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Stories from our Travelers

Modern and Ancient Morocco

Overlooking the harbor in Tangier

Headscarves on display at the medina in Fez

A mule waits patiently in a medina alley
by Claire Schneider

[From Summer 2011] My husband and I had fantasized about making a trip to Morocco for longer than I can remember. This past summer, our plans came to fruition.

~ Tangier
Until little more than a decade ago, Tangier was a seedy port town with a history of espionage and smuggling. Though fascinating to some, like American author and composer Paul Bowles, the monarchy abandoned it, considering it unsalvageable. Today, the current king, Mohammed VI, recognizing Tangier’s potential advantage as the link between Europe and Africa, seeks to rejuvenate it. The old town's alleyways and dives are still apparent but are juxtaposed with impressive high rises and a state-of-the art port. Movie buffs enjoy international offerings in the recently renovated Cinémathèque de Tanger. Men hang out in coffee shops, and women watch from the shoreline as their families swim in the beautiful Mediterranean waters. As a tourist, it is impossible to get lost, as there is always a self-appointed “guide” to accompany you. Ours was nicknamed “Coca-Cola” because, like the drink, he was well known throughout the neighborhood.

~ Asilah
We embarked on a day-trip to this picturesque tourist town known for its colorful murals. The pace is slower here, providing a welcome reprieve from city life. On the way, we passed the point where the Mediterranean and Atlantic Oceans meet. The extensive golden beaches are sadly being negatively impacted by numerous construction projects, most of which have been abandoned due to the economic recession.

~ Fez
They say that Fez, the medieval capital, is the soul of Morocco. We set out to explore this after arriving by express train from Tangier. The taxi whisked us through the ville nouvelle along wide-open boulevards that followed the ramparts of the old city. We were immediately struck by the spectacular setting – our hotel overlooked the medina with two forts and an enormous cemetery in the distance.

How does one begin to explore a 1,200-year old city comprised of a labyrinth of over 9,000 non-paved alleys? The answer is to be comfortable with being lost. It was easy to lose track of time as we were transported back to the Middle Ages. Pedestrians compete with donkeys, mules, and bicycles in this car-free zone. Streets are crowded as the inhabitants go about their daily business. Interestingly, the chaos has a certain order to it. People are hard at work, spinning silk from the local cactus plant, making shoes, selling traditional medicines and foods like sweets, olives, nuts, dates, vegetables, and meats (including camel). Tanneries reveal their long history of leather making. Skins arrive on donkeys before being processed manually by men standing knee deep in pigeon poop (used as a softening agent), acids, and cow urine. It’s no wonder they offer fresh mint to tourists to mask the odor. Dyes are all natural – indigo, cedarwood, poppy, and saffron. A few decades ago Arabs took over this industry previously dominated by Jews. Be prepared to buy something after entering the tannery – the proprietors are persistent salesmen.

Fez is home to several hundred mosques that contribute to the cacophony of the five daily calls to prayer. The Kairaoine Mosque is the largest in Africa, holding up to 20,000 worshipers, and the university in the same complex is one of the oldest in the world. Non-believers are denied entrance to mosques but we can view them from outside. Many Muslims and tourists visit the tomb of Moulay Idriss Zaouia, the son of Fez’s founder. Visitors are forced to bow their heads as a sign of respect by a beam that is placed across the street leading up to the tomb.

For an escape from the sensory overload, we took a break for lunch at the Café Clock. It offers an array of local and international cuisine, and its desserts (especially the lemon tart) are not to be missed. The café is a popular hangout for expatriates and tourists looking for familiar and local food fare. Café Clock also offers cooking classes and yoga. The afternoons are quiet in the medina – people stay indoors to avoid the intense summer heat. We returned in the evening to marvel at the changing light in this extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage site.

If You Go
In Tangier, we stayed at the Hotel Nord-Pinus Tanger, a lovely riad overlooking the Mediterranean. We enjoyed our lunch break at the Café Clock in Fez. International carriers including Royal Air Maroc, Air France and Iberia offer service to cities throughout Morocco. U.S. carriers including American Airlines and Delta offer service in partnership with the above.

Homepage photograph courtesy Hotel Nord-Pinus Tanger.

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