Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar

Photo-collageCredits: Template by Jessica Sprague (JS Photo 8x10V-01); Papers by Scrapmuss Designs and Happy Scrap Girl

Onboard the FRS ferry bound for Tarifa, I stayed out on the deck for a little while, soaking up the last of this exotic African getaway, not that there is much to soak up in Tangier, a port town.

tangier-port

Like Casablanca, Tangier was our jump-off point and if we had time to spare, we’d most likely find worthwhile sights to explore.

However, we didn’t.

casablanca-stopover

We spent 10 hours travelling from Marrakech to Tangiers, with a 2-hour stop to change trains in Casablanca. We arrived in Tangier way after the sun has set, too tired to even bother to find a place to eat.

steak

We settled for a steak dinner at the Ibis, where we stayed the night.  The first ferry to Tarifa the next day was at 7 in the morning.

Now out on the deck, I bid goodbye to Morocco. A stupendous experience had of getting lost in ancient medinas with its bustling souks and spice markets, shopping and bargaining with the vendors; of people watching in panoramic terrace cafes sipping sweet Moroccan tea; of sweating and scrubbing in a hammam; of staying in a riad and getting to know one of the friendliest people on earth. Many scrumptious meals were devoured in fancy establishments to hole in the walls. Just across the Mediterranean Sea from Southern Spain yet a world apart from its neighbor, it is unequivocally exotic and oftentimes overwhelming with its incredible colors, smells and sounds.

A pleasant 45 minutes ferry ride transported us into a different world.

port-of-tarifa

Tarifa is a small town in Cadiz, Andalusia just across the Straits of Gibraltar facing Morocco.

tarifa

Though this bohemian town in the southernmost coast of Spain shares similarities with Morocco—its culture, its landscape, even the spectacular view of the Rif Mountains across the water—religion separates them.

algeciras

Our journey continues in Algeciras, where we traveled by train to one of the most scenic villages of Spain.

Useful Info:

Marrakech to Tangier

Travelling by train in Morocco is an ideal way to get around. Albeit not an extensive network, most major hubs and cities are connected.  There is an overnight train for this route and is best taken if one is pressed for time and on a budget. However, there is so much to see and the day train is an excellent one for sightseeing. OCNF operates the railway system. It is a 10-11 hour ride.

Note that there will be a brief stop in Casablanca to change trains for the day train. The night train, however, travels straight through to Tangier.

train-to-tangier

First class tickets are comfortable and pre-assigned.  The cabins are air-conditioned. Night trains have bunks / couchettes (but not the day trains) and it is best to get tickets early as these cabins are limited. However, you cannot buy or reserve a ticket outside of Morocco so do consider arriving a day or two ahead to buy your tickets.

Tangier to Spain

The shortest route is between the ports of Tangier and Tarifa. FRS has modern high-speed ferries sailing between the ports several times daily. Crossing takes roughly 45 minutes. Alternatively, FRS also connects Algeciras with Tangier MED, the new port situated about 40 kilometers (1 hour each way) from the city. Either way, FRS provides a free shuttle to transport its passengers to either ports. In our case, we arrived in Tarifa from Tangier Ville (the city) and took the free shuttle to Algeciras where the Renfe train station is.

FRS-ferry

There are several ferry services that connect Europe with Africa and online is the best way to book.  You collect your ticket at the port of crossing by showing an ID or passport. Use services such as aFerry, Direct Ferries, Ferries-Booking.com to book.

Of Hammams, Ports and Fish Markets

In a room, “Careless Whisper” played in the background, hot water ran from a faucet onto a pail, steaming the room.  On a bench in one side of the room, I sat and waited.

Soon after, a lady entered and impassively poured hot water over me; I shivered at first then felt the water soothingly eased the fatigue away. She asked if I could bear the heat. “Oh, no problem there.” I thought. Then she soaped every part of me, my hair included (I worried about how it would turn out sans conditioner).  She left, came back 15 minutes later, started scrubbing, scrubbing until I can feel dead skin rubbing against my body. And when she poured water on me again, the soap and dead skin washed off, I felt the difference.  My skin and hair, they were silky smooth.  “Can I buy some of that soap, please?”

A Berber massage followed after and for an hour, I was in dreamland. This has always been my gauge of a good massage but how am I getting my money’s worth by not feeling every knead and every rub? I ask myself all the time. I love a good scrub every so often and this, I promise, is the bomb. If I had another day to spare, I’d do it again even if I’ll have to listen to George Michael all over again.

And even if a real hammam this is not, I appreciated the experience and wished I had found the time to go to a real one, perhaps in Fes.

essaouira

seaside

cafes-near-the-port

But Essaouira is as good a place, its rugged charm and relaxed atmosphere offers relief from the bustle of the bigger cities. Read: a good place to chill.  Our last leg in exotic Morocco was spent in the coastal town west of Marrakech just a three hour bus ride away.

place-moulay-hassanPlace Moulay, the main town square near the waterfront.

It’s a hidden gem with its windswept beach, open air feel and hip vibe.  A wonderful refresher from the dark, crowded alleyways of Fes and Marrakech.

Behind the 18th century sea walls are artists’ enclaves, Thuya wood workshops, and bright, quiet alleyways.

medina

Ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the medina is gorgeous and peaceful.

thuya-wood

art

Although the alleyways around the Kasbah have already quite a few souvenir shops, it is still a market town

tout

where rural Berbers is still seen to hawk their wares.

local-market

The streets are full of people selling things from vegetables to DVDs.  And in one of these stores, we found some great CD of Gnaoua music.

Tall towers bordered with cannons still define the perimeter of the old town and spending

fortified walls

time within its well-preserved ramparts will take you back to when the town was still called Mogador.

The smell of freshly grilled sardines and lobsters will draw you to the town’s famous fish market.

fresh-seafood

Known for its outstanding fresh seafood,

fish-market

it is a great place to enjoy a few bottles of beer, soak up the sun and people watch

grilled-seafood

while your order of the choicest catches grill to perfection.

Essaouira (pronounced: essa weera) has a beautiful port down by the harbor.

blue-and-white

The Skala du Port offers a picturesque view of the fishing port with many shades of blue – blue skies, blue sea, blue and white architecture,

blue-fishing-boats

blue boats huddled against each other, some still unloading their catches for the day, which they will bring ashore to sell in the fish market.

After my visit to the hammam, we spent the rest of the morning on a rooftop café overlooking the fort and the sea—

fort

an excellent place to relish our last days in Morocco, to cap the trip.

Hop On Hop Off and the Kasbah

bus

I don’t normally do this.  I like exploring a place on my own, by foot as much as possible.  But somehow in the flurry of things, I agreed to hop on this bus (price of which is outrageous by my standard – but what the heck!) and surveyed the city.

Tour-Historique

We got on near the Koutoubia Mosque, made a quick drive through around the entire city and got off where we got on.

koutoubia

A glimpse of where the hop on hop off bus took us.

club mediterreneanClub Mediterranean
Av.-Abd.-KhattabiAv. Abd. Khattabi — This major route connects Casablanca and the road to Agadir.
La-Gare-Ferroviere-ONCFLa Gare Ferroviere — ONCF Train Station
Avenue-PrinceAvenue Prince with the Atlas Mountains as backdrop.

Hivernage

With that overview, we thought that the southern part of the medina was a good area to spend the rest of the day.

Kasbah-Mosque

Approaching the Kasbah, a few steps away from the medina, one immediately sees the Kasbah Mosque, probably the 2nd best-known mosque in Marrakech (Koutoubia being the most famous).  kasbah-mosque-2

Built in 1190, the 12th century, historic mosque (known locally as Moulay Yasid Mosque) still features some of the Almohad architecture.  As with most mosques, non-Muslims are off-limits.

Attached to the mosque are the Saadian Tombs, one of the most prominent sites in Marrakech.

line-at-Saadian-Tombs

Set in a small ancient walled garden, the 16th century dynastic tombs of the Saadians are among the finest example of Islāmic art.

garden-saadian-tombs

Dotted around the shrubbery are the early mosaic graves of lost identities.  These tombs were discovered preserved, unchanged since the glory days of the Saadian rulers.

saadian-tomb

When discovered in the early 20th century, the entrance was blocked, which may be the reason it remained untouched for hundreds of years.

Untitled-1

A short walk through the Kasbah’s streets will bring you to the Badi Palace.

badi-palace

A sultan’s palace, the elaborate 350 rooms, 16th century residence had ornately decorated rooms in its day.

badi-palace-2

Walls and ceilings were encrusted with gold while the inner court had an enormous pool in the center and flanked by 4 sunken gardens.

badi-palace-door

Today it is a denuded ruin when thieves emptied the rooms of valuables after Meknes became the capital in the late 1600s.

badi-palace-entrance

And storks and pigeons had found a home to build their nests in its walls.

Untitled-2Still, these are rubbles worth exploring.

Experience Historic Marrakech

Alahu Akbar, god is great, come and pray,” an imam calls to the neighborhood over a loud-speaker, a familiar background noise by now.  In a different light, tradesmen standing outside his store enthusiastically calls for attention to sell with “Konichiwa,” “Ni Haw,” or a simple “Hello.”

wider-streets

The medina, albeit still a maze, is not as intimidating as the one in Fes.  Weaving through the wider (relative to Fes’) streets,

leather-goods

I breathe in an assortment of aromas, the whiff of floral scent of potpourri; the intense smell of mix spices; the fragrance of shredded wood; the distinct odor of leather.

souks

various-metalworks

I notice that, in contrast to Fes, the medina is packed with shops intended for tourists.  Though having earned the reputation of being ruthless shopkeepers, I saw them as affable to foreigners often calling out a “Where you from?” and returning an “Ah Philippine, welcome to Morocco!”

woodwork-spectacle

Adding to this are tout craftsmen who invite curious people like us to be entertained, at the very least – I picked up a few of his merchandise.   🙂

Atlas-mountains

Marrakech also known as the “Red City” is a major city of Morocco, north of the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.

red-walls

The city surrounded by blush colored walls, initially a fortress and a symbol of power, was constructed in the 12th century, the bricks used is a mixture of red mud and water from the Hazou plains.

The city is divided into two distinct parts – the medina and the new European modern district called Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle.

guelizShops in Ville Nouvelle

This post will be all about the historic city, its market and its famous square.  Get lost in the narrow, labyrinth streets of this ancient rose-hued city and let it take you back in time.

Djemaa el-Fna

kotoubia

It is said that the minaret of Koutoubia mosque is the heart of Marrakech, but the soul of the city lies just 200 meters away, in the city’s market square and forum that has been in existence since its foundation.

jemaa-el-fna-from-terrace

Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, it owes its fame to its size, its unique atmosphere, and for bringing history to life daily.

snake-charmers

A medieval circus of musicians, dancers, snake charmers, story tellers… share the square with the fruit and juice stands.

juice-stand

dried-fruit-standChaotic yet in tune with the din of drumbeats and enthusiastic hollers.

extort

chilling

The way to experience it is to be among it all but the best way, I found out, is to watch the hustle of activities and be entertained by Djemaa el-Fna’s daily performers from any of the peripheral cafes and restaurants’ upper terrace.

terrace-cafe

It will be a show you don’t want to miss.

The show doesn’t peak until sundown when the square has a different life.  Rows of street stalls under giant white tents are set up each night not only for the tourists but are, in fact, local food jaunts, as well.

night-stalls

Food is prepared hot and fresh along the countless stalls serving authentic favorites one must have when in Morocco.  Head out one night and eat like the locals do and be serenaded with the sounds of live Moroccan music.  Troupes of Andalusian or Gnaoua musicians perform as part of a dinner show around the square.

bocadios-sandwich

If the confusion seems to be overwhelming, look for small eateries serving these sandwiches they call bocadios.

bocadios

Amazing stuff found in the corners of the medina away from the disarray – it helps though if you can speak Moroccan or French.

meringue

And just outside, a lady sells wonderful Moroccan sweets.  Perfect for dessert.

belly-dancing

Or escape to an evening of belly dancing, for a different kind of entertainment.

mint-tea-pouringThe proper way to pour Moroccan mint tea, as performed by our very gracious waiter.

Wander and get lost around the endless maze of souks

Marrakech has the largest traditional market in Morocco and it is so easy to spend your dirham at the seemingly endless maze of souks inside the medina.

souk-entrance

A network of souks begins on the north edge of Djemaa el-Fna and ends at the Ben Youssef Madrasa, comprising of alleyways of local shops full of character.

lighting-store

choice-boutiques

The further in you venture, the more fascinating they become from souks touting everything to the (more) sedate choice boutiques.

carpets

Find Berber carpets, pick up wood carvings, try on djellabas and babouches,

herbolist

or merely listen to herbalists sell you miracle cures for the aging, wander and get lost, then get help from a bunch of boys playing in the street… all these are part of the fun when exploring Marrakech’s medieval souks and winding streets.

Do all these because if you have not gotten lost, if teenagers have not offered to help you find your way out, if they didn’t hassle you for a tip, if you have not been greeted and lured by jovial merchants in five different languages, you have not experienced Marrakech.

Useful Info:

(Belly Dancing Show)
Restaurant Dar Essalam
170 Riad Zitoun Kedim
For Reservations: 212 (0) 5 24 44 35 20
 
Les Terrasses de l’Alhambra
3 Place Jemaa El Fna, Medina
212 (0) 5 24 23 75 70

Meet Adam

Gracious-HostCredits: Quickpage created by Reeta Treat using “4Ever” collaborative kit created for JessicaSprague.com

A stocky young man with glasses, wearing a baseball cap, leather jacket and track pants, Adam is not the typical Moroccan you see walking around the medina.  He talks with an American twang.  It is because although born in Morocco, he and his siblings grew up in Canada, Adam explains as he leads us to a beautiful riad he calls home.  He runs the riad that he renovated with his parents when they decided to go back home to Morocco.

bedroom

Riad Slawi is cozy with 4 rooms (5 actually if you count Adam’s room on the ground floor) tastefully designed in classic Moroccan fashion.

courtyard

Typical of riads, it has a (well-lit) courtyard where we were served traditional, homemade breakfasts.

breakfast

But what I love best about the house is this stylish yet cozy sitting lounge where I would read and write in my journal on down time.

sitting-lounge

Hands down my favorite home in Morocco.

Famished from travelling all day, we asked Adam where we could get some local street food. He walked us back to the entrance of the medina and brought us to a hole in a wall where we had some awesome kebab.

hole-in-a-wall-eatery

Surrounded by local folks, we sat on stools vacated by a group of teens and heartily ate the grilled beef, lamb and chicken Adam ordered for us.

kebab

This is what I call an awesome welcome to Marrakech.

The guidebooks and people we meet along the way were not remiss in cautioning us of touts, hustlers, scammers, etc.

Adam

Adam, however, more than cleared its reputation.  He graciously offered to buy train tickets to Tangiers for us, even booked us a hotel near the train station, He allowed us to  leave our bags with him while we spent 2 days in Essaouira, and arranged to have us picked up at the bus station when we returned.  His kind certainly makes up for all the Saids of Morocco.  Such a gracious host and a real darling, I must say.

Useful Info

Riad Slawi
92 Derb Almed el Borj
Sidi Ben Slimane, Kaa Sou
+212 524 37 7967

The Road to Marrakech

hotel-swiss-chalet-style

Lakes, fountains, wide roads, Swiss-style villas, and green spaces… it’s like driving into a resort town in Switzerland.  But no, we’re still in Morocco, en route to Marrakech.

big-roads-ifrane

king-of-moroccoA photo of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, a regular sight all around the country.

We took a pit stop in the city of Ifrane in the Middle Atlas, 50 kilometers south of Fes.  Built by the French in the 1930s as a resort town and an oasis in a desert,

the-plaza

a refreshing break from the cramped, dusty alleyways of the medina.

Dayet-Aoua-2

Sitting in a natural depression, Lake Dayet Aoua, is a relatively well-conserved lake within the Parc National d’Ifrane.

Dayet-Aoua

Rich in bird life and woodlands, it is a popular destination of birdwatchers.

The most amazing roast chicken we had on our entire Moroccan adventure was at a roadside restaurant our driver took us to.

roadside-eatery

roasting-chicken

Juicy, succulent with a touch of Moroccan flavors…

roast-chicken

and just thinking of it had me craving for it now.

tagineCarrots, potatoes with beef slow cooked in Moroccan spices.

The vegetable and beef tagine we had with the chicken.

exhibitview-deckview-from-view-deckWe stopped by an exhibit of the Ifrane National Park by the road side.

The trip took 10 hours, 2 hours over the estimated time because, aside from making several stops along the way, the driver took speed limit very seriously.

scenery

This is a typical road scene before I dozed off and woke up in Marrakech at half past eight in the evening, our driver trying to find the Sidi Ben Youssef Mosque, where we are to meet our next host, Adam.

An Outing Outside of Fes: Meknes

An article I read about the vineyards in Muslim populated Morocco got me interested in Meknes. Despite its religious stricture on consumption, thanks to its gentle climate, generous sun, and rich soil, the Meknes region is home to many vineyards and olive groves. I considered a vineyard tour but, to be honest, I completely abandoned the whole wine tasting idea at the last minute in lieu of the very impressive Volubilis. And because walking around the ruins of the Roman settlement took just a little over an hour, we had more time to visit the city of Meknes.

View-of-the-old-city

Much less visited than its neighbor Fes, the most unpretentious of imperial cities—Rabat, Fes, Marrakesh being the other three— as it was developed as a capital late in the history of Morocco and only briefly, by a single sultan, Moulay Ismail. Meknes, despite its humble past, rewards travelers with beautiful gates, ramparts, mosques, and palaces and is often referred to the Versailles of Morocco.  As one of the imperial capital, Sultan Moulay Ismail built the city’s vast imperial palaces and massive walls to rival King Louis XIV’s Versailles hence the reference. Suffice to say, his tomb rests here. The weather turned cold and wet, which prevented us from wandering around much, we nevertheless managed to visit a few sites.  We would have loved to see the inside of Ismail’s granary (Heri es Souani), but it was close on a Sunday.

Place el Hedime

Place-el-Hedim

At the heart of Meknes linking the medina and the Kasbah, the large square is lively in the afternoon,

a-glimpse-of-chaosA glimpse of chaotic Djemaa el Fna

much like but a lot tamer than the Djemaa el Fna of Marrakech (you will know what I mean on my future post).  The outstanding architectural detail of the walls and gates (especially of Bab Mansour) makes for a more compelling square than Place Seffarine and Boujloud.

Moulay Ismail’s Mausoleum

triple-arch-of-mausoleum

From the main entrance, an archway leads to a triple-arched entrance.  A small yellow room with a small fountain in the middle greets as you enter the mausoleum.

Moulay-Ismail-Mausoleum

This leads to the first of several open aired courtyard surrounded in all sides by bright yellow walls.  The last courtyard fronts sanctuary where the tomb is.  While non-Muslims are not allowed inside the sanctuary, it was possible to have a glimpse of the tomb from the antechamber.

Sahrij Souani Bassin

Sarij-Swani-lake

It was said that the lake, measuring 319m by 149m, was constructed to ensure the supply of water to the town in case of drought or siege.  The reservoir is connected to the water system of the city, which was considered an ancient engineering wonder.

sahrij-Swani-wall

This is the exterior of Heri es Souani, the ingeniously designed stables of Moulay Ismail.  To keep the temperature cool and air circulating, the structure was built with tiny windows, massive vaults and an underground water channel system.  The gigantic storerooms provide stabling and grains for 12,000 horses.  Too bad we were there at the wrong time and couldn’t see the inside, they say it is bewildering.