Thursday, August 29, 2013

Round the world Trip: Morocco Part I

Imagine the narrowest street you've ever been on. Now imagine a parade coming down that street. Now imagine yourself driving through that parade and you have a flavor of what it's like to drive through some of Morocco's medieval cities.

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Morocco was our "exotic destination" when we decided it would be a bad idea to go to India in May. It hits 100 degrees in the shade and when a private driver I had emailed essentially told me not to come I figured I should heed his word. After all, if a man is turning down business then it must be a truly dumb idea. So Morocco, which Sharon and I have been wanting to go to for a while, stepped back into the picture.

We arrived in Casablanca late in the evening after 16 hours of travel from Bangkok and took a grand taxi to our hotel in the city. There are two kinds of taxis in Morocco, we learned. Grand Taxis, despite the name, are ancient Mercedes that run on diesel and will probably still be running long after the end of the world. They are also, as we later learned, more expensive: the idea is to share them with others but we grabbed one for ourselves. We learned we should have gotten a Petite Taxi, which is generally not quite as old and, as the name suggests, approaches the dimensions of the original Mini Cooper. So when it was that the Grand Taxi driver demanded the equivalent of $30, which seemed like a fortune in Morocco, I asked the hotel doorman if I was being ripped off. When he said I wasn't it was the first indication Morocco wouldn't be nearly as cheap as the Philippines or Thailand.
We read Casablanca didn't have much going for it so we planned to spend the night and then leave town the following day. It was disappointing because the name conjures up such romantic images. But the travel rags are right: despite being the economic capital of the country, it's still just a collection of tired, Soviet-looking office buildings and beige apartments littered with satellite dishes. The one famous landmark, the Hussein II mosque, which is one of the few mosques that lets in non-Muslims, happened to be closed when we walked over to it.
Hussein II Mosque

Casablanca did start a trend that continued throughout the country, however: the Moroccan people we interacted with were extremely friendly and gracious. On our breakfast table was a card indicating a few breakfast specials that had been designed by some famous European chef. Our waiter joked that if the food was good, he would take the credit, and if it wasn't, he'd let the European chef take the credit.

After wandering around a bit we took a taxi to the train station and hopped on a train to Rabat, the political capital of Morocco. A petite taxi took us to our accommodation for the night, a riad inside the medieval city walls, also called the medina. A riad is simply a traditional Moroccan home with a courtyard in the middle divided into four areas. Many have been turned into beautiful guest houses. Ours was on top of a hill and the rooftop terrace had views looking over the medina. Because it was once a French colony there are lots of French people in Morocco. Our riad was run by a French woman who spoke not a word of English. She brought out some traditional mint tea and biscuits for us while she checked us in.
Sharon and I only had one night in Rabat before continuing on our journey so we headed out to explore. We walked through a crowded, overgrown cemetery on a big hill overlooking the sea, and then entered the medina's kasbah, or fort. The kasbah was a warren of narrow stone streets. The homes were all painted blue and white and most had fantastic wood doors.  A corner of the kasbah provided another view over the sea. The beach was crowded with sunbathers and surfers and a crowd of teenagers dribbled a soccer ball through the streets below us.

Beach at Rabat
We then left the kasbah and walked into the souks. Rabat, we discovered, is a good entry point to Morocco's souks. For starters, they're a manageable size so you're not as likely to get lost. And the souk owners aren't in your face like in the other cities. That means you can actually stroll up and down the souks and look at the wares without worrying you'll get the hard sell the second you slow your pace for a closer inspection. The souks have everything: spices, fresh breads, shoes, purses, jewelry, blankets, rugs, pots and pans, perfume, wallets. It's like a medieval bazaar mixed with an outdoor mall.

Then we walked over to the Hassan Tower, the massive minaret of an incomplete mosque started in 1195 A.D. It was never finished after the sponsoring sultan died. The mausoleum of Morocco's last king, Mohammed V, sits next door and is watched over by an honor guard on horses. As the sun set and the temperature dropped, we decided to hike back to our riad to relax for a bit before dinner.

Hassan Tower

We had one of the best dinners of the trip that night at a restaurant in the "new" part of Rabat, about a 15 minute walk outside the medina walls. Tajine is the national dish in Morocco and refers to the upside-down funnel shaped ceramic cookware the food is cooked in. There are different kinds of tajines but lamb and chicken are the most common. There are generally vegetables such as carrots and potatoes, and sometimes things like prunes and walnuts, included as well, along with a hefty helping of spices. It is delicious and Sharon and I probably ate tajine every day we were in Morocco. I'd get tired of it and say I was going to order something else but then when it came time to order Tajine it was.


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