Morocco Part II Exploring Inland

Marrakech, Atlas Mountains, Sahara Desert & Fes

We were both very keen to explore more of Morocco than just the coast and Tangier so after learning the best and worst bits from fellow boaters who had recently done the same and advice from friend Mel Devlin back in Australia we put together a plan and left Red Roo for a week to explore inland.

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Map detailing our inland adventures

We flew 600 kilometres from Tangier inland to Marrakech the flight taking an 1 hour and costing just €30 a ticket. 

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Making chess pieces

We were dropped off at a gate outside the walled old city Medina and within 50 meters of being inside had stopped to observe and interact with a guy who was making small chess pieces from wood using his feet to hold a chisel while one hand turned the piece and the other controlled the lathe via a bow string.  The intricate pieces were a credit to him.  He gave us a “gift” which was an even smaller carving he had made.  Then he asked for a “gift” in return – money.  I was on red alert already and as much as I wanted to explain that a gift meant giving with out asking for anything in return, we sucked it up gave him a Dirham, to which he replied it wasn’t enough and asked for more and we learnt our lesson, it was only a few cents and he was nice enough and did entertain us with his craft.  Funnily enough 20 meters further along there was another man doing the same thing (one of many), but this one stood out as being safety conscious as he was wearing socks!  

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Donkeys do the hard work in the small Medina streets hauling goods

Marrakech also taught us how to haggle to buy goods, however we have found this really differs in each town and is really different back in Tangier and different again in Fes.  The first item we brought was a piece of leather hide (roughly a meter square but of animal shape), we use this on rubbing points on the boat to protect the sails where they touch the rails and spreaders.  The store holder said the price was 280 MAD (Moroccan Dollars – Dirham).  We negotiated a bit but said it was too expensive and walked off.  He chased us down the street and we eventually brought it for just 125 MAD (about €12) less than half his first asking price.

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Marraksch Medina

Our next experience was with a Herbalist, of which there are hundreds (no exaggeration)  within the Medina.  This one was in a courtyard and part of a cooperative which put all profits to a charity for disabled women.  He spent a long time with us explaining what all the natural products were and we finally found out the the thick brown sticky like substance we had been seeing everywhere as actually soap!, the terracotta pots actually contain natural dye and when wetted is used as lipstick or blush, and the rough surface is used as pumice stone, the wheat like bulbs are natural toothpicks, and much much more.  But what really sucked us in was his natural cure for snoring, oh could it be that easy????  It was natural snuff mix of nigella seed and a special ingredient …. crystallised eucalyptus oil!!  We laughed and told him we were Australian and it was a native Australian tree.  He poured us mint tea (delicious) as we decided we would purchase some of the special anti snoring and sinus clearing snuff.  For this we didn’t need to haggle (a relief) as it priced per 100 grams, and he threw in a lipstick, pumice stone and toothpicks for free.  We really enjoyed our time in his shop and didn’t feel pressured or hassled at all.  He was located very close to our Riad (accomodation) and told us we were welcome to join him for tea (free) anytime, and he readily greeted us each day when he saw us walking to and from our Riad.  A bonus of spending the time with him and learning about their natural treatments was that for the next 5 days every time we passed a herbalist shop and were hassled with “guess what this is” and “I have special medicine for you” we knew what the items were and could fend off the attempted sell and invitation into their shop without being rude.  A real bonus! Pictured below; Phil taking the snoring snuff, tea with the Herbalist and Moroccan Soap.

Another shop that appears in the hundreds within the Medina are the intricate woodwork  products shops.  Their craftsmanship is truely wonderful and the “big sell” for them are the magic boxes.  They are very cleverly made and are a real trick to open.  After spending some time in a shop admiring the work and Phil buying a trick box (pull the box handle a snake comes out and nips you) I was told the secret in how to open the magic boxes.  We used this to our amusement later in the day when for what seemed the hundredth time when a shopkeeper was trying to pressure us into his shop to see the magic box Phil replied to him that if I (Maree, who was looking at another shop nearby) could open the box could we have it for free?  The guy readily agreed and Phil called me over and the shopkeeper gave me the box and said try to open, I opened it, and Phil said “It’s ours for free” to which the guy said “no, it was free to try to open”  we all laughed and we left.

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Koutoubia Mosque Marrakesh

 

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Maree trying to pick one pot from the many colour combinations on offer

We visited the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square both during the day and at night.  It is one of the “must see” places in Marrakech. The square certainly contained atmosphere although others found it more alluring than we did.  It is a chaotic mix of snake charmers, donkey carts loaded with goods delivering to the markets, monkeys, horse drawn carriages containing tourists, market stalls, henna tattoo ladies, juice stands, eateries and local tourists.  We were put off (appalled) by the monkeys on chains being made to perform tricks and pose for photos for money as well as by the snakes held down by rocks over their tails and made to stand up by teasing.  It is not our kind of thing.  We were however amused by the couple of elderly gentlemen selling used sets of dentures  – and decided it was the ultimate gift to bring someone back from Morocco!!

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Vendor selling teeth and used dentures in the Jemaa el-Fnaa square Marrakesh

 

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Jemaa el-Fnaa is the square and market place in Marrakesh’s medina quarter

We sat at a cafe enjoying a mint tea and watched as the ladies harassed tourists to purchase henna tattoos from them.  We had been warned of this and were astounded to actually watch them grab a lady’s hand and squirt the henna onto a hand with a syringe before the tourist knew what was happening then offering to just tidy it up into a pretty shape before demanding money for it, or going all the way up their arm and demanding more money, and if it was refused or not enough money given then they would smudge it all into a big mess.

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Intricate metal-worked doors

 

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Meatball Tajine with egg and Mint Tea

The next day we visited to the Tombeaux Saadiens which is a burial place dating back to the Saadian dynasty (1578 – 1603).  The tombs were discovered in 1917 and are now a major tourist attraction in the city.  The mausoleum comprises of the interments of about sixty members of the dynasty.  The building is composed of three rooms the most famous being that which contains the the grave of the son of the sultan, Ahmad al-Mansur.  And although there is a long line to wait in to view the room and then viewing is limited to around 30 seconds per person standing at the doorway it is absolutely breathtaking.  It contains 12 grand columns made of Italian marble and the most amazing mosaic tiles along the floor and walls, then further up is intricate carved and painted plaster followed by carved and painted cedar wood ceiling.

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Saadian Tombs
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Saadian Tombs

 

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Saadian Tombs

Afterwards we were taking a break on the seating outside the tombs when approached by a fully veiled Moroccan lady touting silver bracelets.  I replied “la shukran” which is no thank you in Arabic and she was so impressed that we could speak Arabic that she  absolutely insisted on giving me one of her brackets for free.  I was initially concerned she would want a gift for her gift but after conversing with her further in English she was genuine with her gift for us being so polite and learning her language when visiting.  I accepted the bracelet.  Again this was extra beneficial as each time thereafter I was approached by a bracelet lady I could show them that I already had one, and furthermore Phil used this as my birthday present gift (yes, he had forgotten it was my birthday!)  Apparently I was so lucky he had arranged all that especially for the day!

We immersed ourselves further into the medina and sought out the actual artisans at work making the goods which was way past the market stalls down many windy laneways.  It was unbelievable, really amazing to see the actual craftsmen working in leather, wood and metal in rooms no bigger than the size of an average western toilet, literally a door width across and couple of meters deep, producing shoe after shoe after shoe from a stack of leather behind him, cutting the wooden sole from a template and sewing it on his antique sewing machine or even by hand.

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Marrakesh Water Man

Whilst we were in the actual making area we decided to look at buying a Fatima ’s hand door knocker (for the house we don’t have!)  These had continually impressed us with the beautiful detail in the solid brass carving and the special beliefs behind it.  We had seen one priced at 90 MAD (about €9) and decided for that price we would have ourselves one.  We asked the artisan and he showed us his, I said I wanted a larger one and so he went a couple of doors down grabbed the best one and brought it back to sell to us, it was much nicer than the 90 MAD version with a lot more detail and larger in size, he told us it would cost 780 MAD we eventually brought it from him for 240 MAD, and he then took the money down the artist he got it from, this is common – if they don’t have what you want they will get it from someone else who they call “my brother” and sell it to you (taking a commission I am sure).

Considering that besides yacht parts and food we had hardly brought a souvenir in the last three and half years we were certainly making up for it in Morocco. 

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By day the square contains a lot of open space besides the chaos previously described but by late afternoon in come the hand drawn carts and the whole square is turned into an alfresco dining area and bbq stores for the evening meal.  This is then packed up by midnight to start again the following day.  The smell is certainly enticing and the colours and food displays very impressive but this is actually where our patience ran out.  We felt really harassed as we walked around looking to choose a place to eat for the evening.  Every single stall had 2 or more hustlers with their sole job being to stop anyone from walking past and insist on showing them the menu and pushing them into their tables.  There are hundreds of stalls all adjoining and as you finally get away from one hustler you are the next stall and the next guy from that place sets to work on you.  I really got fed up with it all, and we actually experienced our first real rude interactions here.  After declining what seemed to be our 60th hustler he yelled in our faces “Why are you going to some other stall they are all just the same shit” (he is actually correct in saying that) and then another one a little further on actually grabbed Phil’s arm and was pushing him in, to which Phil took great offence and confronted the guy.  The first we came across that didn’t actually hustle us (they were busy hustling others) we sat down and ate.  We only did it the once, and there after enjoyed meals elsewhere for much a much cheaper price too. Here was also the first time we invoked our Arabic in real spirt, the polite no thank you “la shukran” in Arabic turned into myself (Maree) saying very loudly and very clearly to someone who wouldn’t leave me alone and followed me “La La La La La La La La La”.  Phil later laughed about it, but he has since used it himself.

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Magnificent mosaics inside the Dar Si Said Museum building

Besides the Medina a highlight of Marrakech was our visit the Dar Si Said museum, the building was simply amazing  and that is without the exhibition displayed in it.  Mosaics on the floor and up the walls, intricate painted plaster work and more carved and coloured wooden ceilings.  This building was testimony to the local architectural art at the end of the 19th century in Morocco.  It was originally the residence of one of Morocco’s Chief Executives.  The building is now home to the Moroccan carpet and textile art museum which was very well blended into its surrounds and displayed just the right amount of carpets and artefacts with accompanying information boards.  The temporary exhibition was also breathtaking. It displayed new (2012 made) carpets which were deigned as replicas of 1920’s paintings.  They were stunning, it really showcased how amazing the artists are that make the carpets are and also very surprisingly were the patterns or the paintings chosen to turn into these display carpets, they must have been highly contemporary even controversial when they were first painted and displayed.  They seemed very modern works even by todays standards.  We wandered around the building through all the rooms, then even did a second lap back through it all again.

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One of the 1920’s paintings recently recreated into a carpet

 

After three days in Marrakech we were ready to see further afield.  On recommendations from others we had chosen an all inclusive (except lunches) package tour into the Atlas Mountains, Dades Valley, Sahara Desert and then a transfer all the way to Fez a total of 1027 km over three days two nights.

Day one we admit to wondering what we had gotten ourselves into with a disorganised start where after a lot of waiting around in a street with maybe 50 buses all going on slightly different tours or routes with people being asked to get on a specific bus then directed to get off and onto a different one (the Moroccan way of ensuring the right people are going to the right tour and destination) each seat in our bus was finally taken, the bus then proceeded to join the que and line up for petrol?  Very backward way of doing things we thought but anyway after another a last minute change of two people off and a different two people on we left. 

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The Atlas Mountains

It was a long day on the bus but good viewing as it wasn’t far out of Marrakech that we started up into the Atlas Mountains, after Killiminjaro the Atlas Mountains are the second highest in Africa.  We can attest to a drop in temperate up high near the snow capped mountain tops. 

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Ait-Ben-Haddou the old fortified city (Ksar) in Ouarzazate

We stopped at Ben Ait Haddou for tour of the Kasbah.  Ben Ait Hoult can almost appear as an illusion when first viewed.  The Kasbah is built from local mud and straw and is such in camouflage with the hill behind it that you can hardly believe it is real.  It is famous for being used to film movies such as; Lawrence of Arabia, The Jewell of the Nile, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Son of God, One Night with the King, as well as parts of the TV series Game of Thrones.

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Ait-Ben-Haddou

We enjoyed an artist at work at Ben Ait Haddou who was painting in what could be described as invisible ink.  Painting with all natural ingredients in colours such as indigo blue from fossilised flowers in the rock to oranges and yellows which are made from safron & green tea.  To our amazement the artist painted over small sections of a piece with what looked like water leaving nothing on the page, he then proceeded to work the paper back and forth over the heat of a very small flame from a propane tank.  We watched in awe as the invisible brown details emerged in the area he had just painted as if by magic. They  appeared in full glory of orange and browns to bring the picture to life.

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The hidden pictures exposed after heat

The afternoon drive lead us into the Dades Valley, which was a most impressive landscape and actually quite densely populated.  The group was split for the night amongst two hotels depending on who you booked your tour through and it was delightful to hear the following morning that Phil and I and two Lebanese ladies that were at one hotel seemed to get a lot better deal than the others on the bus.  Although it meant we were last to picked up the next morning and last on the bus meaning we were left the back seat which wasn’t enjoyable at all.  It was raised higher than the rest of the bus but didn’t have windows and you had to duck and stretch your head to look out the windows in front.  I was quite disgruntled when the two girls in the front seat of the bus with the driver refused to swap and change with all of us in the back! 

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“Couscous” one of our guides in the Berber communities of the Dades Valley

Luckily day two wasn’t a lot of driving as we stopped in the valley for a walk then soon after for a tour of local village including a womens cooperative, but guided through it by young men as the women are extremely shy, the carpets on display were impressive and a couple of people from our group got some wonderful pieces at great prices.  

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The Berber Women’s Cooperative Carpet Weaving in the Dades Valley

By mid afternoon we had arrived in the Sahara Desert where we were each allocated a camel and set off on a 1.5 hour ride into the heart of the sand dunes during sunset to a Moroccan Berber Camp for the night.  The camels were very well behaved and we enjoyed the tranquility of the sun setting over the sand dunes, in fact it evoked a bit of home sickness for both of us for the red sand dunes of Roxby Downs which we lived in and loved for so long.

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Sahara Desert

 

The Berber Camp was an enjoyable night and we were issued a tent with a beds at a much higher standard than we were expecting.  A traditional tajine was served for our meal then the camel guides got out the drums and bells and put on a bit of a show for us and we clapped along and danced together by the fire.  Before retiring for the night a group of us walked up to the top of a nearby dune and enjoyed the wonderful night sky and stars.  So beautiful, clear and bright with a few shooting stars enjoyed also.

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Moroccan drums and bells – dancing in the Sahara Desert

The next morning we were woken and organised early to set off for the camel ride back to the town, it was a bit harder than the night before, being both colder and the new muscles found the day before when ridging the camels complaining strongly about being used again so soon.  We stopped after and hour to watch the sun rise over the desert then arrived back at the base hotel for a warm breakfast inside by the fire (it’s winter here – bright days but cold nights).

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Sunrise in the Sahara Desert – Phil and his Camel

After breakfast Phil and I split from the group as rather than going back to Marrakech on the bus (an 11 hour drive) we were transferring to Fes about 500km kilometres away further North through the Atlas Mountains and it turns out this was done in the comfort of our own private taxi transfer.  We couldn’t believe this was included in the price!  Can you imagine the cost of a 500km taxi journey in Australia?? We struck pure gold with our driver Mohammed a lovely gentleman who was very kind, a great safe driver not taking any risks, and also spoke excellent English and was happy to tell us about his country and the land marks and areas we drove through as well as being happy to stop as often as we liked to see things.  He was hired for the day by our tour company to take us to Fes, where he would then spend the night and drive back the following day (hoping to collect a few fares on the way back no doubt).

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A common sight on the road from Sahara to Fes

We arrived in Fes at dusk and were taken to our beautiful Riad (guesthouse) which was newly renovated in old style Moroccan with both mosaics and wood and white concrete walls.  It was really lovely, and the breakfast the next morning even more amazing, we knew we wouldn’t be needing lunch each day we were there after breakfasts fit for royalty.

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Fes Medina with one of the internal Mosque Minaret and Maree

We headed off in search of the famous Fes leather tanneries.  The tanneries process the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels, in a completely manual (back breaking) process that has barely changed since medieval times, to this day the tanneries only employ Berber workers (indigenous Moroccans) and according to National Geographic is the 2nd hardest job in the world (second to underground mining by hand).  

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The Tannery Works in Fes

At the Chouara Tannery, more commonly known as the No.10 tannery (pictured) the hides are soaked for up to a week in a mixture of cow urine, pigeon shit, lime, water, and salt (ammonia). This caustic mixture helps to break down the tough leather, loosen excess fat, flesh, and any hair that remains on them. Those working in these ammonia vats are required to wear protection on their hands (long gloves) and legs (waders) when stomping and mixing the hides in the vats.

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Drying the hides

Tanners then scrape away excess hair fibres and fat in order to prepare the hides for dyeing.

The hides are next soaked in another set of vats containing another cocktail mixture of natural ingredients (more poop) that acts as a softening agent that causes the hides to become malleable so they can absorb the dye. 

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Dying the hides in the tannery vats

The tanner uses his bare feet to knead the hides for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.

They are then soaked in the dyeing solutions, which use natural colorants such as poppy for red, indigo for blue, and henna for brown, saffron for orange and mint for green. After the dyeing, the hides are dried in the sun.

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On the day of our visit the temperature was fairly cool, and the smell although unpleasant was bearable, but one can only imagine the stink in high summer.  The shop owners often give mint to tourists as they enter to sniff and mask the smell.

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Fes Medina

 

 

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The Blue Gate into Fes Medina

We continued to wander the medina (a UNESCO world heritage site) and eventually found our way back to the area of our Riad but had trouble actually finding it. With over 9,000 streets (more like alleyways) with 40,000 dead ends it was little wonder we needed help.  It only cost us 2 euro to get help and the kind fellow escorted us all the way there (we were very close) and also gave us a few tricks to help us navigate back again next time.

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Fes rooftops

We walked outside the medina walls up to the Merenid Tombs which house the remains of Sultans and other royals of the Merenid Dynasty. Although the ruins are no longer intact, the climb up the hill is worth it for the authentic architecture and the view over the 1200 year-old Medina.  

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Looking down over Fes from the ruins and cemetery, where a Shepard brought his flock through to feed

Very close to our Riad was the Madrasa Bou Inania was the former college for Muslim intellectuals, built in the 14th century, and since restored. It is the only madrasa (school) in Fez with a minaret, and one of the few religious places in Morocco that is accessible for non-Islamic visitors.

We made the journey from Fes back to the boat at Tangier via train, lashing out on 1st class fares for an extra few euros.  Very glad we did, whilst it certainly wasn’t anything flash, we enjoyed a cabin to ourselves and both had a widow seat for the views on the way home, one of which was to myself at least a little surprising was the amount of women shepherds we saw with small flocks of sheep, or even 2 – 4 cows grazing the side of the train tracks and fields.

Since arriving back to Red Roo in Tangier we have celebrated Christmas with new friends made in the Marina also spending time in Tangier.  On Christmas Eve we celebrated with a 11 pound roast turkey with all the trimmings on board SV Sweetie (USA) hosted by Tony & Shannon and along with ourselves were also joined by a couple from Canada, a lady from Sweden, along with a young couple one being French and the other German – a real international affair.  We followed this up with a late Christmas Day lunch of fresh prawns, pavlova and left overs from the night before on board Red Roo again with Tony & Shannon as well as Gieslea and Robin from Canada. 

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Christmas in Morocco

We have now seen the New Year in and are watching the weather and forecasts preparing ourselves to leave Morocco in the very near future to begin our 2019 adventures in the Mediterranean Sea.

Attached is a link to a video compilation of some of our favourite Morocco pictures:

5 Comments on “Morocco Part II Exploring Inland

  1. Good to see all your photos. Love the look of your tents. Keep having safe travels. Love Sandy & Denis.

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  2. As always…another really interesting read, loved it. 💖💖

    Sent from my iPad

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  3. Wow, how busy have you been!! What an adventure, we are quite envious. Your writings are so full of interesr and humour, keep up the good work. You will have yet another string to your bows – teaching Arabic!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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