With its iconic Sahara desert, vibrant Berber culture, and colorful markets, Morocco draws you in and stays with you. With a driver and local guides we soak in the intoxicating beauty of this amazing country at our own pace while also experiencing the hopes, dreams and aspirations of its people. We will a trace a circular path through the country, exploring three of the four imperial cities of Morocco – the historical capitals of Meknes, Fez, and Marrakech. Rebat, the fourth and current capital, we will save for our next visit.
Leaving our rental car in Algeciras, Spain, we take the ferry through the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangiers where we meet our driver, Hicham. Our first night is on the coast at Asilah, with its city wall, small fishing boats, and artistic murals along the winding streets of its medina (old town). We have a wonderful dinner at Al Maghrebia, savoring our first aromatic Moroccan dishes.
Meknès was settled by the Berber tribe of the Meknassis in the 10th century. With our local guide, Mustafa, we admire the Bab el-Mansour, the gate to the Imperial Palace, the grandest gate in all Morocco, with beautiful tile mosaics and carving. For lunch we try Meknès signature dish – tagine of chicken with olives and the preserved lemons seen in the market surrounding the main square. What an amazing flavor those lemons give the dish! Metalworking and embroidery are the main handicrafts in Meknès. It is fascinating to watch the craftsman tap fine silver thread into the metal plate to create intricate patterns.
Just north of Meknès lies Volibilis, the best preserved archeological site in Morocco. Founded by the Carthaginians in the 3rd century BC, Volubilis was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake and never rebuilt. Today less than half of this large city has been excavated and restored, but it is amazing to walk down the streets, into homes with their mosaic carpets, saunas with heated floors, and work areas with ancient olive presses, imagining the bustling life in Roman times. The views from the basilica (courthouse) and temple steps over the surrounding wheat fields are stunning in the late afternoon light.
Our next two nights are in Fes and we arrive at our beautiful guesthouse, Ryad Al Makan, enjoyably tired from our traveling day of cities and sights.
Fearing for his life and that of his family, Idriss I, a descendent of Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima, fled Iran and came to Volubilis in the 8th century. The egalitarianism of Islam with its emphasis on duty, courage, and the greater good, was compatible with many Berber beliefs. And, where armed force could not convert the Berbers to Islam, conviction could. Idriss I established the first Islamic dynasty in Morocco. Outgrowing Volubilis, he planned the city of Fes, which his son, Idriss II, built.
We meet our guide, Mohammed, at the gate Bab Bou Jeloud for our tour of Fes and Fès el Bali, considered the world’s largest car-free medina, which 156,000 still call home. There are 9,400 twisting and turning streets – a warren of dim alleyways, some only a shoulder’s width, plied by donkeys and carts, lined with souks, with a tannery in its midst. You can smell the tannery long before you get there, and are handed sprigs of mint to assuage the smell. Here world class leather goods are produced. It takes days in the vats to prepare and dye the skins using a natural process little changed from medieval times.
In addition to the tannery, Fes is known for its beautiful hand cut mosaics, pottery and its weaving with agave cactus silk.
On to Mergouza and the massive Erg Chebbi dunes for a camel trek into the Sahara – a night under the stars. When the camel driver says hold on, he really means it. Our dromedary camels stand up first on their back legs, so you lunge forward, then when their front legs come up, you lunge backwards. Camels are very big, but ours are gentle and seem to like our patting their wiry, wooly coats. Abrahim, speaking softly to them, his turban wrapped and barefoot, leads us into the desert holding a single rope. It is so quiet in the desert – just the soft padding of the camels’ feet, spreading out like snowshoes over the sand with each step. The motion is a side to side swaying – a challenge for photos, and I laugh at Tom struggling with his camera in front of me. Abrahim stops and turns to face the sun setting behind us. Dismounting we enjoy the changing light on these massive dunes, playing and marveling at how our footprints set off small sand avalanches along the ridge. We continue into the moonrise, seeing the lights of our camp in the distance. A sink, shower, toilet, and a big bed – this is glamping. But, sitting on carpets in front of the fire, listening to traditional music under the stars, we are transported to another time … of nomads and desert caravans crossing the Sahara.