Sunday, October 16, 2016
Crossing over the straits of Gibraltar from Tarifa, Spain, a frisson of excitement rippled through me as the outlines of Northern Africa emerged, draped in a gossamer shroud. All around the familiar sounds of the Spanish language fell away only to be replaced by Arabic. As we disembarked in Tangier we were hit immediately by a riot of chaos, noise, and colour as we jostled with porters who insisted on carrying our bags for a fee and made our way past merchants hawking their wares. After the shades of verdant greens, mustard yellow fields, and red earth of Spain it was as if we had entered the desert.
Tangier greeted us with dusty minarets and white riads built on rolling hills with open rooftops. A stroll from our hotel into old town reminded me of Bolivia, with its undulating terrain, blaring traffic as motorcycles and old style taxis weaved through cars and donkey carts. As we entered the gate into old town I was transported – smells of rosewater, orange blossom, garam masala, and cardamom swirled around us.
We walked through the alleyways, accompanied by a brother of the porter at the hotel, past shops with gold and silver-embroidered shoes, leather slippers of every colour of the rainbow, yards of bejeweled dresses, brass ware and medicinal herbs and spices amongst the plethora of other merchants in the souk. We arrived at a restaurant deep in the middle of old town, and as soon as we sat down a melange of dishes began to arrive at our table – hearty harira soup, an array of Moroccan salads, couscous with lamb and dates, chicken tagine with the zesty tang of preserved lemon and olives. We feasted till our stomach’s groaned in protest.
The next morning, we piled into a private bus bound for the Riff mountains to the pretty blue town of Chefchaouen. Chaouen, as it is known by the locals, is painted blue because of two reasons – to remind the inhabitants they were descendants of refugees from Andalusia and to reflect the cloudless blue skies of Morocco so they can be closer to God. Driving up the mountains, the landscape began to shift as we left the dusty roads of Tangier behind, the silvery greens of olive groves and citrus trees popped up all around. As the road snaked up the mountain, flashes of blue begin to appear on doors, window frames, and the occasional wall. It wasn’t until we were deposited in Chaouen’s main square that we began to see a ripple and then an avalanche of blue. We spend a happy few hours swimming through its narrow alleyways and staircases looking for pretty doors to photograph or corridors of interest. Donkeys appeared to be the beast of burden in these parts assisting merchants to transport goods or to dispose of trash. All too soon we have to leave this fairy tale kingdom in the sky. We are on a tight schedule and have to make tracks to Fes.
I balk when I see that the public CTM bus is packed to the gills with tourists and also locals, but mercifully the children sleep as soon as the bus departed – the lulling of any vehicle proves too much for Joaquin who cannot resist the combination of sleep and a tummy full of milk. My stomach growls as lunchtime neared, thankfully we pull into a rest station with a large smoking barbecue. As we jump out the smell of koftas sizzling over red-hot coals make me salivate. We purchase our pound of meat then line up at the grill as two men expertly half and quarter the marinated mince making fat fingers of koftas pressed into wire racks and tossed onto the grill. The koftas when done smell heavenly, steaming in the rattan baskets and served with thick wedges of dense bread, raw onions, and coriander. We tear into our food savouring the grease on our fingers. I drink my first of many glasses of piping hot mint tea, inhaling its minty vapour. I dropped a craggy cube of white sugar into the forest of mint leaves and waited for it to cool.
We arrived in Fes under four hours and settled into our riad in the old medina. Our first night, we dine at the open-air courtyard on the rooftop overlooking the Bab Rciff and Rciff square. The call to prayer sings out over the minaret at sunset and I take in the memorable sight of a sea of whitewashed rooftops coursing over the peaks and valleys of the Medina. We crack open a bottle of port we purchased in Porto and toast our arrival in Morocco.
The Medina is a maze that bewilders us on our first day, alleys that disappeared into nothingness, dark nondescript passages with hidden doors that open only to reveal a palace with sparkling chandeliers, opulent gardens, and lavishly decorated courtyards fit for an Emir. With a guided tour we take in all the Medina has to offer including a visit to the oldest university in the world. The Al Quaraouiyine was founded by a woman and subsequently became the leading spiritual and educational centre of the Muslim world. For the first time non-Muslims will be allowed to set foot in its hallowed halls. Unfortunately, when we arrived the doors were still closed. I was disappointed, I had been so keen to visit the oldest library in the world. Perhaps a return to Fes will be in order.
As we continued our tour we came upon silversmiths and brass makers plying their wares. The ever ubiquitous hand of Fatima is sold everywhere and we purchase a couple for good luck and the protection it is said to give. We stroll past merchants selling Moroccan lamps, their stores lit up like Ali Baba’s den throwing rainbows over the walls or casting pretty patterns from filigree designs. Leather and embroidered shoes abounded – slippers with pointy toes seen on the feet of many Moroccans and a plethora of others in just about every design you could imagine. Sofia’s eyes light up when they settle on a fuchsia pink leather number with sequins.
Burrowing deeper into the souks, the pungent smells announce our arrival at the wet markets. The first thing we encounter is a camel’s head hanging on a hook outside a butcher’s stall. Our guide Mohammed tells us this proves the authenticity of camel meat for sale. We goose step past a river of sludge, blood, and fluid seeping out from the meat section where armies of stray cats frolic and ferret through every nook and cranny of the markets. Tiny kittens barely weeks old sit shivering in corners waiting for their mothers to return with leftover scraps of fish or offal. At midday, our children announced their hunger with wails to rival the call to prayer and Mohammed ushered us into the marbled courtyard of the Madrassa – the old boarding quarters for students. I sat on the cool marble floor and admired the intricate carvings and mosaics decorated cross its walls. The only sound around – the bubbling of the water fountain, it seems so improbable that such an oasis could exist in the chaos of the Medina, but it does.
But it was the tanneries that I had been longing to see. Gazing down from the terrace at the dozens of multicoloured vats at the ancient practice of tanning leather being carried out made me smile. Somehow the overwhelming stench of the tanneries didn’t bother me in the slightest, though I did accept the sprig of mint and enjoyed the reprieve it afforded. Perhaps it was the three floors of leather goods on sale that distracted me and we whiled away an easy hour shopping while the children were lavished with gifts. Again our children are the centre of attention everywhere we go. They are kissed by women in the middle of the souks, picked up and carried around restaurants by staff. Showered with gifts from every store we stop by in. Moroccans adore children and again by association, we were treated like family. ‘Your children are my children Madame’, is something I heard frequently and indeed we were warmed by such affection.
On our last night, I was fortunate to meet the author and playwright Sandy McCutcheon, his lovely wife Suzana and adorable son Zaki. We spent a perfect couple of hours on their fantastic rooftop sipping cool white wine, watching the sun set over the white rooftops of the Medina as our children played together. Fes will always have a special place in my heart.
We ended our Moroccan sojourn in Marrakech, people either love it or hate it and I have to say I lean towards the latter. The alleyways of the souks drove me crazy with the constant traffic of ancient motorcycles spewing diesel in every direction. While we met some wonderfully warm people we were worn down by the aggression of some vendors and merchants, especially when we were without Peter. We were also reluctant to point our cameras at anything in the famous Jemaa El Fnaa square as we were pounced on immediately and dirhams were demanded by open palms. I had read about the snake charmers but the ones we did see were callous with their snakes. I watched from afar as drugged or half dead snakes were thrown onto shoulders or anyone pointing a camera in their direction and I found that distressing.
We tarried about taking a trip out to see the dunes of the Sahara, to sleep in a tent under the star-drenched sky of the desert and to visit the spectacular town of Ait Benhaddou where movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Troy and tv series Game of Thrones were filmed but it would’ve meant a grueling ten-hour drive one way. One day, perhaps when the children are older we will return to the unforgettable magic of Morocco. Inshallah. God willing.