Our whirlwind week in Morocco whisked us right out of the slow and comfortable rhythm of our travels in Spain, and took us on an journey through the north of the country that was fascinating and confronting and chaotic and exciting, all at the same time.
We started out in the city whose name captures the imagination, evoking alluring and romanticised images (thanks to 1940s Hollywood) that clash with its current reality as Morocco’s economic capital. Upon our arrival we were taken on a harrowing, impromptu tour of the city centre as our driver, who seemed to be lost after encountering a road block, swerved down narrow streets and pulled up uncomfortably close to other vehicles to ask for directions, which he often seemed to ignore. At one point, one of these vehicles drove ahead of us with its occupants waving their arms madly out the windows to signal where we should turn, whilst our driver seemed to remain oblivious, taking the wrong turn anyway. Every now and then he would look at us through the rear vision mirror, say something in French and laugh, and we’d laugh back in that awkward, ‘I have no idea what you’re saying’ way.
Early the next day (we did finally make it to our hotel) we stopped by the Hassan II Mosque to marvel at its its ornate tiles and carvings and its 210 metre minaret. It was a cool and quiet morning; a light blue haze lingered on the horizon and the sun was yet to lash us with its unbearable heat. We felt very small as we stood before the immense structure.
This coastal city was our next stop, where we traversed Morocco’s rugged northern coastline, periodically glancing across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain sitting on the horizon. Tangier has been a point of connection between Africa and Europe since antiquity, and it’s vibrant history shines through to the present day in the way that diverse cultures find expression within both the old walls of the medina and the ville nouvelle (new city), which sit side by side.
Language was also interesting here. In other cities we would mostly, as foreigners, be addressed in French, which is widely spoken as a second language across the Morocco as a result of the country’s colonial past. Yet in Tangier we were often greeted in Spanish, which is quite widely spoken due to the city’s proximity to Spain and the influx of Spanish tourists it receives each summer. Most interesting of all was the fact that English was rarely the default language used for foreigners as it is in so many other parts of the world. Whilst there are many people working in the tourism industry who do speak English, it was refreshing to walk into a shop near our hotel in Tangier, for example, and find that we had no other option but to put our newly acquired Spanish skills to good use (the shopkeeper *only* spoke Arabic, French and Spanish, what a language noob!)
After driving for a couple of hours into the Rif Mountains we arrived in this small city, otherwise known as ‘The Blue Pearl,’ which was founded in 1471 and became home to Moriscos and Sephardi Jews exiled from Andalusia during the Spanish ‘Reconquista’ of the Iberian Peninsula. No one seems to know exactly why people began to paint their houses blue here, though theories abound, ranging from the symbolic value of the colour to the notion that it keeps the mosquitos away. Whatever the reason, the endless blue is very pleasing to the eye, and hours can be spent wandering the winding laneways, with each turn offering up perfect little scenes.
What was also interesting was the fact that this small, picturesque city sits in the heart of hashish country, where a huge proportion (estimates vary from 50-70%) of Europe’s supply is produced. Leaving town we drove past many a field of marijuana plants that could be easily spotted from the highway, despite the fact growing, selling and consuming it is illegal.
One morning in Chefchaouen, when we decided to walk up a steep little trail to a mosque with incredible views over the blue and white of the city, we were approached by an elderly man who asked if he might accompany us to a nearby farm where we could see some cannabis being grown. Whilst following a stranger over the mountainside to a marijuana plantation sounded like a splendid idea, we politely declined, as we had lots more sightseeing to do in town.
Later on we wandered around for a couple of hours through narrow cobbled streets awash with blue before we could no longer bear the temperature, which was edging ever closer to forty degrees. It was at this point that we retreated to the shaded terrace of a nearby restaurant for fresh fruit juices, mint teas and creme caramels, before heading back to the cool of our air conditioned room to await the dissipation of the afternoon heat. In the evening, we lingered at a rooftop restaurant in the company of new friends, enjoying the most delicious goat tagine with honey, dates and almonds, which was easily the culinary highlight of the week.
Upon our arrival in Fes, we were warned not to venture out into its famous medina of 9000 streets lest we lose our way in the labyrinth. Instead, we explored with a local guide who skilfully weaved us through tiny alleyways, some barely wide enough for the average person to walk through comfortably, and bustling, chaotic streets where merchants sold anything and everything you could imagine.
At the time, the section in which there are many knife sharpening shops (there really is a section for everything) was particularly busy as families prepared for Eid al-Adha or ‘The Feast of the Sacrifice,’ when an animal is sacrificed and its meat distributed to relatives, neighbours and the poor, in honour of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in accordance with God’s command.
Our tour included the usual visits to the workshops of local artisans – the kind where there is “no pressure” to buy anything, but where you are also most welcome to spend a significant amount of money. Nevertheless, each place provided an interesting insight into the creation of a variety of beautiful products that find their way into all sorts of shops around the world.
At one workshop, we watched skilled artisans painstakingly lay out pieces of tile to create elaborate mosaics for fountains and tabletops. Others crafted tiles, pots, plates, vases and bowls out of clay and covered them with intricate painted designs and metallic finishings, paying careful attention to the details of each piece. Many would soon be shipped off to decorate living rooms and patios in diverse corners of the globe.
Down every lane inside the medina, tiny, discrete doorways would lead into huge, elaborate spaces, virtually undetectable from the outside. We discovered this when we crouched down through a unremarkable half-door and walked a few metres through a child-size hallway, only to find ourselves in an incredible, multi-roomed leather shop with ten foot ceilings and walls covered entirely with bags and slippers and belts of every conceivable design and colour.
It was from here that we got a glimpse of the famous Chouara leather tannery, which dates back as far as the 11th or 12th century. We stood on the balcony of the shop, mint leaves pressed hard against our noses in a vain attempt to mask the potent smell of animal skins and urine that filled the surrounding air, and looked down over the rows of circular pits filled with coloured dyes, in which men and boys did their backbreaking work in the heat of the midday sun.
Our short time in Morocco was merely a quick dip into the exciting and sometimes overwhelming chaos of public Middle Eastern life. Each day we traversed street after street in which many centuries of diverse history seemed to coat the old city walls like thick layers of paint, peeling in different places to reveal snippets of fascinating facts and stories, and giving a unique and interesting hue to the modern life that buzzed on in the shadows of the stones.