Sights on the Road in Morocco

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Visits to Fes, Marrakech, Casablanca and Rabat in Morocco made easy on a guided tour visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the oldest tannery in Africa and spying scenes familiar from Hollywood classics.

Photography by the authors

The Prince of Morocco says to Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, “Mislike me not for my complexion, the shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun.”

Well, we all came back from our trip in the sun similarly burnished. As brown as the land.

Morocco may have been the reason most of our group had chosen this Insight Vacations tour, which makes the difficulty of accessing Morocco Tourism’s intermittently complicated user-unfriendly website before our visit all the more disappointing. So we were just glad Insight could find such competent guides who were adequately fluent in English. Indeed memories come from traveling a country not from bouncing around a website.

And, boy, did our group have memories from this little corner of North Africa. Camels and donkeys and musicians whose expressions look a bit like Abbott & Costello’s — although, the grin on Australian Lena Osheron is more like the proverbial Cheshire Cat‘s as she gets up on the camel before her older sister, Victoria.

Our Mercedes-Benz Insight Vacations coach crossed on a modern ferry from just west of Gibraltar to Tangier. We were aware the crossing could be rough but all was serene both coming and going — certainly better than we’ve seen on the English Channel crossing from England to France or even on the ferries to Catalina Island and to the San Juans.

We saw almost as many donkeys as people in the Medina, the Old City of Fes. The animals were not pets but hard-working animals. The people were hard workers also. Life did not seem easy. Someone once said, ‘A little imagination goes a long way in Fes.’ You don’t need imagination, however: just observe.

Tangier, explains our guide, has no restrictions for its people regarding alcohol or dress; they are a famous nomadic tribe called Berbers. They are also now farmers with fertile peanut and melon fields. Workers. They harvest salt from their marshes. They raise goats and make charcoal and in winter grow strawberries and sugar cane.

And, as we find when we come to Fes, there are 1,300 widows there all making carpets at home, every thread a double knot.

The carpet showrooms did not have the cheerful confident ambiance of the carpet places in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, where shopkeepers in their doorways cry out as you go past, “If you love your wife, buy her one of our carpets. They will last forever — longer than true love!”

Our main stops were Fes, Marrakech, Casablanca and the capital, Rabat. Our main health precautions were the usual ones to avoid turista. We used bottled water at all times including to clean our teeth and, as Toni, our experienced tour director advised, didn’t open our mouths in the shower, not even, as he said, to sing.

You gaze upon a scene that looks like a movie set to show a nuclear war disaster. It’s actually the oldest tannery in Africa, hundreds of years old and unchanged by the passage of time.

The highways were well maintained and well-signed often in English, a facility for recognition not offered on city streets where a street’s identity could be in Russian Cyrillic for all our ability to find our way without the local guides arranged by Insight Vacations. What we saw out the coach windows fascinated those of us making our first visit to Morocco. As travel writers we had our notebooks ready. We refer to them now to remind us what we saw on the road to Marrakech:

“Rolling hills, red rocks, surprisingly green mountains; unfinished concrete buildings as if like rural Mexico the money had run out; plastic bag garbage blowing in the constant winds (the car company Maserati used to name its fast sports cars Scirroco and Khamsin after the famous winds that tear over from North Africa); locals sitting on their haunches smoking for an eternity; couples standing by the roadside forever in serious conversation; washing hanging on clotheslines; vans with copper kitchenware and carpets for sale; fences made of cacti; heavy agricultural equipment standing forlornly in open fields; remote isolated farmhouses; brightly painted homes — the kindergarten colors keep the evil spirits away, we are told;

Road signs in Arabic pointing to nothing apparent to the Western eye; donkeys, shepherds with their charges; small American trucks from an earlier era parked always under trees, vans with bulging roof racks threatening to spill their contents clearly the possessions of a lifetime; solitary cows in fields so large it must have taken hours just to bring them to that spot’ women trudging with bundles through life; Coca Cola signs, TV antennae and discs; a man and a goat in apparent conversation miles from anywhere (how benign his blood pressure must read);

Awedding party marching in procession; a couple jogging in the heat and dust; farm gates that seemingly lead nowhere; men striding over fields carrying on their shoulders farm instruments from the Middle Ages, women with wheelbarrows; cattle motionless under shade trees all facing completely different directions, some standing, some having a siesta; storks’ nests on poles; skinny hang-dog slouching canines; towns full of motorbikes, Men In White, donkey carts with four rubber wheels; quilted farmers’ fields; trash blown like tumbleweed so copious in fields it resembles at first a field of sheep; men standing apparently aimlessly on doorsteps contemplating their destiny.”

How unfair for Western tourists to be so puzzled just because a foreign country is, well, so foreign!

Our guide, Abdulwahab, says in fluent, accentuated English, “Education is free in Morocco and 65% of our village graduates are women. Before high school, children learn French and Arabic and, in high school, add English for three hours a week.”

There are 130 million Arabic speakers in the world. Total weekly high school runs 33 hours a week.

Fes

We remember the city for its two Medinas, the oldest now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Called the Athens of Africa, it’s said to be one of the world’s largest car-free urban centers, but whoever said so is obviously not counting the donkeys.

Fes was founded in the year AD 789 on opposite river banks with settlements developed in conflict with each other. Its population today is 1 million. Tourist attractions are the carpets sales and the Tannery, the largest in Africa as well as the oldest. The leather is softened in bird manure, actually pigeon poop, the process so smelly visitors are given a sprig of mint to hold below their noses as they gaze upon a scene of medieval squalor even as they exclaim, “Doesn’t it photograph well!”

Marrakech

We get the experience Alfred Hitchcock gave James Stewart and Doris Day in the 1956 political thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. It’s fascinating to wander around the sprawling outdoor market and see how even a half century later it still seems a Hollywood stage prop with tattoo artists, belly dancers, snake charmers and performing musicians.

Marrakech has snake charmers who tempt fate (unless the cobras have been defanged, but we saw one appear to strike). We found it easier to be closer to the belly dancers and ladies of all ages, one apparently the great great grandmother of the other; the old woman didn’t know how old she was but we understood she had about 40 family members living around her cave home in the village of Bhalil.

Things are not always staged for tourists, sometimes things just happen

Casablanca

There’s a special Insight Vacations flourish here, the movie! We suspect this is as much the idea of Toni our tour director, as it is the company’s. He slips his personal copy of the DVD of Casablanca into the coach video player and lets it play as we head for the city while the road signs, for once in English, give us the countdown to our approach.

Bogie never said, “Play it again, Sam.”

Rabat

The capital since 1912 and the former most southern colony of the Roman Empire, Rabat has the Royal Mausoleum of Mohammed V standing beside the huge Hassan Mosque.

Rabat bustles with energy. We had a quick lunch break on the boardwalk while we gazed out at “this city that was founded by the Carthaginians and conquered by the Romans” and surveyed beyond it, the mouth of the river Regret and the deep blue Atlantic.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.