“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.
We’d left our sailing boat finally my darling safely moored in La Linea, Spain and boarded a two hour ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar – the narrow, jaw-like opening to the enclosed Mediterranean Sea. We’d been yearning to visit Morocco for years, so we intended to do it justice. With little notice, Your Morocco Tour efficiently tailored a diverse 10-day itinerary to fit our timeframe and interests. And in Ali’s hands, we were gifted the perfect host.
CHEFCHAOUEN: THE BLUE CITY
Nestled amongst the Rif Mountains in Morocco’s northeast, Chefchaouen has carved a unique identity thanks to the legacy of its past Jewish residents. During the 1930s, 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, 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 and gathered in simple cafes sipping sugary mint tea. Muslim ladies, veiled in colourful silk hijabs, carried soft bags filled with 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, toward 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 their aerating laundry or chicken pens. Awaking to the spellbinding Islamic call to prayer, 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.
MOUNTAINS, VALLEYS AND MUD-BRICK
Any extended tour of Morocco will include a lot of driving. Fortunately, I found the journey to be just as intriguing as each destination. We drove through working townships and observed 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 Morocco’s Sahara 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 be visited by car, but not by tour bus, as well as enthusiastically answering endless questions on everything from geography to religion, politics and local insights.
FEZ: THE ANCIENT CAPITAL
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 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 dye, 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.
Earlier in the day Khalid and Ali drove us to the ceramic district – another of Fez’s renowned handicrafts. In sheds lining the streets, men sat cross-legged on concrete floors, painting or chipping tiles for mosaics. In the visitor display compound, ceramics were hand-moulded, fired, painted or chipped up and crafted into mosaic tables, mirrors and water fountains. Morocco is an interior decorator’s dream and we 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 were 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. Its 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.
Traditional Moroccan riads (houses or palaces) are constructed around a sundrenched 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 our arrival to grand Riad Layali, our comfortable and peaceful two-night escape amid the maddening medina.
WATCH: exploring Chefchaeoun and Fez’s atmospheric medinas (select 720p HD via the cog wheel and wait to buffer).
Beguiling Morocco is a vast land of contrasts: dramatic landscapes, captivating history, deeply-rooted faith, disorientating ancient medinas, chaotic markets, intriguing kasbahs and mud-brick villages; awash with a kaleidoscope of colours, music, mix-matched fabrics and textures, smells and spices.
Our tour continued to include enchanting destinations such as a desert luxury camp at Erg Chebbi and Morocco’s Sahara, Todra and Dades Gorges, Ait BenHaadou, the High Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh and sea-side Essaouira. In two weeks we barely brushed the surface though, guided through the eyes and insights of our Berber host, Ali, we departed Africa moved and culturally enriched.
ABOUT: Brooke Darling is an Official Outbound Ambassador. While she’s been travelling on and off for the past 14 years, in 2013 she departed on the most challenging journey to date: sailing the high seas aboard the family sailboat finally my darling. Two summers were occupied exploring every nook and cranny of the European Mediterranean coastline, followed by three weeks sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to the blissful Caribbean; which is where you’ll currently find her. Brooke has captured a wealth of photographs from this Aussie family’s sailing adventures which you can see on her blog: www.finallymydarling.com, or follow via Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and Twitter.