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Week 2 in Morocco

Week 2 in Morocco

by Ruth Murdoch  |  February 2019  |  Morocco, Africa

Table of Contents

MAP

Week 2 saw us drive from Fes to Erg Chebbi, 454 kms

Day 8: Fes; Monday 4 Feb

Today was a much needed admin day after a big day out in the medina of Fes yesterday.

The afternoon saw us jump on our bikes and head into the Carrefour supermarket.  While we were out, we hunted down an electric fan heater as the nights are cold here and we don’t want to use our motorhome heating because we have to conserve our LPG to make it last two months.

The ride into town was thankfully fairly uneventful while we rode in with Kaz and Nik our camping neighbours.  Unlike the great cycle paths we became accustomed to in Europe, here you are forced to use the roads, as even the footpaths are not suitable for bikes.

We headed back to the camping ground and lunch was now long overdue. As often seems to be the case with us, we couldn’t find any eating place en route that attracted enough of our interest to inspire us to stop.  As we had plenty of food back in Betsy, that was no problem.

Tonight we have been treated to a cooking class and Nik and Kaz’ motorhome by our guide Wafi.  He is making a beef and prune Tagine with fruit for dessert.

For the recipe click here.

The almost finished product

Spiced Meat

Onions Piled High

Tomatoes placed on top

Tomatoes Skinned & Chopped

Serving Time!

Day 9: Azrou; Tuesday 5th Feb

It was time to move on today and we pointed south to Azour.  We had read ahead of time that they hold their souk (market day) on a Tuesday and we were hoping to arrive in time to experience our first one in Morocco.

On the drive to Azour we climbed high into the mountains.  Being such a clear day we stopped at the top to take a photograph.  Here we had our first of many experiences of roadside stalls with vendors selling all manner of fossils and mineral stones.  The kind gentleman showed us several gorgeous specimens, which look like any ordinary stone from the outside but when opened revealed a hollow centre lined with crystals in vibrant silver, green or purple.  I couldn’t resist and for €10 we came away with a lovely purple crystal stone and a polished quartz egg-shaped rock (we call this shape eggular).  The seller wanted to swap clothes for his wares but Alan doesn’t have excess clothes so we politely declined.

We resumed our journey, climbing the steep mountain passes and inevitably came across slow-moving fully laden trucks.  Picture the scene as Alan indicates to pass uphill.  Betsy isn’t the most powerful of vehicles but we eventually built up speed.  He pulled out to pass and halfway through the manoeuvre we heard a toot. A car is passing us… as we are passing the truck… uphill on a narrow windy road… with the straight road ahead rapidly disappearing!  There was nowhere for us to go safely except to continue passing.  The car driver did the same while fists appeared out from every window.  We all passed safely (phew) and the car slowed down and appeared as if it is going to stop.  The passengers in the backseat continued to stare at us.  This could be an interesting situation developing and I cautioned Alan to not stop under any circumstances; thankfully the driver continues driving onwards.

That was a close call!

We arrived into the salubrious castle themed Emirates Tourist Centre (GPS coordinates 33.44348, -5.19062), a Camping ground of much visual grandeur (on first impressions anyway).  It’s a pity they had no hot water, the men’s toilets were locked, there was no toilet paper, and both the reception and restaurant were closed. At 80 dirhams per night it was the cheapest we had stayed in so far but the lack of facilities wouldn’t have supported any higher fee.  It wasn’t until we had a look around this camping ground that we realised there had been no cooking facilities available in any site we had come across to date.  That won’t help with reducing our gas consumption.  Luckily though, we bought a cheap stand-alone electric hot plate in Spain prior to catching the ferry so we can do most of our cooking on that.  This is a good tip for anyone with the refillable LPG gas system planning on touring Morocco for an extended period of time.

Off come the bikes and we coast down the steep hills for the four-kilometre ride to see the town’s souk.  Unfortunately for us we seem to have arrived as things were packing up.

We need cash and after trying two ATM’s we finally find one prepared to accept our Qantas Australia cash card and dispense some much needed cash.  There are limits on how much the ATM’s can dispense at one time and although the menu offers options to request up to 4,000 dirhams, none seem to cough up more than $2,000 Dirham!  Humph!  It’s a bit annoying when your cash card provider charges A$2.50 per transaction but you can’t take out a decent wad of cash in one go.  Never mind, we are in Africa and this is a cost of being here and is somewhat insignificant in the big picture.  Another pro-tip – we tried our cash card in several bank ATM’s, all of which wanted to charge a fee in dirhams for dispensing our cash.  However, the Poste Maroc ATM’s were free to use so we now look out for them.  We had a similar experience in Turkey where the Post Office ATM’s were also fee free.

We bought a couple of pastries and bread then made our way back to the campsite. Our attention was taken by some delicious looking rotisserie chickens in a roadside restaurant and with fond memories of the succulent, crisp birds we were able to buy in Istanbul for a pittance, we enquired about the price.  Maybe they quoted tourist prices or maybe they wanted to charge full restaurant prices but we decided that the price tag of 80 dirhams was too rich for us.  Remember we bought a three-course meal for 45 dirhams in Fes just last week!

As we trekked back up the steep hill ever grateful for electric bikes, we thought back to the extreme hill-climb up to the Rock of Gibraltar where even with electric assistance we still needed to get off and push at times.  These hills have nothing on that experience.

Back at the camping ground I settled down to write for the next five hours while Alan cooked dinner and cleaned up.   What a great husband I have.

Transporting Sheep Moroccan Style

The Famous Purple Rock

View From The Top

Overlooking Azour From The Town

Cool Street Art

Tagines Anyone?

Emirates Tourist Centre Camping Ground

The Drive Into Emirates Tourist Centre

Betsy No Friends

Day 10: Jurassique; Wednesday 6th Feb

Happy Waitangi Day to us.  For our non-New Zealand readers, Waitangi Day is New Zealand’s National Holiday, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the indigenous people of NZ (the Maori) and England.

We left Azrou today, heading for Camping Jurassique in the picturesque Ziz Valley. Apparently the camping ground there has a free washing machine.  Isn’t it funny how something so basic can attract many motorhomers to their site?

Our first stop was for diesel and then we were on the road again.  We started climbing into the hills and Alan pulled off to the side to let the build up of cars behind us pass. We then realised we had an unwanted passenger!  A young lad on roller skates had hitched a ride by hanging off the back of Betsy.  Once we came to a stop, he had let go and was on his way back down the hill.  Wow, that was somewhat frightening and now we are aware to look out for such unwanted company.

Our first stop was to view Barbary apes in the wild.  They are located in the Cedre Gouraud Forest  (GPS coordinates 33.4263 -5.1555).  The narrow rough access road is lined with snow and meeting any on-coming traffic required one vehicle (usually us) to pull off the road to one side.  As we pulled into the guarded parking area, an elderly toothless man asked for the 5 dirham parking fee and also if he can have Alan’s shoes.  Nice try mate.  We explain that Alan only has one pair and he accepted that graciously.  Plus he would have swum in Alan’s size 11 shoes.

All manner of micro commercial enterprises have sprung up based around the ape hangout.  Men have horses available for riding and a small Shetland pony is taken out from the back of an ordinary van like you would carry a dog.  The owner wanted me to have my photo taken with the pony and I oblige.  That’s how they make their money here.  Another man wanted me to climb onto a horse that was stamping and whinnying and making a big fuss.  No thanks!  Further in, a man is selling bags of unshelled peanuts but Alan didn’t connect the peanuts with the apes and declined to buy some.  Thankfully another family had come to feed the apes with their purchased peanuts, which brought them close enough for us to photograph.

The track to the apes is lined with what looks like a shanty town of stalls selling handmade cedar woodcrafts and also the usual (now) fossils and minerals. They make their stalls out of any materials they can find which makes for some interesting architecture.

We manage to avoid buying anything today.  

The Shanty Type Huts With Locally Made Cedar Handcrafts

The Small Huts Open For Business

Barbary Apes In The Wild

We have a lot of distance to cover to get to Jurassique Camping so after some time with apes we were on our way again.  The road wound through some stunning scenery, the likes of which I had never pictured seeing in Morocco.  Of all the countries we have visited, 25 in total now, there have only been in two standout scenic countries, where you are constantly looking around in awe at what you are seeing – Norway and now Morocco.

Alan wanted to take a road shown on Google Maps as a shortcut to save ten kilometres or so but one look at the road had us in stitches.  Not even if our life depended on it could we get Betsy up that track!

Don’t Worry Betsy We’re Not Taking You Up There

We climb again, which seems to be a regular theme around here and came up behind the most overladen truck I’ve ever seen.  It’s crawling uphill at about 15kms per hour and the hay it is carrying hits the top of the roadside trees.  One wrong move, a pothole or incorrect camber and the entire contents would topple the truck over.  I feel very nervous being behind such a hazard but there’s nowhere to pull over or pass so we hang back and wait for an opportunity to overtake.  There appears to be no such thing as a passing lane in Morocco and not once do we see a slow vehicle pull over to allow other traffic to pass.  This resulted in some interesting passing maneuvers.

What Health & Safety Concerns?

As we arrived at the plateau the scenery continued to impress.  Snow topped mountains in the distance stood tall and proud behind red soil in the foreground.  The remnants of the recent snow lingered on the ground wherever it was shaded by trees or cliffs.

Life appears harsh up here.  Housing is oftentimes in the form of makeshift looking huts or shacks. One had plastic and sticks for their roof.  Intermittent roadside stalls sell whatever the locals have available, often eggs and fossils; there are plenty of those here.

The road took us through more townships, some enjoying their weekly souk and are generally in fair condition, but with sections of rough, potholed tarmac with crumbling edges.  I was happy to have our tyre pressure sensor system to give us fair warning of a puncture or slow leak, as you wouldn’t want to have a blow out on this sort of terrain.  A lot of motorhomes these days (including ours), don’t have spare wheels so anything that helps us to preserve our tyres and our safety is money very well spent.  Alan purchased this off Amazon before coming to Morocco after researching what is the most suitable one for motorhomes.  It is amazing what a sense of comfort you get from being able to see your tyre pressures in real time and know that they are optimised for safety and fuel economy.

Virtually every day we drive we see an accident and today was no exception.  An old Citroen car had rolled leaving his bonnet behind.  People from all around were offering assistance as we crawled past the scene.

We had a few close calls today with traffic.  Aside from the young lad who hitched a ride earlier, we then narrowly escaped a head-on – someone passing an oncoming car but misjudged the distance.  Later, two vehicles overtaking a slow truck in front of us had seemingly millimeters to spare before they ducked into a gap the front vehicle is forced to open up.

There is always something to see in these remote rugged roads, from flocks of sheep with their shepherds to donkeys carrying their owner as well as bundles of animal feed or twigs for cooking.

These Are Strong Animals That Work Hard All Day

The Colours and Mountain Peaks Continue To Impress

Water is Rare Here

A Local Home

An Old Kasbah (Hotel)

The Views Are Spectacular

We Weren’t Expecting Snow On The Mountains

As we drove through another township we experienced two kids jumping onto the back of our bike rack.  A younger kid deliberately walked out in front of us to slow us down so the teenagers could jump onto the back of Betsy.  Thankfully a local car behind us tooted at them and they jumped off.  Their weight could break our bike rack so we were unimpressed.  If you’re traveling in Morocco watch out for this behaviour when driving at slow speeds through the townships.

We left at 12.30 for a 211 kilometre journey. While our GPS said the driving time should have been y hours, it actually took us 5 hours 24 minutes due partly to the difficult roads and slow trucks, but also because the amazing and unique scenery compelled us to stop repeatedly to take it all in and capture the moments on camera.

We arrived at Jurassique Camping (GPS coordinates 32.15406, -4.37628) in the Ziz Gorge as dusk approached, with the last of the day’s sun kissing the brown dusty mountain tops.

Alan took the opportunity to throw on a load of washing which dried with no problem overnight despite the low temperatures.

I headed off to the showers and picked the only one where the shower rose is actually hanging on the wall. The water only trickled out warmly but I’m not complaining.  We reckon that many of the houses we have passed on our long journey here today wouldn’t even have running water, let alone hot running water.

With us settled in for the night, it was time to make dinner and connect with family over Skype.  The internet here is reasonable and enables us to keep in touch.

The Camping Ground It All Its Glory

Day 11: Erb Chebbi; Thursday 7th Feb

Last night’s camping ground had very little around it to keep us there for more than one night and we head off.  We wind through the outstanding beauty of the Ziz Valley with constant exclamations at new sights of natural beauty or interesting buildings.  The arid hills stand proud and tall while small townships blend into the countryside with their brown mud bricks which are literally made from the surrounding lands.  These houses are not built to last and the rain and wind immediately start the process of returning the walls back into mud and sand.  Everywhere we see a mixture of new buildings, partially decayed structures, and long abandoned remnants.

Over countless thousands of years, the Ziz river has carved out large canyons through the countryside.  At times the river disappears entirely then emerges again allowing an oasis to bloom at the bottom of the valley.  Civilisation grasps at this opportunity for life and mud-brick houses and townships grace the edge of the greenery.  Date palms line up in groves and evidence of individual gardens can be spotted.

We came across a large supermarket (Acima, GPS coordinates 31.9305 -4.4529) and replenished supplies of meat and other hard to find essentials, such as glass cleaner.  They stocked a good range of groceries and it was well worth a stop before heading further south where larger supermarkets are sparse.  Their vegetables, however, looked somewhat secondhand so we gave them a wide berth.  That proved to be a good idea as later Alan bought a whole bag full of veges and a loaf of bread for 13.50 dirham (€1.25).

Spices In Bulk Bins at Supermarket

From Local Greengrocer

Our planned stopping point tonight was at a camping ground that backed straight onto the Sahara Desert sand dunes at Erg Chebbi.  Following the GPS coordinates in our sat nav, we were directed off the main road and across a barely made piste (compacted dirt and gravel) track towards the dunes.  Betsy was not made for this sort of rough road and none of us enjoyed the deep ruts and sand.  Tip – if you are venturing down here and your GPS tells you to travel off-road then carry on for a couple more kilometres to Mertzouga where you can double back on an asphalt road that takes you closer to the campsite.

As we got closer to the GPS coordinates on the sat nav, it became apparent that the roads shown on the screen did not actually exist and were actually a web of rough sandy tracks.  We followed the directions as best we could until we faced an uphill incline of soft sand, which Alan refused to risk.  I got out, had a look around and saw some motorhomes on the next site over so backed out in search of joining them.

A few more sand tracks later we arrived.  Haven La Chance (GPS coordinates 31.13488, -4.01594) is a large site incorporating an Auberge (accommodation), a restaurant and a very large area for campers which extends into the sand dunes, and gosh how stunning is this place?

We were asked how long we will stay because they have a large group of Dutch motorhomers coming in on Wednesday 13th February.  As it was Thursday 7th February, we knew we would be well gone by then.  ‘Just a couple of days’ Alan said in broken French and all was good.  The couple turned into six nights.

With a sense of excitement we nabbed the perfect spot overlooking the sand dunes so we could soak up the view in front of us.  Never before had we been in such an unique location.  We really felt as though we were in the Sahara desert, that nothing else in the world mattered.  This stunning view had to be from a movie set.  We walked into the dunes to assure ourselves that it was genuine and after returning with half an inch of sand in our shoes we can guarantee its authenticity.

Ali, the brother of Hamed the boss, is in control here and treats us to a tour of the site.  Ali, according to his older brother, is ex military and displays his military efficiency when proudly directing each vehicle into exactly the right position, ensuring maximum happiness for the punters.  There really isn’t a wrong place to park as the view is simply magnificent no matter where you look.

The Stunning Sahara Dessert

The facilities here are excellent with three large unisex showers big enough for two people and three European style toilets.  They even have a very enticing full swimming pool, which would have been tempting to dive into had the temperature been a few degrees warmer.

The nights here are cool, about 6C and during the day it climbs up to 25C.  The air is dry, the humidity is about 11 per cent.  I could feel the parched air playing havoc with my skin, making me reach for the moisturiser regularly.  My hair was frizzy with static electricity and my nails chip, crack and snap off at the slightest touch of something too hard.  I wouldn’t have traded this for anything though, it’s a small price to pay for soaking up the winter desert.

Evening and morning are the best times to see the sand dunes as the light provides shadows giving depth to the valleys and crests.  The clear air and total lack of light pollution result in a night sky bursting with stars which delighted us with a mixture of yellow, orange, pink and blue hues. The longer we look, the more colours expose themselves.

We can’t believe we are here, in the Sahara Desert, in all its glory.  I stand in awe, jaw dropped and excitement in my loins.

I can now see why Ali was concerned that we might still be here when the Dutch party arrives on the 13th.  Apparently is it common for people to plan on a short visit but then fall in love with the place and never want to leave.  Most of our neighbours have been here for many days, some weeks and others even reported they had been here since November last year – four months and counting.  It’s the perfect way to escape the harsh bitter northern European winters and why wouldn’t you?

Our View For The Next Six Days

Day 12: Still at Erb Chebbi; Friday 8 Feb 2019

Dawn’s first light appears about 7am and the sun peaks its head up over the dunes soon after 8am.  Alan braved the cool morning air to shoot some stunning photographs of yet more sunrises.  There’s something rather special about this one however – it’s the Sahara!

The morning sun gives colour to the sand like no other time.

Today was for relaxing and catch up on some downtime.  There is a special stillness, peace and beauty out here that just makes you want to stop and drink in the experience.

Alan sent some photos onto our Moroccan Messenger Group (Zoe, Tommy, Helena & Harkin) and we soon heard back that Helena and Harkin are making their way to us and will be here tomorrow.  After we all went our own way at Chefchaouen a week or so ago, Helena and Harkin headed to the west coast before now coming back across to the eastern side.  We are travelling much more slowly down to the south of Morocco before crossing over to the west.  Their impending visit has us excited to be seeing them again.

The evening sunsets are equally impressive over the dunes.

 


Day 13: Still at Erb Chebbi; Saturday 9 Feb

What better place to have breakfast than in the desert on a stunning, mild morning with blue skies over rolling sand dunes.  Alan made us a yummy breakfast of local turkey sausages and eggs.  The red sausage meat is highly spiced and absolutely delicious.  Make sure you put this on your shopping list if you like sausages.

Check Out That Breakfast View

We heard some scratching sounds and looked to see a rather large dung beetle scurrying about his business.  They make cool tracks in the sand behind them.

Later in the day we wandered into the township of Et Taous to check out the local shops.  Not expecting to see much we were surprised to come across several souvenir shops all selling pretty much the same things, fossils, mineral stones, rugs, scarfs, leather shoes, brightly coloured lightweight clothing and other trinkets.  I felt sorry for the shop owners that we really are not in the market to purchase anything (apparently!).  Alan tells many a seller that even if you give it to us “gratis” (free), we would say no because we don’t have room.  We are travelling for a long time and cannot afford to keep loading Betsy down with trinkets.  I just hope that my future self doesn’t regret not picking up the odd gem here and there.

The town shops included quad bike rentals (although at 300 dirham an hour they aren’t cheap to hire), a couple of supermarkets, one selling telecom data recharge codes (phew), but no ice cream.  What do you expect, Ruth?  There are also cafes and restaurants offering tagines and mint tea.  We stopped off at a fruit and vege shop to find old looking wrinkled aubergines that would be headed for the bin in most other countries, but out here where very little grows beggars can’t be choosers.  The butchers shop had some variety of meat in his cabinet and other, fresher looking, veges that we take note of should we need a top up.

Every village has at least one mosque, usually with red or white minarets silhouetted against the crystal clear blue desert sky.

The roads in the town are compacted sand, the buildings a mixture of mudbrick and straw.  Some of the newer constructions are smooth plastered, the exterior painted in shades of terracotta.

Everyone was friendly, greeting us with either ‘bonjour’ (French for hello) or the Arabic greeting ‘Salaam’, or occasionally the longer version Salaam Alaykum (which literally translates as ‘and unto you peace’) but also means hello.  French and Arabic are the two main languages spoken with Berber coming in a close third.  The Berber languages are spoken only, there is no written form and this is verbally handed down from generation to generation.

With wallet firmly intact, and shopping bags empty, apart from an internet data top up, we returned to the camping ground to find Helena and Harkin (as well as the famous Lovis, their adorable King Charles Spaniel and Poodle Cross dog) had arrived.  It was great to see them again and they too were in awe of the impressive views before them.

Day 14: Yet again still in Erb Chebbi; Sunday 10 Feb

We’re still here, and can you blame us?  Alan woke up early and put the new electric heater on to ward off the chilled desert night air.  The heater, however, is struggling to put out much heat and the electric kettle is taking an age to boil water.  A quick check with an electrical meter reveals another problem we had been warned about in Morocco – low voltage.  The voltage at the plug hovers around 186V, which is the cause of the low heat output and slow water boiling.  He also discovers that our fridge/freezer won’t run properly on the poor power supply and keeps switching back to using gas.

Apparently seasoned travellers to Morocco take with them a transformer, for about €60, which can transform the low voltage into a guaranteed 220V supply.

One of the reasons we stay in camping grounds is to conserve gas as there’s nowhere to refill our Gaslow LPG tanks.  It appears, however, that there is usually enough electric supply for the fridge during the night and if we are not running anything else or having lights switched on.   Welcome to Africa.

We had a laid back day again today, giving our weary travellers time to recover from a big drive yesterday.  It’s not only long distances that takes it out of you when driving around here, but it’s also the mental energy of always being on the look out, navigating roads that range from excellent tarmac surfaces to crumbling edges to narrow one lane roads being used as two lanes.  Then there’s the traffic, the dodgy overtaking, the slow truck and locals that drive seemingly head on not pulling over and expecting the foreigners to make way for them, or so it seems.  Moving through small villages one always has to be mindful of people, cyclists, vendors with carts, donkeys and dogs wandering about on the road anywhere, anytime.  We were brought up to think that roads were for cars, however here, the road is for anyone and anything and vehicles seem to have no precedence.

Interestingly enough the road toll in Morocco is about 3,800 per annum which equates to 209 per 100,000 vehicles on the road.  Compare this with New Zealand which has 12.2 deaths per 100,000 vehicles and the United Kingdom with 5.1 deaths per 100,000 vehicles.  These statistics put into perspective the dangers of driving here in Morocco and the discerning driver must stay alert at all times.

Onto more pleasant topics, Helena made a sponge cake to enjoy for morning tea and we sit in the warm sun chatting about life and winter conditions in Morocco.  They heard from family back in Sweden that there is a foot of snow on the ground.  We laughed while drinking our tea and tucking into another piece of freshly baked delicious cake.

The next decision we had to make, in our difficult lives, is what tour do we want to experience.  We have three options from the campsite, a sunset or sunrise camel ride into the desert for 300 dirhams (€27, NZ$46) each, an overnight self-drive quad bike ride into the desert staying in tents for 500 dirhams each (€46, NZ$76) or a full day visiting several different locations in an air-conditioned fully enclosed vehicle with a driver for 1200 dirhams per vehicle (€111, NZ$168).  We opt for the latter, not only due to the excellent value when split four ways, but also because of the variety it offers.  Four of us, plus Lovis, can all enjoy a tour starting at 10am through to 3.30pm.  We booked this in for the next day.  Oh boy, are we in for a treat?

Stay tuned for our desert tour in next week’s blog and find out about Ruth’s driving experience in Morocco – I know right, especially after sharing the stats for driving here.

Costs for Weeks 1 & 2

As you can see there wasn’t a lot to spend money on in week 2 with diesel and camping grounds being the two biggest (if you can call them that) expenses.  However with over 80% of our time spent wild camping, it’s unusual for us to exceed our €50 per month budget, until now.

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Fantastic Fes Morocco

Fantastic Fes Morocco

by Ruth Murdoch  |  February 2019  |  Morocco, Africa

Fantastic Fes

Reading about the famous medina in Fes and learning all it had to offer was enough to get me excited to actually be here and anticipating a full on day.  We were not disappointed.  Today we headed into the medina of the fantastic Fes, one of nine UNESCO sites in Morocco.

The guide had introduced himself to us yesterday and told us we could join the other two couples from the UK.  You’ll be home by 3pm, maybe 4pm at the latest he told us!  As he dropped us back at the camping ground after 7pm I was thinking that he really knows how to provide value for money.

We woke at 7am in anticipation and excitement of the day to come.  By 8.30pm I was back in bed with stomach pains unsure if we would ever make it on the tour, and thinking we may have to bow out.  A couple of Panadol and rest took the edge off the pain and I was determined not to let this opportunity pass us by.

We met our guide Elouafi, pronounced Wafi, at 9.30am and waited for our driver with the eight-seater van. We were in for a treat visiting thirteen different sites, nine inside the medina and four outside. Our first stop was on our way to the medina where we came across the Royal Palace and Jewish Quarter.

1. Royal Palace

Fes Royal Palace, or the Dar el-Makhzen, is located at Place des Alaouites, in the center of the Fes el Jadid quarter and was built in the thirteenth century under the reign of Mérinides Dynasty.  Formerly the main residence of the sultan, the Royal Palace is still used by the King of Morocco when he is in the city of Fes.

Surrounded by high walls that we cannot look over it spans an area of 195 acres (80 hectares).  We hear that a drone once crossed over the boundaries, daring to take a look inside the mystical palace grounds, resulting in 14 days in jail for the owner.  Perhaps that’s why drones are now banned from entering Morocco? Our guide tells of multiple spectacular gardens being created to represent different corners of the world, inside the walls, however without anyone ever seeing inside, this information is handed down through a trust and belief system and cannot be verified.

There are seven brass doors of different sizes with matching knockers and intricate geometric patterns, surrounded by fine zellige (mosaic tilework) and carved cedar wood.  Although this is the only thing to be seen here, it was well worth the visit and we were grateful to be allowed an up close and personal view of the doors.  At times, there is a 100 metre exclusion zone barrier, preventing the perfect photo opportunity.

Talking about photos, around the corner on our way to the Jewish Quarter there were guards wearing three different kinds of uniforms.  Apparently, in Morocco there are many different branches of armed forces, guards and police and each has their own uniform.  Permission must be asked before taking photos of these guys, and one of our party asked and was refused.  We learn that guards can lose their jobs if a photo is taken which is then displayed on the internet.  In a country where employment is difficult to find, this request must be highly respected.  I read that your camera will be confiscated if you were seen taking their photos and given I take photos on my iPhone I didn’t want to risk having this taken from me.

Kaz & Nik in front of the centre doors of the Royal Palace

Outer doors of the Royal Palace

2. The Jewish Quarter

Located just around the corner from the Royal Palace is the Jewish Quarter or Mellah. Although most of the Jewish population has left the distinctive architecture of the buildings and charming antique shops remain for our viewing pleasure.

Next, we arrived at the medina where the driver drops us off and it’s on foot from now on.  First here’s some background information about the medina  to set the scene of this unique location.

Architecture of the Jewish Quarter

Famous road in the Jewish Quarter

About The Medina

The word ‘medina‘ is used to describe the old walled part of a North African town. This is the second one we have come across and is by all accounts the most impressive.

The medina, dating back to the 9th Century, encloses 89 kilometres! (according to our guide) of narrow passages, some no more than shoulder width apart.  It houses 220,000 people and umpteen shops of all descriptions including many that defy description in Western terms.

Research indicates there are some 9,000 – 9,500 alleyways here but how would you know.  Perhaps that’s one of those urban myths that has turned into fact by repetition.

Donkeys are used to transport goods in and out of the medina just as we would typically use vehicles for transporting goods to and from our businesses and homes.  They are strong but small animals and appear to just plod along placidly, often also carrying the weight of the rider, sitting sidesaddle with his goods.

Camel and goat heads are hanging in the market, their meat for sale.  Wafi tells us that the going rate for a camel is €2,800-3,000 so I wonder what price the meat sells for.

During summer, up to 60 degree temperatures are reported in Fes, however, the medina itself with its narrow paths and tall walls stays much cooler.  We enjoyed 18-20C in the sun on our February visit into the medina however with such narrow tall buildings the sun had little opportunity to kiss us or the ground. The first floors of the medina houses have no windows.  The reason for this is privacy for the women as traditionally it is forbidden to see a woman without her head covered.

The alleyways between the homes are so narrow I’d hate to think how one would get new furniture or move house.

The walls are shored up with timber bracing to stop them from falling inwards.  Although parts of the medina have been rebuilt due to earthquakes and fires, the mainstay buildings dating back from the 9th Century still remain original.

Our guide gave us some basic rules about walking through these narrow streets.  If someone calls out beware (obviously not in English), then you must stand aside so they and their trollies or donkeys can safely pass you by.  These are workers going from A to B and don’t want to be held up by meandering souls.  The second was that photographing individuals is out unless you ask permission first.  Taking general photos of the produce was okay but be respectful of taking photos of people alone.  Just think how you might feel if someone took your photo without your permission.

The Road Leading To The Medina

So Many Choices Here

Donkeys Carry Payloads To The Many Shops

The Narrow Alleyways

Camel For Dinner?

A Feast For The Eyes

3. Al Qarawiyyin University

Also known as the University of Al Quaraouiyine, this institution nestled in the medina dates back to 859AD and as such is the oldest university in the world.  It is still operational today.  

Whilst we couldn’t enter, I did manage to snap a photo of its impressive front gates and then, later on, we got a quick look at the mosque that sits inside the university boasting some of the stunning mosaics ceilings.

This historic university is actually recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest degree-granting university in the world.  

The Doors To The Oldest University In The World!

A Wee Glimpse Into The University

Through A Side Door Into The University

Check Out This Mosiac Display

4. Bou Inania Madrasa (School)

We visited this school, located near the Mosque of Al-Quaraouin which is the most famous school in Fes, built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris ibn Abi-Hassan Marini between 1350-1355.

It is considered the last of the great schools of Morocco in terms of the unique and vast area, building decoration, and its planning.

The school consists of a large courtyard and two classes of teaching.  Students would live for 18 years here learning the Quran and sleeping in tiny windowless rooms on the second and third floors.  

Today the school is a museum displaying the stunning mosaic tiles and intricate woodwork throughout.  The wood is typically cedar and was treated so it would last thousands of years.  This involved drying it out completely then soaking it in a mixture of fats, oils, and garlic (to stop insects from eating it).  This was a one-off process and seems to have done the job because most of the wood is in excellent condition.

School Courtyard

5. Mosques

We poked our head into several Mosques that are centuries old.  Wafi joked that if I, as a non-Muslim, were to enter one of these then Alan would be circumcised.  Enough said.

Mosque For Prayer

6. Carpet Weaving and Sales

The widows of Fes are often left without any form of income after their husband dies. 

If they are able to work, there is a cooperative that provides an opportunity to learn the art of carpet weaving, thereby providing an income. 

The cooperative handles the materials supply and the sale of the carpets and ensures that the widows receive a fair price for their efforts, 80% of the sale proceeds.  It’s painstakingly intricate and skilled work taking months to complete just one carpet.

We are shown a young looking lady weaving a carpet and were astounded to learn that the pattern is memorised.  She kindly slows down to show us how the knots are tied and I noticed the bandage on her finger.  After weaving the thread through two pieces of vertically strung yarn, she then ties the knot over and back on itself and physically yanks at the wool to break the thread and then starts again.  The speed at which she works is incredible and I found myself wanting to purchase her work just to give her some money.

From here we were taken into a room and served mint tea (make sure you say yes to a little sugar in your tea otherwise it can be bitter).  The sales pitch starts and we are shown a number of different carpets made from sheep wool, camel wool, agave silk, silk, and cotton.  Some had half a million knots per square meter and were stunning displays of craftsmanship (or should that be craftwomanship?) 

One of our party purchased a large blue rug for her bedroom floor, making the time they spent with us worthwhile.  As is always the case though in this type of transaction, the final price was much lower than the first asking price because haggling is normal and expected.

A Small Room Housing Three Weavers

7. Restaurant Palais Tijani

Immediately underneath the rug shop was Restaurant Palais Tijani, a delightfully decorated ‘safe’ place to eat.  The typical format for dining out is a three-course meal, starting with salad, then hot tagine for the main followed by fruit for dessert.  A word to the wise, the salad alone was plenty for lunch and we were rather thankful that Alan and I shared a vegetarian couscous main dish. The salad consisted of several hot and cold dishes and fresh bread.  Lunch, including a bottle of water between us, and a ten percent service fee, came to 180 Dirham (€16.50 or $27NZD). 

It was the first time we had come across a service fee and felt that lunch was expensive when compared to a three course evening meal we had in Chefchaouen a few nights earlier for $45 Dirham (€4.10 or $NZ6.80). Unfortunately, according to our guide, safe choices for tourists inside the medina are somewhat limited and no one wants to be sick for a couple of days while on holiday. 

We are left to eat without the companionship of our Guide, Wafi, who went off to pray.  As a devout Muslim, this happens five times a day, every day!

A Moroccan Salad!

8. Herboriste Diwan Pharmacy

We were treated to a pharmacy tour and shown how argan oil is made.  The argan tree (Argania Spinosa) is endemic to Morocco and is ecologically indispensable.  Its deep roots are the most important stabilising element in the arid ecosystem, providing the final barrier against the encroaching deserts. Despite its uniqueness and indispensability, the argan tree sadly faces a variety of serious threats.

Nearly half of the argan forest disappeared during the 20th century – and average density dropped from 100 to less than 30 trees per hectare. This historical pressure on the forest was driven by demand for high quality charcoal (especially important during the world wars) and, more recently, by conversion to agricultural production of export crops such as tomatoes.

In recognition of its ecological value and local economic importance, the argan forest region was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Argan oil, derived from the seeds of the argan tree fruit, has been an important resource for Morocco’s Berber people for centuries. The oil came to the attention of the outside world in the 1990s and is now highly sought for culinary, cosmetic and medicinal purposes.

Goats are one of the primary threats to the argan forests because they climb the trees to graze their leaves.  The goats, as well as aggressive fruit harvesting techniques from some locals, can damage branches and dislodge buds for the next year’s production.

What is interesting, however, is that goats used to be an important part of the oil making process.  The nuts are incredibly difficult to crack open, so enterprising people poked through goat poop to pick out the valuable argan nuts. Through the magic of goat digestion, the shells of the nuts became easier to open, and processing went from there. These days, most of the argan oil used in cosmetics is harvested without the help of goats, but in some places, the traditional goat-poo process is still in place.

The process, without the help of the goats, is painstakingly tedious.  First, the ladies harvest the pods, which look like small pebbles.  To crack open the pods they use sharpened stones and bang them against a block of wood.  Each nut is opened individually in what is a very manual and labour intensive process.  The kernel is then removed, and it looks somewhat like a flat almond only smaller.  Beware of eating them however as they start off tasting sweet before turning bitter in your mouth.

From here the seeds are placed in a grinder, separating the oil from the residual brown tacky substance left behind.  Nothing goes to waste; the brown substance is turned into soap.

We purchased a 75ml bottle of this ‘liquid gold’ at a cost of 120 Dirham (€12), making this a whopping €160 per litre.  I have seen reports where the price is as high as €263 per litre!  Compare this to the cost of a one litre bottle of olive oil and you get the feeling for the price.  

Painstakingly Cracking Open The Kernels

9. Antiquities Shop

Our next spot was an antiquities shop and my eyes bulged.  It was difficult to take everything in and there were so many goodies that I could have easily purchased.  One was a table that pulled out to reveal a chequers board, backgammon board and a felt card table.

The displays were separated into different ethnicities/origins, for example there was an area for Sephardic Jewish antiquities and another for Berber artifacts.  The prices were a little eyewatering but probably reasonable given the quality, age and generally excellent condition of what we were looking at.

The detail was stunning and sadly we were unable to take photos of individual pieces.  Here are a couple of photos of the broader views that we were allowed to take.

This shop was one of the oldest houses in Fes and had been beautifully restored.  It was apparently unique in that it had balconies on the third floor at each of the internal corners of the courtyard.

The shop is on three stories, each one jammed packed with stunning ancient furniture, weapons, and household goods, each of which no doubt had their own history to reveal.  The owner asked Alan how many camels he wanted for his wife, and when Alan said a random 500, the owner said I was worth more than that, even much more than 600, although he didn’t give the exact figure.  At the going price of €3,000 for a camel, the price tag on my head exceeded €1.8 million and counting!  Hmm, I’m not sure whether to be flattered or worried!

Antiques Glore!

Stunning Building

What Can We Fit Into Betsy?

Looking Down From The Third Story

10. Clothing and Weavers Cooperative

Our next treat was to see a weaver making scarfs.  This is the second time we had seen this (the first being in Chefchaouen) and both times the weaver was a male.  I was keen to take some of these beauties home and really had to restrain myself due to space and costs.  I did, however, find two gorgeous scarfs, one from agave silk and the other made from traditional silk.

Many of the shops are traditional 15th century Fes houses, which have been restored using UNESCO money.  Behind the multitudes of scarves and other weavings, the detailed mosaics, plasterwork, and intricate architectural features can be spotted and appreciated.

A Weaver Hard At Work

Our Guide Waiting Patiently

11. Chouara Tannery

Morocco is famous for its leather goods and no visit to this city is complete without a visit to the tannery.  The tanning industry here is considered one of the main tourist attractions.

Upon arrival, we were handed a fresh mint sprig to disguise the smell of the tannery.  It wasn’t that bad, although I could imagine on a forty plus degree day it would be another story.

The tannery is eleven centuries old and the entire manual process hasn’t changed since medieval times.   They work with lamb, cow, goat, and camel hides and the process takes a staggering three months from whoa to go.

Initially the hides soak for three days in large vessels made from limestone which allows the fur and hair to fall off.  Next, the hides soak in a white liquid for three weeks, which we are told is made using pigeon feces that they collect from the markets below.  Further research indicated it might also be mixed with cow urine, lime, salt, and water.  This soaking cleans and softens the tough skins and we watch as men, wearing waders, tread on the hides in the large round stone vessels.  Next, the hides sit for one month in the coloured dyes.  These chemical-free colourants are made from natural products, such as henna for orange, poppy for red, indigo for blue and cedar wood for brown.

After dying, the hides soak in vinegar for one week, which fixes the colour.  From here they are left out in the sun for drying.

We were taken into the large display rooms where every kind of leather goods imaginable are displayed.  High-quality bags and purses of all shapes and sizes are for sale, as are beautifully crafted coats and jackets, shoes including slippers and belts.  Apparently, camel skin is best for bags because it is lighter but flexible and extremely tough while goatskin is best for leather jackets because it stretches so is more comfortable.

I was impressed to learn that they would take your measurements and make a jacket of your colour choice and style, then deliver it to your hotel in just two hours!  

12. Borg Nord Ruins

We left the medina late in the afternoon and visited the ancient ruins on the mountain overlooking the medina and the old historic city.  From here our guide pointed out that during our eight hours of walking we only managed to explore a small part of the medina.

The ruins of Borg Nord, reminded us of the Greek ruins, and in a similar state of disrepair, although for me that it all part of the attraction.  Below the ruins sit the Marinid Tombs, also known as the Merenid Tombs, which were not part of our tour today.

13. Ceramic Workshop

As the evening light started to fade, the last stop on our packed tour was to the ceramic workshop called Art D’Argile.  Here we were treated to a demonstration of how to make tagines on a potters wheel – so simple, it only took a few seconds.  It’s funny how one can make something look so easy after twenty five years of practice.

Next we watched as a skilled artist carefully chiseled away at the surface of a plate, removing the unwanted ceramic to create his carefully crafted pattern.  The same craftsman then demonstrated how each tile for a mosaic is cut out using exact strokes with a hammer and chisel.  You start to gain an appreciation of how much skilled labour goes into producing the stunning mosaics we have seen today and the goods on display around us.

The following artist was hand painting a detailed pattern onto a dinner service for an Australian client.  The paint he used was a dull purple colour that becomes a brilliant vibrant blue following glazing and firing in the kiln.  How he could paint such a perfect pattern and reproduce it over and over again defied belief.

Out in the courtyard we were led to a mosaic surfaced table and told it contained an error.  If we could find the error we were welcome to the table.  After a clue about which area and colour to look for I found the offending piece, see if you can pick it.  Here’s the clue, one piece was supposed to be red but wasn’t.  (I didn’t take the table because I couldn’t lift it and anyway, it wouldn’t fit into Betsy, lol).

Can you find the offending piece?

Our Purchases in the Medina

I’d been hanging out to buy dates and finally saw them.  Our guide organised the sale for half a kilo (sweet tasting and yummy) @40MAD (€3.68) per kilo

Small orange leather coin purse 10 MAD (€0.92).  The seller had been waiting patiently for me to complete our rug visit and then lunch.

Two scarfs, a rich orange colour made from the agave plant, they call the product agave silk and the other a pink one with many colours and patterns made from silk.  I paid $400 MAD (€37) for the two.

Argan oil 75mls ($120 MAD, €11) and massage oil 100mls ($150 MAD, €13.80)

Tanned coloured soft leather belt $170MAD (€15.60)

The Many Doors of the Medina

The architecture here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and some of the doors take your breath away.  I snapped all manner of doors and must show you some of these splendors here.  Click on the images below to enlarge and look at the details.

Guides & The Medina

A guide isn’t just a good idea in this labyrinth, it’s a must, in my humble opinion.  Without a guide, we would have been wondering the whole time how we would find our way out.  When people say you would get lost, they really mean it.  The alleyways don’t follow any logical pattern or flow and as great as Google is, there is no such thing as using Google maps here.  I read that even a compass won’t help to find your way back.

I would also recommend visiting the medina with other people for a few reasons.  One, others often see things that you may have missed and can point these out to you.  Two, you get to share the experience and learn about the travel plans of others and pick up on their top tips.  And three, if you’re not in the market to make expensive purchases (eg a new carpet), then maybe someone else will, which takes the pressure and focus away from you.

So if you are interested in finding a professional certified guide (please ensure they are certified as some are knock-offs), then please contact Wafi, the guide we used.  He charges $400MAD for a couple (€37), for a full day tour.  Here are his details.

Elouafi Hanaf (pronounced Wafi)
Email: guide-elouafi@hotmail.com
Phone: 00212672040156
Works for the Office of Tourism Morocco

Please let him know you found him through us Ruth & Alan from New Zealand, cheers.