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seemaskt Jun 17th, 2013 04:13 PM

15 days, 5 walks, 4 medinas, 3 gal of mint tea, 2 camel rides, one Morocco!
Hello everyone!

My husband and I were in Morocco for 2 weeks in May. We are a couple in our mid 30s from New York, who love to travel independently. We've traveled to Egypt and Jordan (amongst the Middle East/Northern African countries) and to Rwanda/Tanzania in sub-Saharan Africa, so have some experience in the region.

Work has been busy and summer weekends are spent outdoors, so this trip report is going to come in fits and starts. I'm going to do my best to finish it up as soon as I can, while our memories are still fresh. So, please bear with me, if you're following along.

seemaskt Jun 17th, 2013 04:21 PM

<b><u> The beginnings of a trip: </b> </u>

I have been dreaming of Morocco for several years now. Even while growing up in India, Morocco sounded so exotic and mysterious! When some colleagues in my first job out of college traveled to Casablanca for work, I was insanely jealous. I think I put together my first travel plans for Morocco in 2009, but in the years since, we ended up traveling to other far off lands for a variety of reasons. So, this year, I was determined to finally get Morocco back on our radar and started the pre-trip research/planning back in January for a trip in May. I counted on Ajit and I getting 2 weeks off from work and built a plan around it – I knew I wanted to spend more time in Fes than Marrakech, make a detour into Chefchaouen (something about this town nestled in the Rif mountains captured my imagination), spend a day or two on the coast in Essaouira and fill the days in between driving from Fes to Marrakech through the Middle and High Atlas mountains. I wasn’t surprised when Ajit nixed the self drive idea in less than a second, even before I finished my sentence (winding mountain roads and the automatic vs. stick issue were deal breakers, especially since I get extremely car sick). So now, I had to go find us a car/driver for this portion of the trip. I knew we had 5 days to work with and didn’t want to just be driven from point A to B every day. I had done enough reading to know that the landscapes in Morocco were varied with lots of possibilities for easy walks/hikes that would allow us to get out and smell the roses (literally!). I also wanted to spend a night in the desert, set aside time to hit a local market and try and have some meaningful interactions with the locals (we’ve done homestays in Asia, but that was going to be unlikely on this trip). These parameters figured out, I contacted a few local agencies and asked them to come up with a plan for the 5 days. Work was extremely busy during these weeks, so I really didn’t have much time to negotiate an itinerary with each one of them. Journey Beyond Travel was one of two that actually responded with a plan that most closely matched what I had asked for. They were able to fit in a hike each day with local guides that I was very excited about. They also had us spending a day in the Ziz valley, visiting the guide’s home and having lunch with them, which I appreciated. I also wanted to break up the trip from Merzouga to Marrakech with nights at the Todra Gorge and Skoura, instead of Boumalne Dades and Oarzazate which is on most itineraries, and wanted to detour to the Telouet Kasbah on the way to Marrakech, all of which they were able to do. Thomas, the owner of JBT, was easy to work with, and while his responses sometimes took a few days, I was never concerned. In the end, this is what our plan looked like. Oh, and once we confirmed travel dates at work, we booked direct flights from JFK to Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc, leaving May 10 and returning May 26.

Day 1 – Arrive Casablanca early AM, take the train to Fes
Days 2, 3 – Fes
Days 4, 5 - Chefchaouen (by bus)
Day 6 – Fes
Day 7 – First day of drive with car/driver, walk in Azrou, o/n in Erfoud
Day 8 – Day in Ziz Valley, o/n in the desert
Day 9 – Sunday market in Rissani, hike in Todra Gorge, o/n at the gorge
Day 10 – Hike in Dades Valley, o/n in Skoura
Day 11 – Walk in Skoura, drive to Marrakech via Ait Benhaddou and Telouet Kasbahs
Days 12, 13 – Marrakech
Days 14, 15 –Essaouira (by bus)
Day 16 – Fly back to JFK via Casablanca

For hotels, we prefer small, intimate, family run places whenever possible, in the budget to moderate price range. I found the absolutely charming Dar Seffarine in Fes and was lucky to get the dates we wanted. One of the benefits to traveling in the shoulder season. For Chefchaouen, I booked Casa la Palma, run by a Spanish couple. JBT suggested a hotel in Erfoud which was fine since I couldn’t find anything nicer. Auberge le Festival in the Todra Gorge looked lovely and I asked Thomas to book us there (note that JBT will book the entire trip including hotels, so I couldn’t book the hotels myself for those 5 days). For Skoura, Thomas highly recommended Les Jardins de Skoura, and while it was more expensive than we typically like to spend, I went with his choice. There is no dearth of riads/dars in the Marrakech medina, which made it harder, but the description of Riad Magellan in the LP sealed the deal for me…well, that and the nice off season discount that the owner Phillipe gave us. For Essaouira, I picked the more budget friendly option of Les Matins Bleus. Only Riad Magellan required a deposit (paid with a CC), while some of the others just required a CC on file. JBT required an initial deposit as well, with the rest to be paid a month before the trip.

Everything was in place and the anticipation of winding medinas, busy souks, kasbahs, tagines and desert dunes kept me going through the crazy times at work…until Ajit got laid off from work in late February. What!!! Moment of panic…actually, there were several days of panic, with the trip being the least of our worries. I didn’t cancel the trip, knowing we would both need a break, whether he found another job by then or not. But, that’s easier said than done, given all the possibilities and the fact that I had purchased trip interruption insurance but not cancellation. Anyway, long story short, Ajit was able to find another job in late April and start right away, and his new group was really nice to let him take the 2 weeks off so soon. Phew! Of course, with all the uncertainty over the last couple of months prior to the trip, there was very little excitement leading up it…mostly just exhaustion. Throw in a last minute work trip to Atlanta for me getting back the night before our trip, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go on the trip anymore. Luckily, that thought quickly evaporated as we lugged our bags to JFK and boarded the flight.

bniemand Jun 18th, 2013 06:26 AM

I'm following along! We are doing a similar route in September.

thursdaysd Jun 18th, 2013 07:54 AM

Sounds like a great itinerary. Looking forward to the ride.

seemaskt Jun 18th, 2013 11:17 AM

Thanks for reading along, bniemand and thursdays! Interested to hear about your trip planning, bniemand...what do you have planned?

Here's the next short installment. Promise to have more this evening.

<b><u> Arrival in Casablanca, an interesting train ride and getting lost in the souks of Fes: </b></u>

The Royal Maroc flight is basic but adequate and with tolerable food...much better than expected. It's a 7 hour flight, which gives us enough time for a quick snooze before we land in Casablanca. Since we depart an hour late (the usual air traffic congestion), we arrive an hour late, just past 8 am. With visas already in hand, we clear immigration and customs pretty quickly, and our large suitcases (one of which is mostly empty) make it as well. Our first order of business is to withdraw some cash. A man at the information desk points us in the direction of the ATM which is at one end of the terminal. Unfortunately, it eats my card but thankfully spits it out after a few seconds of panicked button pushing. Not willing to take another chance, we exchange $100 for dirhams at one of the currency exchange counters, just so we have some cash in hand. As we walk towards the train station, we pass another ATM. This one works, so we use both our cards to withdraw a few thousand dirhams (max limit is 2000 MAD). For anyone landing at CMN and taking the train, this appears to be the more reliable ATM option. Just across the ATM, we spot a Maroc Telecom outlet, where we get a SIM card.

From here, we take the escalators down to the station to get our tickets. Before we left, I had printed the train schedules from the ONCF website (for both the train to Casa Voyageurs and from there on to Fes). I ask the man at the counter for 2 First Class tickets to Fes and point to the specific trains that I want. He doesn’t speak any English (and we don’t speak any French), so a friendly local standing in line helps with the translation. It takes a long time to process the CC and when I finally get the tickets, I quickly check the coach/seat numbers and the verify the destination. Looks fine, so we move on. It’s a short wait for the train to Casa Voyageurs – the signage for First Class is not easy to find, so we ask someone for help. It’s a short 30 minute ride to the main city station, where we get off to switch to the train leaving for Fes. We buy a couple of bottles of water and walk to the platform to find the 11:15 train. I check the train number posted, but it doesn’t match what I have on my ticket. Hmm, first sign that something could be wrong. I walk over to the station entrance to ask an agent if there is another train leaving for Fes, but he points me to the one that’s already on the platform. Ok then. So, we find our coach and seats and board the train. There is one other girl sitting across from us who we say hello to, and when the train chugs out of the station, we relax and settle in for the 3 hour journey. I have to say here that I am impressed by the Moroccan trains – they’re in good condition, clean, well air conditioned (not freezing cold) and with comfortable seats.

A ticket agent comes by shortly to check our tickets – appears all is well. At the next station however, we are joined by 4 more people, and 2 women appear to have our seats. Drat! The girl who had boarded with us at Casa Voyageurs speaks good English and helps to translate for all of us. She asks to see our tickets and points out that they were issued for the 9am train from the airport and the connecting train to Fes…interesting, because we bought our tickets at 9:40am and it says so on the ticket!! Sigh, I should’ve paid more attention to our tickets. Anyway, we can’t find a ticket agent, so we end up squishing into one seat for the next half hour or so until an agent comes by. Good thing I am tiny. One of the men in our compartment explains the situation to the agent and offers to move to another seat. How very kind of him – we are very appreciative and thank him profusely. We also thank the girl who helped with the initial communication and got chatting with her. Her name is Sukaina – she was born in Fes, grew up in Meknes where her family still lives and currently works in Casablanca in a strategy consulting firm. We find out that she has applied for the Fulbright scholarship and plans to apply to business schools in the US. Since Ajit went to Columbia and helps with the admissions process, we end up talking to her about the application process, US versus European schools, her background and story and what she hopes to do with her MBA. She tells us that with 50% of the population under the age of 30 who are dealing with rampant unemployment and not many big industries to employ them, Morocco’s future depends on entrepreneurship - her plan is to help foster this culture amongst the youth and nurture small businesses. She also volunteers at an organization that is working towards the same goals. It’s a great story and conversation to have at the beginning of the trip! Before we realize it, the train arrives at Meknes and it’s time to say good bye. We exchange emails, wish her good luck and promise to stay in touch. We spend the last half hour gazing out the window at the miles and miles of olive groves and vineyards set amongst rolling hills – this region produces the best olive oil and a large percentage of Morocco’s wine – it’s beautiful! We arrive in Fes and find the driver holding a sign with my name on it – I had asked Dar Seffarine to have us picked up and told them which train I expected to be on. It’s nice and hot outside, and sunny – such a welcome after the cold, dreary weather we’ve been having in NYC. It’s a 10-15 minute ride to the medina and we get off at a parking area close to the tanneries. A porter shows up and loads up our bags into his trolley and off we go - through narrow winding dusty alleys, dodging donkeys carrying leather and other goods, running kids and people going about their day. We have no clue where we are or which direction we are going in, but in about 10 minutes, we are standing outside a large door being welcomed into the calm, gorgeous confines of Dar Seffarine. We are home. :-)

Ian Jun 18th, 2013 03:08 PM

Following along as well . . .


JerryS Jun 18th, 2013 03:16 PM

seemakst, I love the way you travel. Keep writing.

seemaskt Jun 19th, 2013 08:02 AM

Ah, Fodors is finally back up. I wrote up the rest of Day 1 last night, but haven't been able to post it.

Thanks for reading on, Jerry and Ian!

seemaskt Jun 19th, 2013 08:02 AM

Dar Seffarine is spectacular, neither words nor pictures can do it justice. Built in the 14th century, it has been lovingly and painstakingly restored by Iraqi/Norwegian architect owner Allaa and his wife Kate. The central courtyard is breathtaking with incredibly detailed plaster work, cedar wood, original zellij floors and massive elaborately carved/painted doors. The décor is tasteful and enhances the architecture without overwhelming it. Ajit and I were both in love. Mohammed, one of the managers, brings us fresh mint tea, while we fill out the paperwork and wait for the room to be ready. This will be the first of several hundred mint teas that we will drink of this trip. As I write this and it’s raining outside, I’m craving another sweet mint tea. Ah! We walk up the stairs to our (double) room but find out that we have been upgraded to a suite. Great! The room is huge, with separate seating and sleeping areas. It has windows overlooking the courtyard as well as outside windows, which is unusual and brings in great light. We want to stay and soak this all in, but we are really hungry having only eaten a couple of granola bars all day. So we decide to venture out and get a late lunch. Rooms are left unlocked here, to give it the feeling of being in a home rather than a hotel. Mohammed draws us a simple map that shows us how to get to the important landmarks - Bab Rcif, Bab Boujloud. We don’t go too far for lunch though – there is a small restaurant in Place Seffarine, close to the guesthouse.

We walk up and order some mezzes – Moroccan salad, bean dip, zaalouk (eggplant dip), roasted carrots with cumin, roasted peppers, a chicken tagine and a couple of mint teas. There’s also some bread or khobz to spoon all this goodness into our ravished stomachs. The food is simple but tasty, and the restaurant also provides a great vantage point from which to observe the goings on in the square below. This is a wonderful triangular souk of coppersmiths that quickly becomes one of our favorite places in the medina. We hear them hammer away at their copper and brass pots, pans and plates, the din becoming louder and louder until it all blends beautifully together and sounds almost musical. The entrance to the Karaouine library is here as well, though non Muslims are not permitted inside. After lunch, we stroll around this small souk observing the different methods being used to work the metal and peek into the tiny shops.

Our plan for the rest of the afternoon is to aimlessly wander the medina with no agenda heading in the general direction of the Bab Boujloud - basically, get lost and find our way back home. There is a lot of foot traffic at this time as we slowly make our way through the maze of narrow streets taking it all in, turning this way or that anytime we see something that piques our curiosity. There are shops selling everything from clothing (like djellabas and babouches) to household items to colorful rugs/blankets to spices/medicinal herbs to fresh goat cheese/traditional sweets/nougat/nuts and the list goes on. The shops are small and make great use of vertical space with shelves going all the way up the high ceilings, every inch of which is filled with whatever is being sold. Shops geared towards the locals are interspersed with the touristic shops. Every few minutes, we hear someone yell "Belak!" behind us which signals to us to get the hell out of the way and let the hard working donkey carrying the heavy load pass through. When we don't know which way to turn, we ask shopkeepers to point us in the direction of Talaa Kebira (the main thoroughfare of the medina). Eventually, we end up at the lovely Nejjarine fountain flanked by the recently restored and equally elegant fondouk or caravanserai, used to provide shelter and food to tired traders and their animals as they traversed the trans-Saharan trade routes hundreds of years ago. We will be back to check out the fondouk tomorrow; for now, we turn around towards Henna Souk (making a note of the ceramics here) and then try and find our way back. We love how the medina surprises us with interesting architectural details when we least expect it - an intricate arch here, a beautiful door there. You walk the same alley twice and notice something new each time. We get to the Al Karaouine mosque, take a quick peek inside before the gates close for evening prayers, and walk along the walls of the large complex until we hear the familiar welcoming sound of coppersmiths letting us know that we're almost home.

We run into Alaa when we get back and let him know that we'll be eating here tonight. Dinner will be at 8:30, so we go up to the terrace for a bit to take in the lovely views of the sprawling, crumbling medina dotted with minarets (and several hundred satellite dishes) and surrounded by gentle hills. We can't wait to spend our remaining evenings in Fes enjoying this view with a drink in our hands. Can it get any better? After a quick shower, we head downstairs for dinner in the open courtyard by the kitchen. Allaa is cooking lamb tagine with dried lemons and invites me over to taste it and check the seasoning. It's delicious. All meals are a communal affair here, so we are joined by a Brazilian/Portuguese couple and a British couple who have just arrived from Marrakech. Dinner is fantastic - we start with squash soup, followed by the succulent tagine and a cucumber/green pepper salad and finally grated carrots in orange juice for dessert. The conversation is lively and begins with beer/wine and ends with tea almost 3 hours later. Allaa joins us as well and tells us their story of how they got here, his life in Iraq/Norway, life in the medina, its future, his hopes/dreams - it's fascinating. Kate also joins us for the last hour. Before we finish up, he promises to give us a tour of the house tomorrow at 5. This evening has felt like an intimate dinner party in a friend's home - a testament to Allaa/Kate's vision for Dar Seffarine. It's been a very long first day in Morocco, so we fall asleep quickly dreaming about what the rest of our trip has in store for us.

snorklesue Jun 19th, 2013 04:36 PM

Enjoying your report. We are traveling with JBT in Sept. You mentioned "with visas in hand" we thought we do not need visas, just Passports,or do you get them there?

thursdaysd Jun 19th, 2013 06:30 PM

The riad sounds gorgeous. Have bookmarked it in case I go back.

I, too, don't remember anything about a visa.

seemaskt Jun 20th, 2013 04:34 AM

Sorry about the visa confusion. We are US residents, but hold Indian citizenship, which means we need visas to pretty much every country in the world. :-)

thursdays - I'll post a link to our pictures when they're ready and you'll see what I mean. I think you'll love it as well.

I'll be back with more tomorrow...

1Caroline Jun 20th, 2013 11:52 AM

I'm following along too as we are going in late September. I have a question I'm hoping you can answer. You mentioned the tea being sweet. My husband is diabetic and I'm wondering if it was already sweetened or if you added the sugar. I don't want to offend anyone by appearing unappreciative but he couldn't drink sweet tea for two weeks or it would become a real problem for his health. Is there an option of unsweet tea? Thanks.

seemaskt Jun 20th, 2013 01:11 PM

Hi Caroline - Yes, Moroccans love really sweet tea. In some places, we were offered sugar on the side. In some places, we specifically asked for it on the side and they obliged. But, in smaller towns or smaller restaurants, there were times that they either forgot or didn't understand. If that were to happen, I think it would be perfectly fine for your husband to either politely decline or ask for another cup of tea and explain the situation. I don't think they would take offense at all.

Have a great trip!

Fra_Diavolo Jun 20th, 2013 04:22 PM

He can also just take a small sip and put it down, never to be touched again. Or, if you're in a shop, just decline the offer.

1Caroline Jun 20th, 2013 06:29 PM

Oh? We read it was offensive to do that. Hummm

seemaskt Jun 21st, 2013 06:02 AM

<b><u> Mesmerized by the magic of Fes </b></u>

We wake up around 8 this morning and head up to the terrace for breakfast, where Mohammed had laid out a lavish spread. There's 3 or 4 different kinds of bread (khobz, a layered bread resembling the Indian paratha, and a bread with a thousand holes), carrot and date jams, eggs, apricots and melons, fresh orange juice and tea/coffee. It's a great way to start the day and Mohammed is a hoot - he's a fun guy who loves Bollywood movies (as do most Moroccans) and entertains us with his stories and impersonations every time. We get along really well. Our plan for the day is the head over to the main blue gate of the medina, Bab Boujloud, and follow the LP walking route that goes down Talaa Kebira and ends in the vicinity of Place Seffarine - perfect. We walk over to Bab Rcif and hail a red petit taxi that takes us to Boujloud for about 11 MAD.

Fes is the third largest city and the most perfectly preserved amongst all of Morocco's imperial cities. Fes-el-Bali, the old walled city and a UNESCO world heritage site, dates back more than a 1000 years, and it seems little has changed since then. The ochre colored medina is shaped like a fish bowl, so we are walking downhill towards the center. High windowless walls line narrow passageways, everything but shops hidden from the world. We start at the produce souks close to Boujloud - similar to markets in Asia, they sell everything from fresh produce, bread, many varieties of olives, pickles, meats and fish to other cooking and kitchen essentials. It's fun to just observe the shopping process and look at things we would never see in a market in the US - like cow hoofs or a goat head for example! We spot a couple of men walking with the hoofs, so people definitely buy it, I'm just not sure what they do with it. Across from the ancient but now non-functional water clock, we enter the Bou Inania madrasa founded in the 12th century and one of the few religious institutions open to non Muslims. Ajit and I both love Islamic architecture, so we can easily spend hours admiring the fine zellij, calligraphy and plaster work. Luckily, we have the place to ourselves for some time before a large tour group wanders in. We amble further along Talaa Kebira and check out hidden back alleys and pop into shops until we spot a terrace cafe - a great time for some rest and mint tea with the added bonus of a group of street musicians singing Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry...that's not something you expect to hear in Fes.

It's lunch time, so we decide to turn back and find Thami's, a restaurant that was highly recommended on a few blogs. There are several tiny restaurants set right next to each other, so make sure to sit at the right table if you go there. We sit under a mulberry tree and order his famous kefta kebab tagine and chicken couscous. He also brings over bread, olives and a small plate of lentils with spicy peppers. The food is cheap and delicious, although the kefta is a little oversalted. Mulberries dropping from the tree onto our table provide free dessert. After lunch, we walk through an interesting fondouk selling honey, butter, meat preserved in fat, and smen (a smelly, fermented butter) stored in barrels. From here, we get back to a familiar place from yesterday - the Nejjarine fondouk. This time we pay the entrance fee to take a look at the beautiful restoration inside (the carved cedar pillars and railings are lovely, and so are the restrooms) and the museum showcasing arts and crafts through the ages. Across from the fondouk is a souk specializing in gaudily decorated wedding chariots - in all the artisanal souks, we see and hear craftsmen busy at work using skills and techniques that have been handed down through the generations. It's estimated that there are about 30,000 craftsmen working in the medina today. Our next stop is the Henna Souk to look at ceramics (we love traditional pottery!). Fes is the handicraft capital of Morocco and its artisans produce the finest pottery in their signature cobalt blue. We like a vase and negotiate the price down a little (it's my first experience with bargaining on this trip, let's just say it's not one of my core skills), but ultimately I'm not convinced enough to buy it.

Then it's a quick stop at the Moulay Idriss mausoleum and onto the 14th century madrasa Al Attarine. This madrasa is smaller than the Bou Inania, but the work here is more intricate, abundant in its details and just gorgeous. A few hundred clicks later, we're back on the street and turn into Al Karaouine mosque and university (founded in the 7th century and quite possibly the oldest university in the world), another familiar landmark from yesterday. As we walk by, a young man beckons us over to his terrace that looks over the mosque - the ariel view shows what a huge complex this is in a tightly packed medina. On the way down, we get sucked into a ceramics shop with an aggressive owner. The ceramics look more dusty than antique, so we glance over some of the pottery as we take a few sips of over sweet Berber tea that appears before us and listen to the owner's sales pitch, and then walk out leaving him muttering under his breath. He doesn't scream any obscenities at us like he apparently did with the British couple the next day. We follow the sounds of the coppersmiths to Seffarine square and head over to the corner cafe, run by Mustafa, who also owns the restaurant. We sit on the outdoor stools with tea and orange juice in our hands - it's the perfect place to relax, soak in the atmosphere and watch the medina life go by. From mules going back and forth from the tanneries carrying multi-hued hides, large cauldrons being hand forged and then cooled off at the fountain to an agile 10 year old rollerblading with amazing skill over the cobbled uneven streets and steps of the square - an interesting juxtaposition of traditions and inevitable "modernization" of the medina.

At 5, we head over to the dar for our tour of the house. We are joined by some new faces - guests who have checked in this morning. Alaa gives us an overview of the medina's architecture and layout, Islamic architectural concepts, the history of the house and the restoration challenges over a 3 year period. We walk through all the rooms in the house and each one has a story. Being an architect, Alaa has respect for traditional architectural elements and has put a lot of thought/effort into maintaining the symmetry and flow of the house, especially when bathrooms had to be added. Therefore, bathrooms are awkwardly shaped with no tubs and Alaa has had guests complain about it, which is really unfortunate. Luckily, this group of us could care less about the size of the bathrooms. Alaa saves the best for last, the master suite, which is literally like a palace with a painted domed ceiling, stained glass windows, ornate columns - we are all (well, except for the couple staying in the room) speechless for a few minutes. Alaa takes me aside and asks if we wouldn't mind moving to this room when we came back from Chefchaouen - Are you kidding me? We are ecstatic! After all of oohs and aahs, we head over to the terrace with a bottle of chilled wine and enjoy the rest of the evening and sunset there, that ends with the call to prayer. We are not very hungry tonight, so go over to Mustafa's for dinner and have the same meal we had for lunch yesterday and then call it a night.

Fra_Diavolo Jun 21st, 2013 06:32 AM

Really wonderful detail in this report!

1Caroline -- no one seemed offended in the shops. In fact it was only offered a carpet shop in Fes, if I remember correctly, the one place we sat down. My wife and son took a glass.

In several private homes I simply took a glass, although I am also a type 2 diabetic (and have no sweet tooth to begin with). This only happened three or four times over two weeks. I was careful not to finish so it was never refilled. And you can always just explain that he is diabetic.

seemaskt Jun 23rd, 2013 03:40 PM

On our second full day in Fes, after another lovely breakfast (which also includes fried tomatoes), we begin at the Chouwara tanneries, a short distance away. At 9:30 in the morning, the medina is just slowly waking up and most of the shops are still shuttered. As we walk past our local cafe, Mustafa spots us and offers us to take us to the terrace with the "best view"...since we are going to have to get on to a terrace anyway, why not just go with him and so we do. Around the tanneries, there is much more activity at this time of day. Mustafa takes us to the terrace of one of the bigger leather shops, introduces us to the owner and leaves. The tanneries in Fes are the oldest in the world and use techniques that remain unchanged for centuries, producing soft leather that's renowned the world over. In front of us are vats filled with lime and cow urine in which sheep, goat, cow and camel skins are treated for a few days to prepare them for the dyeing process. Apparently, pigeon poop is used sometime during the tanning process as well. Next to it are vats filled with natural pigments to dye the leather, looking like a tray of water colors. They use poppies for red, saffron for yellow, indigo for blue, henna for orange and so on. We also see a couple of men apply the color by hand on the hides. This is hard work especially in the heat of the summer. Once the dyed hides are dried, they are cut and taken to shops where they are sewed by master craftsmen into colorful bags, babouches and jackets. The shop has some nice purses and handbags, but we aren't too keen to buy anything. We do give the owner a small tip for the use of his terrace. We then walk across to the other end of the tannery and up another terrace for a closer view of the color vats. In both places, we are given mint leaves to help with the odor, but it doesn't bother us at all. I've read that there have been proposals to move the tanneries outside the old medina given the large scale pollution of the river, but its been met with a lot of resistance from the locals/workers given how integral the tanneries are to the history of the medina and its economy.

Next, we take a taxi from Rcif to the station to buy our Supratours bus tickets to Chefchaouen for tomorrow. We are told that Supratours is not operating this route anymore, so we buy tickets for the 11am CTM bus that leaves the station at 10:30. Tickets taken care of, we have the taxi drop us off at the Batha museum. This 19th century palace turned museum houses traditional artwork from Fes - the highlight being the gorgeous ceramics. I wanted to take many of the pieces home! Sitting on the courtyard steps surrounded by trees and greenery also provides a welcome respite from the sun. It's a short walk to Boujloud, so we decide to stop over at Thami's once again for lunch - today, we keep it light and order kefta kebabs and a mixed salad. Across the restaurant is a sweet shop selling all kinds of sugary delights, so I pick up a few different varieties that will be our dessert later in the afternoon. There's a macaroon like almond cookie, gazelle's horns - a crescent shaped dough filled with almond paste, briouats filled with what else but almonds and a fried dough dipped in honey that looks just like the jalebis in India. As I'm buying the sweets, an old man stops by with a delivery for the owner and when he sees me, he yells "I love you, Kajol!". Kajol happens to be a very popular Bollywood actress from the 90s, and before you off and google her, let me tell you that I look nothing like her. It is so unexpected that I burst out laughing. At least a couple of times a day throughout the trip, we have locals yell out names of popular Bollywood actors/actresses/movies/songs when they see us - in fact they seem to be more current with Bollywood than we are. It's interesting to see the reach of Bollywood in Africa - we have had similar experiences in Egypt, Tanzania and surprisingly Rwanda.

The next few hours will be dedicated to shopping and I have come prepared with the names of a couple of shops that I want to check out. Our first stop is Coin Berbere owned by the Idrissi family - we are here for rugs but they also sell antique ceramics, furniture, scarves etc. They have a large and lovely collection of carpets and Moroccan blankets, and Mohammed shows us the different styles unique to each Berber tribe. Most of the rugs we like are too large for our small NYC apartment, but we find one in the right size for our entryway that we both love. It's tightly rolled and wrapped and will easily fit into our half empty suitcase. Feeling satisfied, we walk along Talaa Seghira to our next stop, Au Petit Bazar de Bon Accueil, a 5th generation shop specializing in antique ceramics. There are several beautiful pieces here. some with hefty price tags, but we finally settle on a beautiful 50-70 year old covered tureen hand painted in shades of blue, green and yellow. The owner is talkative and entertaining. He knows Alaa and Kate very well, so offers to pack the piece and send it over to Dar Seffarine that evening - perfect. As we leave, he comes over and gives me a pretty necklace as a gift, so we're quite sure we overpaid...make that very sure. In Morocco and other cultures where bargaining is a way of life, a transaction is not about the actual value of the object being traded, but how much it is worth to the buyer. So, in that respect, we feel we've got a good bargain - we'd be paying at least twice the price in the US, that is if we are lucky enough to find a piece like this. Ah, I feel better now. :-) Next, it's back to Henna Souk, where we buy a distinctive blue Fes plate bargained down to less than half the original price (I'm feeling victorious at this point!). At the shop next door, I buy 100g of Ras-el-hanout. I'm tempted to also buy the spice mix for chicken tagine as it smells heavenly, but decide against it. Along the way, we pick up a couple of bric a bracs to give away as gifts as well as a half a pound of plump Erfoud dates.

Just as we did yesterday, we end our walk at the Seffarine square cafe with mint teas, nibble on the delicious sweets we picked up earlier and take in the scene. Having read in the LP that Borj Nord (the northern fortress of the old town up on the hill) provides lovely expansive views of the medina, we try to take a taxi, but it's Sunday when locals from the new town and surrounding villages come in large numbers to the medina, so it's very busy and no driver wants to take us there. So instead, we hang out in Rcif for some time, where there's loud music and live entertainment and a few hundred kids having a ball. We also call Lahcen Beqqi, owner of Fes Cooking, and book ourselves a cooking class when we get back from Chefchaouen. The evening ends with a couple of beers on our rooftop - this time we are joined by the other guests (1 French/German and 3 British couples) and have a good time with shared life and travel stories and a lot of laughs. There are 11 of us having dinner at the dar tonight including a Latvian couple with their young daughter who have just arrived, so a long table is set in the courtyard garden. Zouhir, the other manager, and the young woman cook (whose name I forget) have been cooking up a storm and what a treat it is. There's all the familiar Moroccan appetizers - salad, zaalouk, roasted peppers, carrots with cumin - followed by roasted potatoes and a lamb tagine with peas and artichokes. For dessert, it's diced apples and bananas in orange juice. I love the weight and designs of the plates and bowls here, so Zouhir writes down the directions to the pottery factory, Art Naji, just outside the medina. The conversation continues well past dinner and we have to tear ourselves away and say our goodbyes since we have packing to do before we leave for Chefchaouen tomorrow.

seemaskt Jun 23rd, 2013 03:42 PM

Thanks Fra_Diavolo! Hope to be back with the Chefchaouen segment later tonight.

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