“Tea in the Sahara”; Morocco Part I

I have just returned from a weeeklong trip through Morocco via GEEO tours. Traveling with a small group of other teachers, I was a little skeptical at first of touring a new country on an organized tour, but luckily, they turned out to be a great group of people to travel around Morocco with for the week. Here are some of the highlights:

Casablanca:

When we first arrived on Sunday, we headed out to the ancient medina, filled with souks, a fish market, fruit stands, and smiling, warm, friendly people. From the first cup of mint tea, I immediately liked the Moroccan people, finding them welcoming, generous, and helpful.

 

We eventually came out of the market, near a section of town that was way offf the beaten path. We jumped in a cab to take us to the Hassan II Mosque. After crashing into a man-drawn cart in front of us, we drove about three minutes to the mosque. Built in 1993, at the direction of King Hassan II, the Mosque is the largest in Africa.

We hailed a cab to Rick's Cafe, famous from the movie Casablanca. Though the cafe was built in the 1990s by American expatriates, and the entirety of the original movie was filmed in Hollywood, the cafe is still a decent place to grab a drink and a good meal.

Meknes:

After an early morning departure from Casablanca, we drove about four hours to reach Meknes, known as Morocco's imperial city. While waiting for our lunch to arrive, we meadered across the street into a local market, boasting olives of all varieties, flowers, and fresh produce.

Lunch was Tagine Kafta; meatballs and eggs slow cooked in a tomato sauce.

 

After lunch, we headed to Bab Mansour, one of the grandest gates in Morocco that is the entrance way to the ancient city of Meknes. From there we visited the Sultan Moulay Ismail's personal stable and granary, which held up to 9,000 horses at the time of use.

 

Some other highlights of Meknes included a visit to to the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, followed by a stroll across Place El Hedim, (the square that sits across from the palace), and a walk through the covered market, where I fell down the stairs to the entertainment of everyone.


Volubilis:

From Meknes, we drove about an hour to visit the Roman ruins of Volubilis, which means “morning glory” in Latin. The Romans used Volubilis as a granery and an olive oil press, which helped to feed the large Roman Empire between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the ruins are fairly well preserved. Visiting in the late afternoon, we were given a respite from the heat as we explored this ancient Roman city by foot.

Fes:

That evening, we arrived in Fes, by far my favorite city in Morocco. By the time we had arrived at the hotel, our rooms were not available, and we were quickly brought to another hotel located in the Fes Ville Nouvelle; the new part of the city built during the French Protectorate of Morocco.

That evening, Michelle and I opted out of going with the rest of the group to a dinner and a show (belly dancer), and decided instead to head to the Fes es Bali (Old Fes), and find a place in the anciennt Medina to eat. We had a great meal in a restored riad that had a hip, bohemian vibe, filled with both Moroccans and foreigners. Unable to have a drink, (they do not serve alchohol), we headed back out of the medina towards Bab Boujiloud (the old city gate), but were stopped by restauraunt waiters asking for our business. We asked one older man, located outside one of the cafes if they served alchohol, to which he replied “Yes, but only wine.” We followed him inside.

Up two flights of very narrow stairs there is the first of two terraces that overlook the medina. We were seated at one, next to a group of French travelers who were drinking Coca Cola. He motioned towards their table and said something in Arabic, to which we replied by shaking our heads up and down, signalling affirmation. When he returned with two Cokes, we began to explain that this was not what we had intended to order, but he soon shushed us, and explained “This is not America, this is a Muslim country, we do not have a license to sell wine, so we do it like this.” Our own Moroccan speakesie.

The next day, we awoke early and set out with the group on a guided tour of Fes, where we visited Moulay Idriss II's Mausoleum, the Bouinania Medersa, and the Al Karaouine University; the most important Mosque in Morocco. But for me, the highlight of Fes was exploring the narrow alleyways and pedestrian foot paths of the ancient medina. Dating back to the 12th century, walking through old Fes was like walking back in time through a medieval city, and was unlike anything I had yet to experience.

 

 



Camping in the Sahara Desert:

 

By far, this was the highlight of my trip, and one of the best travel experiences of my life. Camel trekking and camping in the desert has been on my bucket list since as long as I can remember. Consequently, I was nervous that my expectations would be too high and I would inevitably be dissapointed. I could not have been more wrong.

After a very long day of driving thorugh the Middle Atlas Mountains, we finally reached Merzouga, located at the western edge of the Sahara Desert. From here, we set out on camels into the wind-swept, red tinted, Erg Chebbi dunes. With the sun setting in the West, behind a delicate and calming breeze, we were led to our camp by camel drivers cloaked in blue turbans and jellabas.

 

That evening, we arrived at our camp and, after settling our bags inside the four-person Bedouin tents, we made oursevles cozy around a large circle, cushioned with thin mattresses and small tables. We popped open our wine, looked up to a clear black starry sky, and began a wonderous evening of story-telling, laughter, and awe.

After a communal dinner, with a bright moon rising high into the sky, and the stars becoming less visible, a few of us hiked our way up to the top of a sand dune to look out ontto the moonlit Sahara. After some mystical contemplations, much laughter, and some dune-top singing, we finally hiked back down, pulled our mattresses out and slept under the open skies of the Sahara desert. Around five am, our group started to stir, one by one, and a few of us hiked back up the sand dunes behind our camp to look out over Algeria, and watch the sun come up in the Saharan sky; a truly magical experience for me.

 

 

 

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