Saturday, April 23, 2011

Morocco: Essaouira, Fes and Chefchaouen

By Melissa at 11:28 AM
Our final week in Morocco was spent traveling in three cities. They couldn't be more different, but for the sake of minimizing the number of posts on Morocco, I'm going to combine them into one.

After a really busy first week in Morocco we were glad that the final three cities we chose were more laid back. After our desert tour we took a bus ride to the coast to sleepy Essaouira. There really isn't much to do in Essaouira, but that was the point of going. We again stayed in the medina or old town, which was easy to navigate and a welcome departure from Marakkech. Getting lost wasn't a problem since it was only a 15 minute walk from one side of the medina to the other. We spent some time relaxing on the roof deck of our hotel, which had a nice view of the Atlantic Ocean, and just wandering around town looking at all of the blue doors.

One of the blue doors and many cats in the city
From Essaouira, Morocco

Being that Essaouira is on the coast, there was plenty of fresh fish and seafood available. Outside the medina walls near the port was a row of restaurants that let you pick the fish you wanted from the morning's catch and the chef would grilled it up. Fresh and delicious. Many of the fisherman here still use small boats, which were painted a beautiful blue color and made for great picture taking. The view from the port facing the medina along the ocean was also picturesque and exactly how it was portrayed in all the guide books. You could also wander around on the top of the medina walls that faced the ocean since they were once used for defense and we were able to get some really great pictures from that vantage point. It was nice to be near the ocean again after being in the desert for three days.

Deboning and grilling our fresh fish
From Essaouira, Morocco

Picturesque view of the medina along the ocean
From Essaouira, Morocco

Fisherman boats in front of a citadel
From Essaouira, Morocco

From Essaouira we took a bus back to Marakkech and then boarded a train to Fes. The train ride was supposed to be 8 hours, but of course took 9. We've learned to add an hour to the estimates people (and Lonely Planet) give us on the time it takes to get from one place to another. We sat across from a UNESCO employee who lived in Fes and he loaned me his book on the walking tours that UNESCO had set up, so I thought maybe we would not get as terribly lost in Fes and as we did in Marakkech. I was wrong. When we left our hotel the next day to explore the medina we got hopelessly lost and Brian's GPS was not working so I finally gave into one of the teenage kids that offer to "help" you find your way. This one insisted that he was not a guide (who charge a lot of money) and he was not "mafioso," which I thought was hilarious so I thought we'd take a chance. He took us straight to the tanneries, which was great because we had wanted to go there.

In the medina
From Fes, Morocco

In the tanneries they process camel, cow, goat and sheep hides they get from the slaughter houses in the same manner they have been for the last 900 years. There are large stone vats of a hair stripping substance (pigeon poop) and different dyes that the hides are dipped in by hand after being stripped and cleaned. There are 200+ families who work together and split the profits evenly. You can see them all in action from terraces that overlook the tannery vats. These terraces are of course on the top floor of the stores so you get the guided tour by a shopkeeper/salesman. Our shopkeeper was very nice, informative, less pushy than the other shops, and we actually had something to buy. We had also read in advance that this tannery was a cooperative and the prices were reasonably fair. After a short bargaining session, Brian bought a small camel leather messenger/laptop bag that we had been looking for.

Tanneries
From Fes, Morocco

Our 'non-guide' then showed us to one of the main streets where we could get something to eat and proved that he was not indeed not mafioso as he accepted the $2.00 that I gave him after a short bargaining session and my insistence that I didn't have any more cash on me. He lamented at first that he could only buy one pack of cigarettes with what I gave him, but that seemed fair for about 15 minutes of work. We had read in our guide book that many of the kids offering to help show tourists the way to a particular destination instead lead them endlessly into shops owned by friends or cousins and won't direct them to their desired locations unless they agree to pay exorbitant amounts of money. Luckily we had happened upon one of the nicer kids and apparently I have a good poker face. Keeping your coins and your bills in separate pockets helps too. After that interaction, Brian decided I should be the designated bargainer.

Fes has several sites to see, but all of the active mosques do not allow non-muslims to enter. From what we can gather from our peeks from the outside, the Karaouine mosque and madrasa is stunningly beautiful on the inside. They say the madrasa is the oldest university in the world and pre-dates all of the colleges in Europe. We also visited Fes Jdid, which is a separate medina only 700 years old, to a part called the Mellah, or old jewish quarter. There are less than 100 jews left in in the Mellah, but we had the opportunity to visit a renovated synagogue. Up on a hill outside of the city walls is a collection of ruins called the Merenid tombs. Although not much to look at, the vantage point offers an incredible view of not only the medina and city below, but of the surrounding country side. Fes is situated in valley amongst rolling hills of farmland that reminded us of Northern California.

Karaouine Mosque and Madrasa
From Fes, Morocco

Merenid Tombs
From Fes, Morocco

View of the country side
From Fes, Morocco

A couple of days later we embarked on yet another bus ride to Chefchaouen. This bus ride was also an hour longer than predicted, but it was all worth it as Chefchaouen, located in the Rif mountains, is definitely one of the most beautiful places I've been. It has an odd history, but one that really showcases the rich history of Morocco. It was founded in the mid-15th century by Muslims and Jews exiled from Spain during the Reconquista. They were brought in to fight the Portuguese who were trying to gain land in Morocco. In the 1920's it became part of Spanish Morocco and then part of modern Morocco when they achieved their independence in 1956. It's a quiet mountain town with great hiking and an abundance of hashish. You can't walk more than 50 feet without being offered the drug. An estimated 48 percent of global supply of hashish is grown in the mountains in this region, where they have been growing marijuana for centuries. It gets old after a while, but on the bright side, the young men who hang out in front of the stores are decidedly more mellow than in other cities and usually leave you alone after only a few invitations to come see the shop or eat at their restaurant.

The main draw of the city to the non-hashish smoking set is the blue-hued homes against an amazing natural backdrop of two mountain peaks. The tradition of painting the homes blue apparently came from the Jewish immigrants who lived here and has continued long after their departure. Nearly every corner is a photo opportunity and the town is a magnet for photographers. At the end of our first day here, our camera seemed incredibly inadequate in comparison to the equipment being hauled around by groups of giddy, wanna-be professional photographers.

Blue walls of the medina
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

One of many stairwells
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

A very blue house
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

We also took a short hike up to a church built by the Portuguese for some amazing shots of the town and the valley below. On the way down we watched a goat herder, his herd and his completely ineffective "goat-herding" dog descend from a steep hillside and cross the hiking path into the meadow below. Brian wanted to be right in the middle of the herd to get some good videos. My prior experience with goats told me this was not a good idea, but try to tell that to a guy who was born in New York City. A not-so-pleased mama goat charged at me, but luckily she was just mad that I was standing in between her and the shrub she wanted to eat so she left me alone after I jumped out of the way.

View from outside the city
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

Goats!
From Chefchaouen, Morocco

Yesterday we left Morocco to return to Spain on an epic journey. Transportation in Morocco is not always straightforward. Locals typically travel long distances in what they call grande taxis, which are big, old Mercedes sedans. They hop from one major town to another, so traveling very far distances requires a few steps. Buses, some modern, some decidedly not, now cover some of those routes, but the network is far from complete. In order to get to southern Spain we first took a bus to another town farther north, walked a few blocks to the grande taxi stop, took a grande taxi to the border (Ceuta where the ferries depart is technically part of Spain, but located on the coast of Morocco), walked over the border and went through customs, took a short-distance taxi to the ferry port, then a high-speed ferry to Spain and then another regular taxi to our hotel in the port city of Algeciras. The next day we work up early, took a taxi to the bus station, a bus ride to Seville and another taxi from the bus station in Seville to our hostel in the historic center of town. Phew! But we made it...right in time for four days of rain.

Stay tuned for our next post about all of the towns we're visiting in Andalucia and about how much we love our waterproof shoes.