Travel Journal

Entering a Whole New and Surreal World

We began our 11 day exploration of Morocco in the port city of Tangier. I had stressed over making the two bus/one boat connections from Nerja to Tangier work, but surprisingly it all did. We opted out of the hotel pickup most first-time visitors use, deciding instead that because the riad or hotel was so close to the port, we could easily find it. It was rewarding to be able to ignore the many touts calling out to us to "assist", navigate some of the old winding and unmarked medina streets and walk into the riad's lobby 15 minutes later without any help. The riad was old and very beautiful, a cool oasis amidst the chaos of the medina. Rooms surround an inner courtyard and a rooftop terrace offers views of the port. Most homes in the medina have rooftop space which is used for a variety of activities--we saw boys kicking a ball around,women hanging clothes out to dry, someone crafting something from wood and young men socializing. But most prominent on the rooftops was the number of ithe satellite dishes, an indication that this ancient medina has, to a certain degree, kept up with the 21st century.

Our Riad hosts recommended a restaurant nearby and a staff member kindly walked us there and back through the maze of the medina streets. With a 4-piece traditional Moroccon musical ensemble playing in the background, we had our first tangine and cous-cous meals. These are the two main and delicious traditional dishes that can be found all over the country. The menu at every (I mean every) restaurant we ate at, lunch and dinner, consisted of tangine and cous-cous varieties to choose from. These tasty one-dish meals consist of a protein (lamb, chicken or beef) and vegetables lightly spiced and we very much enjoyed them all. But after a few days of the same thing, we were craving to eat anything else but!

Our stay was brief in Tangier but I will always remember my first experience with this male-dominant culture. A local young lad, about 10 years old, followed us offering to be a "guide' as we went out for a few hours to explore the market area. He was persistent and was not taking our "NO'' seriously. Just when we thought he got the message, he snuck up behind me and grabbed my "posterior". I, of course, cried out but the little devil was gone in a flash…

The Tanneries- they use the same method to dye leather that has been used for centuries. 
The Tanneries- they use the same method to dye leather that has been used for centuries. 

The 4 hour train ride to Fes that we took the next day passed through a rather uninspiring landscape characterized mostly by partially-cultivated and parched looking fields and small impoverished agricultural towns. We were saddened by the amount of garbage strewn along the train tracks and plastic caught up in bushes and rocks.

Fes is the 3rd largest city in Morocco with a population of one million. Its commerce is based on agriculture (especially olives) and wine production in nearby Meknes. The latter surprised us a lot as alcohol is generally forbidden in Morocco's Islamic culture. We found out later from our Marrakech guide that many Moroccans drink wine within the privacy of their homes and justify their actions by declaring it is a matter between themselves and their God. We were actually very impressed by the quality of the wine and were able to buy a bottle on more than one occasion to enjoy on our riad's rooftop deck.

The old Medina of Fes was culture-shock for us. Its narrow souk (market) streets are built on a slope (so you were either walking uphill or down) and seething with people, both local and tourist. As we attempted to maneuver ourselves along the seemingly endless maze of corridors, our senses were assaulted on all sides by unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. We searched for a museum we had heard was excellent and tried to look like we knew where we were going but failed miserably. Every man, both young and old, that we passed would call out to entice us in to a shop or offer to direct us somewhere, usually to the tanneries (a major site that most tourists had difficulty finding). We eventually found our museum, a few "madrasas" or old religious schools, and of course the tanneries, and all by ourselves!


First Moroccan dinner of tangine and cous-cous in Tangier
First Moroccan dinner of tangine and cous-cous in Tangier

By sheer luck, at the end of our day in the Medina, we found a bar very close to our riad that served beer on the top floor. We climbed the rickety stairs to find a small room filled with mostly young people. All were drinking tea or soft drinks. One guy had a guitar, another a microphone hooked up to an amplifier. The guy with the mic began to sing shortly after we sat down, and we were astounded by the quality of his voice,and the fact that he sang both in Arabic or Berber as well as English. For one particular English song, "Stand By Me" the singer looked directly at me, and I could not help but sing along and hoot and holler when he was done. As we left after our beer, he smiled and I gave him a "thumbs up". It was a special moment of connection that I won't forget!

One day in the chaos of the Medina was sufficient for us and we wanted to see some of the historical and cultural sights nearby.So we booked a driver to take us to 3 places all the guide books promote as "must-sees" -- the Roman ruins at Volubilis, the imperial town of Meknes and the pilgrimage town of Moulay Idriss. Of the three, Volubilis was most worthy of our time and money. These UNESCO world heritage site ruins were built beginning in the 3rd century and cover a large area. Many structures are well-preserved and still contain beautiful mosaics.

As we wandered and snapped photos, envisioning the inhabitants going about their daily business in this Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire 2 centuries ago, movement caught my eye on the top of one of the columns. A huge nest of straw held 3 baby storks bobbing up and down while the mother stood protectively over them. The father stork was not too far away on another column, surveying the surroundings for danger. I read later that the white storks of Northern Africa are one of the few bird species that have easily adapted to human activities and their nests can be found throughout Morocco on the most unusual places (apparently they like electrical towers). I could not help but applaud as I observed the stork family perched serenely on a 2,000 year old Roman column as if it was the best lot on the block! Stork - 1/Romans (and archaeologists) - 0