It occurred to me that I hadn’t talked much about the excursions that I have been on so far, so this week I’m going to tell you all about my tour of Morocco so far!
My journey through Morocco started when I got to Casablanca and met my group at the airport. We drove for about 45 minutes in our tour bus for the week to the Hotel Prince de Paris. Iman, the ISA leader, gave us a free afternoon to explore the city, so I went with a group that just decided to wander for a while. We accidentally found the medina, ate a little bit, and learned how to navigate the streets. I mentioned last week that there aren’t crosswalks anywhere, and you just walk whenever there is a break in traffic, so I had to lead the way when crossing the street the first few times. I remember yelling “YOU HAVE TO COMMIT” when they were hesitant to cross, even though I was halfway across the street at that point. I used my free time that day to adjust to the culture and get to know the other ISA students. The next morning, I woke up and got to see the sun rise from the roof of our hotel. It was so peaceful, and I got to watch the city slowly wake up and come to life for the day.
I think it was then that it set in that this was my new home, and I actually get to live here. That day was when the real fun started; we loaded up the tour bus and went around the city to see a few landmarks. Our first stop was in the main city square, where we all took pictures with the Wecasablanca sign.
After that, our tour guide brought us to a large palace that belonged to Mohammad V, a past king. Every part of that palace was detailed and extravagant in ways that pictures don’t do justice and I can’t describe using words. It took six years to build, and every carved wall, arch, and mosaic was flawless.
Our final stop in Casablanca was the Hassan II mosque, the third largest mosque in the world and the largest in Morocco. This is another place that I can’t really describe other than that pictures make it look way smaller than it actually is. Just from the outside, the attention to detail was impeccable. The inside, able to accommodate 25,000 worshippers on two floors, was somehow even more amazing. Downstairs, there was an area for bathing so people could clean themselves before praying. The technology was fascinating. They had built the walls out of a mix of limestone that absorbed humidity and prevented mold growth.
The next city on our tour was Marrakesh. The first thing we did was go to the medina, since it was a bit of a walk from our hotel and that was where we would spend most of our time. This is where a lot of people bought leather, but I waited until I got to Meknes because I was scared to negotiate with the pushy shopkeepers. We also did a city tour much like the one in Casablanca, where we went to a few landmarks around the city. The first stop was one of the city’s olive gardens. I had no idea how much work went in to growing olives, but our guide told us about the process and showed us the water reservoir that they keep since it doesn’t rain much. They actually keep fish in the reservoir as a tourist attraction, so they fed them while we were there.
After that, we went to Bahia Palace, which was built for the Grand Vizier of Morocco in the late 19th century. It was just as detailed and ornate as the one we saw in Casablanca. Each room had carved walls and mosaics, even though it only took six years to build. The distinct feature of this palace was the gardens. The center garden had bitter orange and banana trees, along with several other plants. The palace was eventually completed and passed down to the next leader of Morocco.
Our third and final stop before Meknes was Ouzoud Falls, the tallest waterfall in Morocco. We only had about three hours at the falls total, including hiking and swimming. The first leg of the hike led us to a view of the waterfall from above and I left the main path with a few other people to go further up the mountain. The next part was to go down the mountain into the valley to see the waterfall up close. The path down was extremely crowded and steep, and the entire time I couldn’t help but think “I somehow have to go back up all of these stairs”. It took a good 20-30 minutes to reach the swimming hole that Iman knew about that wouldn’t be crowded, and we were definitely at the bottom of the mountain. We swam for a few minutes and then made the inevitable trip back up, and we stopped for Tagine on the way. That was the end of our pre-Meknes excursions, and we finally got to settle into our home for the next three months.
After our first week of classes, the ISA leaders brought us to Fes and Volubilis since it is only about an hour away from Meknes. We went to Volubilis first, and after a few minutes of hiking away from the museum area, we were standing in the middle of the ancient Roman city. I took two years of Latin back in high school, and the only part I remember was the cultural lessons, so it was interesting to see everything in real life instead of recreated pictures.
Many of the tile floors were still intact and had visible designs. This was the most detailed part of the city remaining, but you could still see the layout of the house and what each room was used for. Romans lived with their extended families, so there could be 20 people or more living under one roof. The houses were pretty close together, and they were all within the same area of the city. We then walked out to the main road through the city and could see old government and religious buildings, which had the most walls still standing. I was wondering at this point how this city could have possibly been home to over 25,000 people, when our tour guide told me that they had only uncovered about a third of the city and were waiting on government grants so they could continue to dig out the rest.
Our next stop was Fes, where most of our time was spent in the medina. Unlike the Meknes or Marrakesh medinas, the streets were very narrow, so no cars or bikes were allowed through the gates, only working animals such as mules and donkeys. Thankfully, we had a tour guide that led us through the many people, animals, and winding streets because I would have been very lost otherwise. This medina was sectioned by what was being sold, so there were separate areas for fabric, clothing, food, pottery, etc. I got to see some workers weaving fabric on a loom, and they said they can make about 40 feet of fabric in half a day. Their entire shop was lined with stacks of scarves and dresses made with different fabrics. Those of you that know me know that I am the queen of scarves and cold weather gear, so of course I got two before we left.
The next part of the medina tour was the tannery, but it took a while to walk directly there. As we got closer, the smell got stronger, until we were finally there and a worker handed us “gas masks”, which were really mint leaves. I was used to the smell (oddly like cat poop) by then, so I gave the mint leaves to a friend who needed them more. The tannery had three floors with several rooms each filled with leather products, from shoes to bags and everything in between. They had a balcony area that provided a view from above, and they explained the process of what they do to the leather before they can sell it. From start to finish, it takes a few weeks to tan and dye the leather, and then make it into what they want to sell.
The last part of our Fes tour was the ceramic shop. I personally loved this part, since I did art all through high school and did pottery my senior year. First, we walked into the workshop area, where there was a pool filled with clay ready to be used. Off to the side, there was a another pile of clay that needed to go in the pool. Each part of the process had a different room, so the worker using the wheel was in one room, the kiln was in one room, and the glazing and mosaics were in another. Finally, they brought us to the showroom. They could have double the space of that showroom and it would still be filled to the brim with pottery. There were stacks of plates, jars, vases, and bowls everywhere. The whole thing was amazing, and that was probably my favorite part of the entire tour.
I’ve been to a lot of places in Morocco so far, and I’ve loved each of them so much. I’m so happy to live in such a beautiful country, and I can’t wait to see what future excursions bring. For now, I’m going to Chefchaouen, plus a few international trips are in the works!