily for the teaching of the Islamic religion. It is not unusual for a madrasa to contain a mosque or to be attached to one. The Madrasa El Attarine in Fes was completed in 1325 (That's right, 167 years before Columbus) by the Marinids, a Berber dynasty that ruled Morocco and Southern Spain from the 13th through 15th centuries. 

The main court is flanked by classrooms, and the upper levels comprise the living quarters. The inner courtyard is decorated with impossibly detailed carved cedar and elegantly sculpted walls:

The long vertical lines draw the eye towards the emerald tile roof, which can be seen much better from the upper levels:

The ethereal mihrab is near the main entrance:

The ablution fountain in the center of the courtyard is fed by the Fes River.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

FES, MOROCCO: THE SOUK

I love the word "souk" (pronounced to rhyme with "duke"). It sounds so foreign and so exotic, which is just what a souk is. Every old Arabic city has a souk, which is an open-air marketplace or bazaar. (Actually, I like the equally exotic Persian word "bazaar" as well.)



We didn't spend any time in the Fes souk by ourselves, which I regret, but we did spend a lot of time walking through it with our guide Hassan. However, later in our trip we did spend a lot of time by ourselves in the Marrakech souk, which seemed to me to be more open, less intimidating, and less mysterious than the narrow, darker passageways of Fes, but that is probably because we had been in Morocco longer and were more comfortable in general by that time. While the residential alleyways of Fes were generally quiet and empty, the souk was noisy and crowded. Sometimes the passageways were quite narrow, making for plenty of pushing and jostling, and the claustrophobia was not helped by the occasional goods-laden donkey being led through the maze.
One of the things that really took me by surprise was the food on display in glass cases protruding from dark stalls throughout the souk. Unfamiliar Moroccan dishes were occasionally punctuated with French pastries. 

There were plenty of eclairs and millefeuille (bottom left of photo below) for sale. I can't imagine that they were baked in the souk; someone must have a French pastry franchise going on in Fes.

I'm not sure what this delicacy is (Could it be cheese?), but the presentation is beautiful:

One thing the Moroccans did not learn from the French is how to make bread. We were constantly disappointed by the bread, which basically came in two forms, a flat bread that looks like a tortilla or crepe but is a lot more like cardboard:
. . . and the ubiquitous round loaves, made with yeast but patted out into flat circles and dusted with semolina. They are about the size of a small salad plate and are served with every meal. We saw them in stacks on the counters in restaurants and shops everywhere we went, including in the souk. Sitting out all day didn't add much to their moistness. A little bit of this bread goes a long way. It wasn't until we made some ourselves in our cooking class in Marrakech and ate them warm with olive oil for dipping that we thought they were any good.
I didn't get a good picture of the stacks of bread in the souks,
so I borrowed this picture from here, where you can also see a recipe.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

FES, MOROCCO: THE MEDINA

Let's get one thing straight at the beginning of this post. The name of cylindrical red hat is "fez" (pronounced "fezz") and the city in Morocco is Fes (pronounced "fess" with a very short "s" sound). They are not the same thing.
Am I the only person in the world who thought I'd be seeing fezzes all over Morocco? They actually belong in Turkey and were introduced in 1829 by Sultan Mahmoud II to replace the turban in the Ottoman army. Maybe they were easier to put on in the morning for those who had early battle duty. Anyway, the only fezzes I saw in Fes were made-in-China versions for sale in a couple of booths frequented by gullible tourists.

Okay, on with the show.

After our drug-induced first night of sleeplessness in our beautiful room, we were picked up at our riad by Hassan, a wonderful tour guide Bob had booked months before our trip through the tour company Naturally Morocco. 

A few words here about whether or not to book a guide. Yes, it's fun wandering around in the medina (the old, walled portion of the city), but think of this:
and then multiply it by 100, and that's the medina. I'm not talking about wide streets with landmarks and street signs. The medina is mostly alleys, solid mud walls with an occasional doorway, and no street signs, at least not in a language I could read. Hassan told us that 120,000 people live in the Medina, but I've also seen figures as high as 250,000. It is the world's largest automobile-free pedestrian zone (although there are plenty of scooters and donkeys). You need to spend some serious time in the Fes medina to become comfortable with all its twists and turns. Sure, you can wander around until you get your bearings, but another advantage of hiring a guide is that you get to interact with a native resident who knows and loves the city, and who can share its culture with you on a personal level. If you want to see the "real" Morocco, see it through the eyes of someone who was born there.

Of course, you will want time to wander around on your own, and I think that we could have enjoyed one more day in Fes to do just that. Unfortunately, our days were limited and we had to squeeze in what we could.

One of the first things Hassan pointed out was a door hinge. In Arabic culture this design is "the Hand of Fatima," and for Jews it is "the Hamsa." Fatima was the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The more familiar version is on the right, but you can see that the hinge on the left has the same five "fingers," which represent the five pillars of Islam. It is used to ward off the evil eye, among other things.

We made our way through the labyrinthine streets. Some were dark, cramped, and foreboding,
   
. . . but others were light, ornamented, and much more inviting:
    



Thursday, April 14, 2016

MOROCCO: RIAD LAAROUSSA IN FES

The great Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran observed, "Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart."  I think he was talking about our riad in Fes, or maybe about Morocco in general.

Maybe it was just the time of year we were there--the spring equinox--but the light is magical in Morocco. This was especially true in Riad Laaroussa in Fes. The word "laaroussa" means "doll" or "bride" in the Berber language, but we were not getting the doll/bride vibes on our approach. The alleys were dark and cramped, and although they were relatively clean, we noticed a large rat scampering ahead of us, staying close to the wall. Remember the movie Ben? That's what ran through my mind. Now I knew why there were so many cats.

It took us at least five minutes of steady walking to get to our riad from where we were dropped off by our driver outside the warren of alleyways. Along the way, there were occasional indications that there might be something behind the mud walls. We saw beautifully decorated doors . . .

. . . and signs in graceful Arabic script:

It was almost a shock to come upon the sign for our hotel. All we could see around its door were blank mud walls--no windows, no hint of what was inside.

But when we knocked on the door and it opened, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her black-and-white world into the Land of Oz. "Riad" means "garden," and in Morocco a riad is an old traditional Moroccan mansion, usually two or three stories tall, built around a square--the garden--that is open to the sky. The riads have been carefully renovated to become guest houses for tourists.

Even though we arrived at night and the garden was dimly lit, it was clear that we had entered an oasis of the first order:

Monday, April 4, 2016

MOROCCO: FROM LOS ANGELES TO FES

For some reason, the countdown to our Morocco trip was especially exciting. "Four weeks from now we'll be in Morocco!" "Eleven days from now we'll be in Morocco!" "Tomorrow we leave for Morocco!" We planned well in advance, catching up on our immunizations, picking up a prescription antibiotic "just in case," and discussing what to pack. Somehow I didn't notice until we got to the airport that this was my husband's stylish footwear selection:
Yeah, I tried to sit a few seats away.

Speaking of the airport, for years LAX has been remodeling the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Believe me, it needed it. It was the ugliest terminal in the world. Now, however, the scaffolding is down, revealing an upscale and interesting shopping area. I think it can hold its own among the world's international terminals. I especially love this video tower upon which various images are projected for twenty or thirty minutes at a time. I call this particular projection "The Monument of Lost Luggage":

We had a very L-O-N-G non-stop flight to Paris (10 hours), and then a very short connection (1.5 hours). All those wonderful French pastries and baguettes in the CDG airport were calling to me but had to wait until our next visit on our return flight. Airport security was especially tight because Paris had been attacked by ISIS terrorists just four months before. We showed our passports when we disembarked from our LA flight. We were routed back through a full security check that required a couple more passport checks. There were long lines everywhere. We showed our passports again to get on the bus that took us out to our plane. Altogether I think we showed our passports four times just for a transfer to a different plane in the same airport. We made it to our connecting flight gate with just enough time for a bathroom stop before catching the bus to the plane and boarding. At least we got to see "Casablanca" on the sign.

Our flight took a bit more than two hours, and we arrived in Casablanca ahead of schedule. I think we got there before the English-speaking driver who was sent by Naturally Morocco, the tour company we worked with to arrange drivers and tour guides. We wandered around for a bit checking all the signs being held up until one tour guide mentioned to us that there was a second international arrival gate and that we might want to try that one. We did, and we found our driver Yusuf holding up a sign that said "Cannon." Whew.

After we stopped at an ATM machine in the terminal for some cash (Note: This was the best exchange rate we had on the entire trip), we headed out of Casablanca along the Atlantic coastline towards the capital city of Rabat, where we would turn inland towards Fes.
Old travel poster: "Railway Companies of Morocco"

Saturday, April 2, 2016

MOROCCO 2016

When we went to Spain in 2005 as relatively unseasoned travelers, we visited the Rock of Gibraltar. From the top of the promontory we could see the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the east. We strained to see the hint of a shoreline directly to the misty south, where lay the unknown, uncharted, and very scary (at least to me) continent of Africa. Bob fervently wished for a ferry. The distance from Spain to Morocco at that location is just 8.9 miles, and ferries can make the crossing in just over half an hour. My fear conquered his dreaming, but once a spark is lit in the Travel Center of my husband's brain, it is nigh impossible to extinguish it.
Fast forward ten years. We had just completed an incredible trip to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, and we were trying to decide where to go next. Our travel experience and confidence were much greater than they had been when we traveled to Spain ten years previous. Besides Egypt, we had visited three other African countries since 2005: Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana. I had recently made a new friend at the AP English reading who had traveled in Morocco, had a wonderful time, and graciously shared her detailed notes with us. Before I knew what hit me, we were in the middle of planning a trip to Morocco.

And it wasn't going to be just the average trip to Casablanca, Fes, and Marrakech. Following the advice of my friend, we included a trip to the Erg Chebbi Dunes (one of Morocco's two Saharan Desert dunes), as well as a drive into the Atlas Mountains. Our trip of eleven days would include a substantial amount of driving, but we would see a good chunk of the country.

Here is the itinerary that we settled on with a teaser photo for each day:

DAY 1 (Friday, March 11): Arrive in Casablanca after flight from LAX via Paris. Driver picks us up from airport and takes us to Fes (181 miles, 4 hours). Check in at Riad Laaroussa in Medina (old walled city).
Day 1: Our room in the luxurious Riad Laaroussa

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