Welcome to Paris and our own little version of la rentree, the return. Much more than American “back-to-school” time, la rentree celebrates French people coming home from their gloriously-long August vacations and life returning to its normal rhythms.
We are in Paris a few weeks later than the traditional la rentree and vacationing, not returning home. But coming to Paris feels like la rentree to us-a return to our favorite restaurants, parks, museums and neighborhoods.
Great Paris Arrival
After the most drama-free and enjoyable flight in recent memory, we arrived at Charles DeGaulle Airport ahead of schedule.
In spite of getting only a few hours of sleep, I remembered how airport taxi scams worked. A very charming man greeted us before we got to the taxi stand and offered to lead us to the taxis. He told us his services were the same as the taxi queue.
When I asked him about the fare, he quoted a price $25 higher than what we knew to be the typical fare. We had checked the fare before we left the baggage claim to be sure we had enough euros. I mentioned the fare discrepancy and he abruptly walked away. We then went to the official queue, got a taxi right away and paid the going rate.
Arriving at our apartment before we could check in, we stowed our luggage in a locker and spent four leisurely hours exploring our neighborhood in the ninth arrondissement.
We enjoyed a crepe and cappuccino at l’imprevu, a lovely, little cafe close to our apartment.
After lingering over our cappucinnos and conversation (as the French do), we joined Parisiennes savoring the beautiful fall Sunday afternoon.
A young woman who sounded a bit like Adele sang in front of the Pompidou Centre.
Pink flowers exploded on top of a corner cafe.
I think we saw the French version of the Dollar Store. Maybe before inflation, it was C’est Un Euro.
And of course, being in Paris, we could not go far without encountering a stunning arch or beautiful architecture.
We discovered a wonderful little wine and cheese shop around the corner from our apartment. The friendly, knowledgeable proprietor helped us choose some great cheeses for our dinner. She also taught us about compte and goat cheese, two of our favorites.
We had an interesting discussion with her about why wine isn’t sold in grocery stores in some areas of three arrondissements after 5:00 PM. It has to do with public drunkeness in these areas.
Oh, Casablanca-the romantic Moroccan city of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Rick’s Cafe. This legendary city was the perfect place to end our Moroccan adventure. When I think of Casablanca, I think romance, intrigue and drama. In reality, Morocco’s largest city is the industrial capital of the country and as hectic and congested as most large cities. Moroccans say everything is made in Casablanca.
In the day we spent here, we experienced two very different but very wonderful sides of life in Casablanca.
Women’s Solidarity Association
Sex outside of marriage is forbidden in Morocco, and children born out of wedlock are denied many basic rights such as education, healthcare and legal employment. Unwed mothers are frequently banished from their families. We visited the Women’s Solidarity Association, an organization founded in 1985 to help improve rights and opportunities for single mothers and their children.
The social worker at the association told us about the services and support they provide women. They help women train for jobs, further their education and find housing and other resources. Perhaps most importantly, they help the women legally register their children so they have the same rights as other citizens.
We asked the social worker for an example of a success story, and she told us her story. She was an unwed mother with no options. Thanks to the services of the association, she completed her college degree, her now twenty-five-year old daughter completed her college degree, and she reconciled with her family. Once again, the courage of the women I have met here moved me to tears.
We ate lunch at their on-site restaurant which partially funds the association. They served us seffa, a dish of sweetened couscous or vermicelli with butter, cinnamon, and almonds. Mine had a wonderful vegetable mixture on the bottom. Everyone else had chicken on the bottom of theirs. It was delicious.
Hassan II Mosque
Non-Muslims are not able to enter mosques in Morocco, so before today we had only seen the outsides of mosques. Allowing visitors during non-prayer times, the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is an exception. Visiting the mosque was the perfect capstone experience to our amazing Moroccan adventure.
The Hassan II Mosque is the largest functioning mosque in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. At 689 feet, its minaret is the tallest in Morocco and the second tallest in the world. And it is absolutely gorgeous!
The only non-Moroccan involved in the project was a French architect who converted to Islam. The 700 million-dollar project took six years to complete with everyone working 24/7.Twenty-five thousand worshipers can gather at one time.
Although not required of visitors, we covered our heads before entering as a sign of respect. All visitors remove their shoes and carry them in provided bags.
The men pray on the main floor, lined up in rows with their toes touching. The women pray in mezzanines on each side of the mosque.
When the King prays in the mosque a huge door is open and he is in line with the Imam.Other worshipers may pray when he is there by invitation only.
We went downstairs to the ablutions hall. Muslims must either cleanse themselves at home or at the mosque before praying.
The ablution hall houses 45 marble fountains that represent lotus flowers and a total of 600 taps.
Casablanca to Home
Early tomorrow (very early-3:30 am) Jeanne and I leave for home. As I always feel at the end of a great trip, I am sad to leave but happy to be going home. This trip has been such a learning experience that I need some time to think about the experiences, the people and the new information. Without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was the wonderful people we met. Warm, welcoming, and generous, the Moroccan people made this trip the special experience that it was. Jeanne and I agree we are leaving this trip more inspired and more hopeful about the world.
Leaving Ourazazate for Marrakesh, we crossed the Atlas Mountains, reaching the highest altitude of our entire trip-7,000 feet. I was so thankful for Mustapha, our amazing driver, as we made sharp turns on the steep road. At times, the narrow road seemed to be carved into the side of the mountain. This challenging road is the main north-south route to move goods from one part of Morocco to the other. It was a beautiful drive with amazing views, but I would not want to drive it on a regular basis.
Along the way we stopped to watch local women making argan oil. One women worked at each of the four stages of the labor-intensive process. Producers make argan oil from the kernels of the argan tree which only grows in southwestern Morocco. It is good for a long list of cosmetic and health needs.
Welcome to Marrakesh
The drive in to the city of Marrekesh was beautiful. Palm trees and lush foliage lined every street. We got our first glimpse of the the Kutubiyya Mosque and its landmark minaret. The minaret is the tallest structure in Marrekesh. The government prohibits any other building from being taller.
After settling into the lovely riad where we will be staying for three nights, we visited the Bahia Palace. The mid-to-late 19th century palace was the home of the Sultan. He named the palace after his favorite wife who gave him a son. Intricately painted cedar wood lines the ceilings and tops of the walls.
I thought the space for the Sultan’s harem was interesting. In addition to the four wives he was allowed, he could also have a harem of other women. Women in the harem were supposed to prevent getting pregnant, but if they did, their children had no rights to inheritance or recognition from the Sultan.
Marrakesh, Day 2
Leaving for our first adventure of the morning, we stopped on the little street outside our riad to talk with Madoujob. He uses his donkey and little cart to move construction rubble out of the narrow street to larger garbage trucks.
We explored the colorful and very busy market.
Marrakesh is a city of scooters. They are everywhere-scooting down crowded narrow walkways, pulling carts of goods and weaving between cars and busses. It is pretty amazing how they can weave in and out of all the pedestrians. I never saw a single collision.
They must have a very ingenious scooter parking system because I have no idea how someone would get their scooter out of the three-deep parking area we saw.
Leaving the narrow streets we walked into an open air market that was formerly the slave market in Marrakesh. The women selling hand-woven baskets and other items there covered their faces. We learned it was not for religious reasons but because they did not want their neighbors to recognize them and gossip about what they were doing.
After the bright sun and intense activity at the Slave Market, it was delightful to enter the peace and tranquility of Le Jardin Secret. The Secret Garden, a beautiful 400-year-old palatial estate, is composed of two adjoining gardens- a botanical garden and an Islamic garden.
The gardens still use the original, 400 year-old irrigation system that encircles the plants and trees.
Next stop was the Palais Saadien where we learned about the beautiful rugs Berber women wove. At the entrance, we saw the large looms the women used.
The workers kept unrolling one beautiful hand-made Berber rug after another.
Abdou took us to his favorite spice market. We passed numerous spice stalls on the way that Abdou said were for tourists before arriving at a small doorway leading to an unassuming shop.
Walking into the shop was like walking into a spice laboratory.
The special Moroccan spice. blends came whole. We chose the amount we wanted, and Mustapha had one of his assistants grind them for us.
We made a quick stop on the way to the spice store to talk with Abdelghani who makes jewelry, purses, frames and pots from old tires. His creations were quite beautiful.
Evening in Marrakesh
We took a lovely horse-drawn caleche, (carriage) ride around Marrakesh and saw the new part of the city. It was quite a change from the medina where we were staying.
The carriage dropped us off at a lovely new French Moroccan restaurant. After two weeks of eating and living in places that are hundreds of years old, it felt a little strange to be in such a modern setting.
I tried the Moroccan-specialty gray wine, a slightly pinkish-tinted white wine made from red grapes. Gray wine was a first for me, and I liked the spicy flavor.
Marrakesh, Day 3
Our last day in Marrakesh was a museum day. We started with the amazing Museum of Water Civilization, completed in 2017. There are only seven water museums in the world, two in Africa and one in the US.
The beautifully laid out museum presented a history of water use, innovative ways the need for water has been addressed, and the future of water use. Villagers in some areas still use ancient techniques, such as using water gravity to mill grains. .
The displays about social water conservation and how tribes worked to fairly distribute water were very interesting.
Our last visit of the day was Majorelle Gardens, the stunning garden and home built by French artist Jacques Majorelle. The garden fell into neglect after his death in 1962. In the 1980s, Yves St. Laurent and his partner Pierre Berget bought and restored the neglected garden.
Interestingly, Morocco bans homosexuality but appears to have embraced Yves St. Laurent and his Majorelle estate. When he died in 2008, he was cremated and his ashes scattered around his house. It costs $3,000 to visit his private home.
Vibrant blue paint, known as Majorelle blue, adorns the outside of the beautiful Berber museum on the grounds.
On our last night in Marrakesh, we celebrated a wonderful trip at our Farewell Dinner. We shared highlights and favorite moments and thanked Abdou, our leader extraordinaire, for giving us a magical two-week adventure.
Tomorrow we leave this vibrant city and go to Casablanca for the last day of our Moroccan adventure.
The trip from our home in the Sahara Desert to our next home in Ouarzazate took about eight hours, including interesting stops along the way.
Our first stop was to learn about khatarat, a Persian system for collecting water dating from the 12th-14th century. We stopped at an area that was covered with mounds that looked like giant molehills. The mounds are the remains of the underground water system below.
Although the system is no longer used, Karim, an entrepreneur and historian, has restored one of the wells to demonstrate how it worked. Basically, the khatarat is a system of underground wells that start on the side of a mountain and link together to move water down the mountain to the wells.
He dug a tunnel so people could walk to the bottom of the well.
Once we got to the bottom, we could look up and see the top of the well.
Some of our most interesting stops are spontaneous. Abdou saw a large herd of camels moving across the desert and said we had to get off the bus and see this amazing sight. He is great at making connections with people and getting them to talk with us. He introduced himself to Faska, the lead camel herder and asked if we could watch the camels come to the watering spot.
Faska is a nomad who herds camels for a number of owners. He was so kind to answer our questions. It was an amazing sight to see 180 camels cross the highway and head to the watering trough.
It was pretty exciting to be so close to so many camels. Abdou said he had never had this experience.
Reluctantly leaving the camels, we continued on to Tinejdad, an ancient fortified ksar and visited a class of adorable first graders. They sang songs in Arabic for us and we sang songs in English for them.
We explored the ancient Berber walled city and visited a Berber museum founded by a local Jewish activist. Berbers are an indigenous ethnic population in Morocco and other North Africa countries.
Aichaskou, a charming Berber woman, welcomed us to her restaurant for lunch. We could see the tattoo on her chin that all Berber women get at a young age.
After two nights of desert camping and a long bus ride, we were so happy to arrive at our hotel in Ouarzazate. Some of us decided to wear our Moroccan caftans to dinner in celebration of being back in the land of air conditioning.
Ouarzazate is the oldest and largest film studio in Morocco and a major contributor to the local economy. American productions, such as Lawrence of Arabia,Gladiator (and soon Gladiator 2) and Game of Thrones, have been filmed here. Moroccan cities put centerpieces in their roundabouts that reflect what is important in the city, so it was no surprise to see the Ouarzazate roundabout centerpieces
A Day in the Life of an Asfalou Village Family
Spending time with a Moroccan family in their home and learning about their lives is such a special part of our trip. On the way to visit with our family, we stopped to pick up Mohammed, our local guide for the home visit. He has acted in some of the films produced here and was a most entertaining guide.
When we arrived at their home, Abraham, his wife Heckima and their two darling children greeted us at the front door. They invited us to tour their home, which included a room that is only used to entertain guests.
In the kitchen we met the auntie and their new baby.
After “helping” to feed the animals, cut alfalfa, make adobe bricks and bake bread in an outside oven, we each carried a little stool to a shaded area in their field for tea and bread.
After tea in the beautiful shaded area, we returned to their house for lunch.They served us a fabulous meal of baddaz, Berber corn couscous.
They openly discussed their lives and answered our questions. Heckima had lived in Marrakesh, the fourth largest city in Morocco, until she married Abraham and moved to his very tiny tribal village. She admitted it was a bigger change than she had anticipated.
I had earlier learned how hospitable and caring Moroccan people are and how they take care of each other. We saw another beautiful example of this right before lunch. Hazziz, a local boy who is deaf, unexpectedly appeared and stayed for lunch. Abraham told us everyone in the village welcomes Hazziz and he often eats with one of the families.
It was such a lovely day and another wonderful opportunity to connect with some Moroccan people.
Imik Simik Women’s Association
Our great day got even better when we visited the Imik Simik Women’s Association. This all-women organization helps to further the education and skills of women in this very traditional tribal area. The fifteen founding women started in a small garage in 2012. Just a few weeks ago they moved into a new facility partially sponsored by funds from the Grand Circle Foundation.
They had to fight the local tribal government for three years for the land because a near-by hotel also wanted the land to expand.
Their goal is to empower women in this male-dominated area to learn skills, and be independent, They make money by selling pastries to area restaurants. They want to expand their business and skills to include embroidery, rug making and sewing.
While talking with them in their kitchen, a group of men walked by. Abdou said he had never seen men in the building. We met them and learned they were the group that had worked to construct the building and support the program. I was so moved to meet men in this traditional male-dominated area that were supporting the growth and independence of these women.
These women are successfully overcoming some pretty big challenges. Their new facility has a classroom, sewing room and nursery so women can bring their babies with them.
Over tea and some of their amazing pastries, we talked about their lives, goals and how the program has changed them.
Before we left one of the women gave us henna tattoos.
I left this amazing women’s program feeling so inspired and hopeful for their futures. In spite of tremendous social pressure and cultural expectations, they are building a better future for themselves. I was also surprised and quite moved by the men we met who were supporting them.
My two days in the Sahara Desert showed me how magical it is-the light, the colors, the vistas. It is more spectacular than I ever imagined.
When we left our oasis hotel to board 4x4s and begin our journey to a tented camp in the Sahara Desert, little did I know what an amazing experience it would be.
Yusef, our 4×4 driver, spoke French in addition to Arabic ,so Jeanne and I had a great time practicing our French with him. Between the two of us we were able to communicate with him fairly well.
Our first adventure on the road to the Sahara taught us about fossils in the area. Erfoud where we had spent the night is home to many fossils. We stopped at a fossil business to learn more about them.
Rafa, whose father discovered the fossils and founded the business in 1979, showed us fossils that are 320 million years old.
They find the fossils in rocks behind their business and the rocks into slabs. Sometimes they find amazing fossils and sometimes they find nothing. After slicing the slabs, they sand and polish them.
Craftsmen use the polished stone to make sinks, countertops, and tabletops, In addition to these functional items, artisans make beautiful sculptures.
We next stopped at a kasr, a fortified village, near the town of Rissani. Dating from the 19th century, the village was a trading stop on the route from Fes to Timbuktu.
Although much of the village is in ruins, thirty-seven families still live there. One of the gracious women who lives in an cave-like home there invited us to come in and visit.
After leaving the ksar, Yusef, our driver gave us a lovely warning that we were about to get a “Berber massage.” I thought, how lovely, Berber masseuses will be waiting for us at the camp if we want to get a massage. We soon learned that a “Berber massage” wasn’t a spa treatment, it was the result of the jiggling the rough roads gave our backsides. Driving through the sand seemed a lot like driving through heavy snow on a frozen lake.
We were so happy to arrive at our basic, but beautiful, solar-powered, tented camp in the Sahara Desert.
Even though the temperature reached 98 degrees, and we had no ac, glamping still may be a more appropriate description of our tent. We had running water, electricity, indoor facilities and beautiful mosquito netting.
The young chef gave us a tour of the kitchen and a tagine cooking lesson. I soon learned what an amazing chef she was as she prepared one unique and tasty vegetarian dish after another for me. Just for me because I was the only vegetarian in the group.
Farming in the Desert
Looking at the dry, sandy conditions in the desert, it is hard to imagine how anyone can grow anything. But we met a farmer who showed us how resilience, creativity and a green thumb can bring a thriving farm to the dry desert.
Mohammed continues the work started by his father in 1995 to turn a dry desert plot into farmland. Much like early homesteading programs in the US, in 1995 a Moroccan farmer who could produce crops in the desert could own his land after three successful years. Mohammed’s father got his land this way and passed it on to his son.
Dates grown on the 150 female date trees fertilized by one male tree are his only cash crop. Everything else he grows-fruits, nuts and vegetables-are for his family. He loved showing us the various plants and asking us to guess what they were.
Mohammed showed us the area where his father used a divining rod to find water and dig a well in the early days of starting his farm. Now he has two wells and uses gravity to run water in the trenches he has built all over his farm.
When we asked how one male tree can pollinate 150 female trees, Sixty-seven year-old Mohammed said, “I’ll show you.” In about five seconds he was at the top of a very big date tree showing us how he ties seeds from the male tree to each female tree.
When asked about how he deals with birds who eat his fruit, he replied that his crops will not be good if he doesn’t share with the birds. It is part of the circle of life.
Sunset and Sunrise on the Desert
On our first day in the Sahara, we saw the beautiful golden red sand dunes in the distance and hoped we we would get a chance to get closer. On our second day, we did. We drove to the base of one of the dunes and climbed to the top to watch the beautiful sunset.
Jeanne and I had the best intentions of getting up to watch the desert sunrise on the first morning we were there but didn’t quite get up early enough to join the sunrise watching group. But lucky for us, we had a room with an east-facing window and were able to watch the beautiful sunrise from our tent.
Another Camel Riding Adventure
After camel riding in Egypt, we really didn’t think we needed to ride another camel, but I am so glad we did. The camels were clean, the desert beautiful and the morning delightful.
Abdou taught us how to wrap scarves around our heads and faces to protect ourselves from the wind and sand. Well, really he ended up wrapping them for us. Turban wrapping was more complicated than it looked.
Thanks to our energetic camel drivers everyone on the ride got a video and photos of the ride on their phone.
My camel riding skills are definitely improving.
After camel riding we went to Dar Gnaoua to learn about and enjoy gnaoua music.
Gnaoua music originated in the Ghana empire in the 6th-12th century but has now become popular throughout Africa.
The director of the center told us about the music and played songs for us.
After he played some beautiful songs, he taught us some basic drumming and we got to play with him. The drumming was meditative, and I could have stayed and drummed with him all afternoon.
Meeting a nomadic family was one of the highlights of our time in the desert. Before going to their home, we went to a small market to get groceries to take to them. Abdou gave us ideas of what would be most needed.
When we arrived at their home, Hassan came out of his tent to meet us. Abdou introduced himself and asked if he and his wife would talk with us.
He was open to visitors and we were able to tour his home, ask questions and take pictures. Their living conditions are basic, but they have a solar panel on the roof of their cooking tent to provide light.
This family has so little, but Aicha, Hassan’s wife, was so welcoming and invited us to stay for bread and tea.
We told her we had just had lunch but would love to visit with her. She directed us to one of the shelters and joined us a bit later with a loaf of bread and date syrup she had made. It was so interesting to learn about her life and how hard she works.
Farewell to the Sahara
On our last night in the Sahara, Abdou, our extraordinary guide, talked with us about Islam and Muslims. Islam is the faith and Muslims are those who practice the faith. He asked us about our main impressions of Muslims and then shared an introduction to Islam as well as his perspectives and personal experiences as a Muslim. I feel so thankful to have had this opportunity.
Leaving the bustling city of Fes, we drove 300 miles across the Middle and HIgh Atlas Mountains to the small village of Erfoud to have one last night of luxury. Tomorrow we head to our tented camp in the Sahara Desert for a two night adventure.
We could see the snow capped mountain tops as we got closer to the High Atlas Mountains.
Abdou, our guide, broke up our long drive with a number of interesting stops. Some were planned; some were serendipitous. We stopped in a thick cedar forest to see the barbary macaque, a rare monkey species.
We stopped in Zaida, a little village known for its great barbecue. I learned way more than I ever needed to know about how they choose, display and prepare the animals. After trying the specially selected and grilled lamb, everyone who tried it agreed it was the best barbecue they had ever had.
I saw my first tagine stand.
Meeting a nomadic sheep herder was the most interesting stop of of the day.
The sheep herder keeps the sheep together as they move to different grazing areas. He uses a donkey to carry water.
It was a long, but interesting, drive. Tomorrow we leave for two nights in a tented camp in the Sahara Desert. I am both excited for a new adventure and anxious about how hot it will be-at least 100 degrees.
Today I took a Moroccan cooking class that was much more than a cooking class. It was also an opportunity to spend time with an interesting and friendly Moroccan family.
Amina, our Moroccan cooking instructor, met us at our riad, and we went to the market together.
The produce was beautiful and it was fun to watch her confidently choose what we needed to make our meal.
Preparing the Tagine
After buying what we needed, we walked back to her apartment where she lives with her parents and four younger brothers.
Soon after we gathered in her living room, Amina emerged in her adorable at-home cooking outfit.
We sat around the table and Amina directed us through the process of making beef, chicken or vegetarian tagine. After we had diced the vegetables for the bottom of the tagine and added them to the oil and spices, Amina gave us the secret, and most important ingredient. It is Saman, butter that is salted and aged for at least forty days in a dark spot. We used saman that had been aged for two years. We then layered meat (if we were using it) and vegetables and added more spice.
Before cooking the tagines, we showed off our beautiful preparations. Mine looks flatter than the others because there isn’t any meat in the middle.
We put on the cone-shaped tops and placed the four meat tagines on the stove and my vegetarian one on a little gas burner in the hallway,
Amina’s brother Yessine arrived home about half way through the tagine preparation.
Amina and Yessine taught us how to make Moroccan mint tea. In addition to the Moroccan tea and lots of fresh mint, they added a little spring of absinthe. Amina stressed the importance of tea quality and told us what number tea she used. Her father brought out the tea box, so we could take a picture and find the tea in the market.
Yessine served the tea and little cookies. Beautiful, shear fabric covered the cart until it was time for tea when Yessine removed it with a flourish. A similar cloth covered the dining table until we were ready to sit down for lunch.
He taught us to say bosaha, the Moroccan equivalent of cheers and engaged us in delightful conversation. After asking us all where we lived and what we did, he told us that he is a professional soccer player for the Fes soccer team.
Two hours went by in a flash and it was time to sit down and enjoy our tagines. This was by far the best tagine I have eaten in Morocco. Perhaps it was the spices, perhaps it was the secret ingredient or perhaps it was having prepared it in the home of such a charming Moroccan family.
Our meal ended, as most Moroccan meals do, with a lovely platter of cut fruit. Amina served oranges with cinnamon (a new secret ingredient for me), strawberries and bananas from the market.
Before dinner was over, we all decided to get tagines when we got home.
Tomorrow we leave bright and early to begin our trek to the desert. We will drive through the Middle and High Atlas Mountain range to Erfoud. A small trading village that is the gateway to the Sahara Desert, Erfoud is our last stop before we begin our desert adventure.
We spent most of the day in the Fes Medina, the oldest part of the city. Nine thousand narrow streets ramble through this colorful, stimulating area. Founded in the 9th century, Fes Medina is often considered the world’s most well-preserved medieval city.
In 1492 (the same year Columbus sailed to America) Spain expelled all Jews who would not renounce their faith. Many of them chose to go to Morocco. They established a Jewish Quarter, called the mellah, in Fes.
In the 17th century, they constructed a synagogue. Now the synagogue is a museum.
Royal Palace of Fes
Leaving the Jewish Quarter, we walked around the corner and stopped in front of the Royal Palace of Fes. Built in the 14th century and renovated in 1968, it is the largest and oldest royal residence in Morocco.
After the relative calm of the Royal Palace, we entered the busy medina.The sights, sounds and scents were intense. I loved the beautiful displays of spices and dried fruits.
Our guide pointed out different sections of the medina. The fiber and metals section were two of the most colorful.
One booth sold baskets of rose petals. Moroccan women use the petals to make rose water that is used in food, medicine and perfume.
We stood on top of the bridge over the Fes River which divides the two parts of the medina.
The oldest university in the world is in Fes. Founded in the 9th century, Qaraouiyine is a mosque and a university. The plaque outside the entrance states, “Considered to be the first multidisciplinary university in the world, it remains until now a center of Islamic spirituality.”
The shrine to Idris I, the founder of Fes is in the medina. Only Muslims are allowed to enter, but we were able to look in the front entrance.
People buy ornate candles from stalls around the shrine to burn and ask for a blessing.
The oldest tannery in Morocco is located in the medina. Hussain, the manager and designer, gave us a tour and explained the process.
Before we climbed to the top of the tannery to observe the tanning vats, Hussain distributed mint sprigs to hold under our noses in case the smells were too strong. They were strong but tolerable. The hides are soaked in water, pigeon poop, and one more secret ingredient only the tanners know. Pigeon poop is big business in the medina. 80% of people in the old city collect and sell it to the tannery.
Before leaving the tannery, we visited their shop and admired the beautiful products.
We saw a lot before lunch. After lunch we visited a beautiful,14th century madrassa, an Arabic word for school. Unlike madrassas in other countries which focus only on religious education, Moroccan madrassas prepare students in both secular and religious subjects.
LIke all madrassas in Morocco this one has a central courtyard and fountain for ablutions before praying.
My favorite part of traveling is meeting people and learning more about their lives and culture, so I was really excited about the home-hosted dinner. Our evening of dining with a local family was one of my best travel experiences, ever!
Six of us went to the home of a young Moroccan family for dinner. Mehdi, Rania and their young son Moustafa met us at our riad and escorted us to their home. On the way they showed us their restaurant.
Throughout the night we chatted and learned so much about how they live. They were so welcoming, relaxed and honest that it soon felt like an evening with friends. Before dinner Mehdi served mint tea in the entertaining Moroccan style and Rania served Moroccan cookies.
This busy young couple made time to host an incredible evening for us. Rania teaches Arabic and English and Mehdi owns a cafe and B&B. Recently he has started acting in a few films. He and his mother were extras in the new Indiana Jones movie filmed in Fes.
During the filming, they both met Harrison Ford.
We had so many questions, and they openly answered every one. We talked about education, family, careers, religion and more. They had some wonderful questions for us, such as “What did you know about Morocco before you came here?”
Their living situation is typical of many Moroccan families. Twelve people spanning three generations live in their lovely home. Mehdi’s mom cooks all the meals, but everyone helps with the family responsibilities. Two toddlers, two older children, grandma, cousins, and aunties all joined us at some point in the evening. Love and commitment to family filled their home.
After dinner Rania asked us if we had ever tried on Moroccan dress and offered to bring out some of her caftans for us to try. We were like kids playing dress-up as Rania told us about the different caftans and we each chose one to try on.
Rania even modeled her wedding dress for us.
Before we left Rania wrote each of our names in Arabic-a special memento of our special evening.
This was my first opportunity to spend time with a Muslim family in their home. I will always remember and treasure the special night with this young Moroccan family. It seems to me the world would be a more peaceful place if we could all have more experiences like this.
We left Rabat and drove four hours to Fes. About an hour outside of Rabat we stopped to walk through a cork forest. These government-owned forests and the truffles found by the trees provide good income for the area residents.
About an hour after visiting the cork forest, we stopped in the little village of Khmiset for a nos nos, the traditional half coffee, half milk Moroccan drink. I was afraid the drink would be too milky for me, but it was both delicious and beautiful.
The shops in Khmiset were closed in observance of Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan. Morocco celebrated Eid al-Fitr later than many other countries because the moon-sighting committee in Morocco saw the crescent moon later than some other countries. We saw few people as we walked around the mostly deserted street.
We did see quite a bit of activity around the cart of an enterprising young woman who sold bread she had made that morning. Abdou bought a loaf for us to try and it was delicious!
Our Home in Fes
We arrived in Fes, Morocco’s largest city in the early afternoon.
On our last night in Rabat, we dined in a riad and for the next three days, we get to live in one. Riad Authentic Palace is a 17th century building at the end of a narrow lane. So narrow that our bus had to drop us off and we walked about six blocks to the riad.
Riads are simple on the outside and lavish on the inside. Our riad’s beautiful lobby was a dramatic change from the simple exterior.
After a tiny post-lunch rest, we met Abdou 2, our Fez guide and rode to a high point in Fez overlooking the city. We heard a call to prayer as we were looking out over the old part of the city.
We saw the Muslim cemetery on the right of the beautiful view. Earlier we had learned a little about Muslim burial practices. They use shrouds, not coffins, and bury their dead on their right side facing Mecca. All Muslims are buried because they do not believe in cremation.
We visited Art D’Argile, a pottery and tile studio supported by the government to ensure traditional Moroccan crafts continue. Artisans pass their skills on to their children. The sixty-year-old old master craftsman in the picture below started interning at eleven..
The master potter we observed had started as an apprentice at fourteen. Our tour guide chose me to try out the potter’s wheel and make a tagine, an earthenware pot used to cook a Moroccan dish of the same name. I told him the last time I tried pottery my bowl became a platter, but he assured me this time I would get lots of help. With the master potter guiding my hands and spinning the wheel we made a tagine together. I don’t think my tagine will make it to shop.
The government pays the art studio to house and train orphan girls. They live in a dormitory at the studio and become part of the studio family. I talked with one of the girls and she let me take her picture. She posed wearing her finest djellaba because she was going to an Eid al-Fitr celebration when the studio closed.
We ended the evening with a light dinner of lentil soup, dates and bread on the terrace of our riad.
Rabat, Morocco’s capitol, is not the ancient, crowded dark city I expected. It is white and bright and modern.The Grand Theater across the Bou Regreg River from our hotel is a dramatic example of modern Rabat.
We arrived in Rabat later than planned but in time to meet and dine with Abdou, our OAT guide and the other fourteen people in our group.
The Royal Palace
After seeing modern Rabat the night we arrived, the next day we visited more historic areas. Soon after leaving our hotel, we met Yusef, our guide for the day and drove to the Royal Palace of Mohamed VI, the king of Morocco.
The palace sits at the end of a large parade ground. We noticed various security measures protecting the palace- a guarded entrance to the compound, chain barriers preventing visitors from getting too close and colorfully-dressed guards posted at the front of the palace.
A small mosque sits across from the palace. We heard the second of the five daily calls to prayer when we arrived.
Mohamed V Mausoleum
The Mohamed V Mausoleum was our next stop. It contains the remains of King Mohamed V and his two sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. Richly dressed soldiers on horseback guard the entrance.
The mausoleum complex includes a mosque and future museum. At the front of the mosque we observed men entering one doorway for prayers and women entering another.
Opposite the mausoleum and mosque is the Hassan Tower. The tower is a minaret of an incomplete mosque begun near the end of the 12th century. During the time we were there I heard what I thought was a call to prayer. Yusef told us it was a man reciting-not reading- the Quaran.
Take Me to the Kasbah
Next we visited the Kasbah Oudeya. A kasbah is a fortress, and this was a very nice fortress. On the outside it looks like a fort.
On the inside it looks like a small village with beautiful whitewashed homes, little shops and a great view of the ocean.
We ended our stroll through the kasbah at the Andalusian Gardens. Abdou shared with us that the gardens were special for him because he had asked his wife to marry him there. When I said, “What a lovely spot for a proposal”, he explained that it wasn’t a proposal because they had just met each other the day he asked her to marry him.
In Morocco, marriage happens before love. When Abdou was ready to get married, a cousin showed him his future wife’s picture. He was interested and she was interested and the families arranged a meeting. Now they have a loving marriage and three young children.
We ended a fabulous day with our traditional OAT Welcome Dinner (which was really a Farewell, Rabat dinner because we leave tomorrow) at a beautiful Moroccan restaurant. Walking down the narrow street on our way to the restaurant, we saw beautifully carved doors, rows of potted plants and a narrow strip of the blue night sky.
The restaurant is located in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house centered around an interior open space. The ceiling, surrounded by beautiful carved wood, opened to the night sky.
We feasted on traditional Moroccan cooked salads and stuffed vegetables. My favorite part of the meal was the amazing almond dessert presented by our charming server.
Tomorrow we leave bright and early for Fes. (That is not a typo-the city we call Fez is Fes in Morocco.) The adventure continues.