Monday, July 14, 2014

African Adventure: Morocco - Fes, Volubilis, And Meknes

June 9th

2014-06-09 Fes Panorama
The city of Fes.
Today we explored the city of Fes.  We started with a brief visit to the royal city and the nearby Jewish quarter of the city.  The visit was brief and I suspect this was the "see, we are friends with the Jews" part of the tour.  The quarter was mainly shops and commerce.

Next we stopped at an overlook that gave us a wonderful view of the city of Fes.  It was a beautiful day.  Our guide pointed out where we had been and where we would be going later in the morning, the medina.
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Clay pots drying in the sun.
These tours are often subsidized by visits to local merchants and factories.  These stops are often interesting and informative.  I don't think I've always learned something at the "commercial" stops along the way.  Our first such "commercial" stop was at a pottery/mosaic factory.  We watched as the local Berber Tadjine pots were made and learned how they handmade the intricate mosaics.  The artistry was impressive.  This visit ended in the gift shop where we supported the local economy.
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Walking the narrow, vendor lined streets of the Fes medina.
The next stop was the most anticipated for me this day - the visit to the medina.  We were dropped off at a convenient entrance to the medina and we followed our guide through the twisting, narrow streets lined with vendors selling stuff including fresh food of all types.  It was a bit overwhelming as we tried to soak up all the sights, sounds, and smells as we dodged overloaded donkeys and carts in the narrow passage ways.  Among the sounds were men pounding out large vats used during marriage celebrations.  They hammered the copper pots with a musical rhythm that attracted a crowd.  No way we could have done this without a guide.
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Metal lamps.
In the medina we visited a mosque, a madrasa (Islamic school), and the buildings of the university.  It was a lot to take in as we wandered among the crowd of people shopping the medina streets.  We took a break to have lunch in a small storefront restaurant.  The restaurant was owned by a former circus performer and his family.  From the neck up he was a man of seventy-one years.  From the neck down he looked like a man in his lower thirties.  While we ate our yummy lunch he demonstrated his physical prowess by doing handstands in the middle of the tiny restaurant.  He put a smile on everyone's face.
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The inside of the madrasa or Islamic school.
After lunch we visited a rug merchant.  We were given our umpteenth-zillion cup of hot mint tea before they started to unroll the magnificent wool rugs (I'm not a fan of hot liquids and the mint teas were too hot to drink ... and they were served everywhere we stopped in Morocco). The owner first explained a little about the Riad that his stores was in, pointing out common features of Moroccan architecture: marble floors, a water feature, mosaic tiles, intricately carved plaster, and cedar wood ceilings. They moved on to show us their rugs. Our visit didn't last long as the Wife is allergic to wool. A few unfurled rugs and she was making a hasty retreat to the street for fresh air. Needless to say we didn't buy any rugs. The Wife itched and had a drippy nose the rest of the day (note to self - pack benadryl next time).

Our medina tour ended with a visit to a tannery where we saw them process leather.  I'd seen this before on TV and it was really cool in person.  We were given Moroccan gas masks (sprigs of mint) to cover the rather pungent smell of the open air tanning process.
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A smelly tannery.
That night we had dinner with our driver at a local restaurant not far from our hotel.  We had a tadjine (of course - it was as common as the cups of mint tea).  The tadjine, similar to stew, always had some of the most tender meat I've ever eaten.  I didn't have a bad tadjine the entire stay in Morocco ... but I ate so many of them - beef, chicken, and lamb - that they became old after a while. Our driver only knew basic English and we knew little Arabic or French so our conversation was simple but full of smiles and laughter. We had a fun time and good food.

Our drive walked us back to the hotel.  It's odd ...  unlike most places where you tend to walk on the same side as you drive, Moroccan's drive on the left but walk on the right.

June 10th
2014-06-10 Moroccan Lake Panorama
Barrage Sidi Chahed Lake.
The next morning we left Fes and drove out into the countryside.  We drove passed farm land and a lake on our way to roman ruins.
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Volubilis.
Our first stop of the day were the Roman ruins of Volubilis.  The ruins are famous for their mosaics.  The mosaics were impressive as were the storks roosting on the top of some of the ruins.  We walked around the complex as our guide pointed out the features of the buildings and the subjects of the mosaics.  We bought our first magnet (of many) here.
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The Triumphal Arch at Volubilis.
We stopped for lunch at the nearby town of Moulay Idriss - where Islam was first brought to Morocco - before we drove on to the city of Meknes.   Meknes, one of the four imperial cities of Morocco, is the home of the royal stables that once held over 20,000 horses.  The stables were adjacent to a huge food storage facility.  The thick walls and water cooled interior made the structure feel air conditioned.  The storage facility allowed the city to survive long sieges.
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The royal stables in Meknes.
Next we visited the rather creepy prison where the king once kept captives until they either died or their country/families paid a ransom. The prison was underground and was lit by holes bored in the ceiling ... holes that were added for the tourists. When it was a prison is would be absolutely dark and the only way to see the sun was to be freed. The whole place, while well lit today, felt a bit spooky today.  (I've included a couple pictures in my Morocco 2014 Flickr album but they do not to the spookiness justice.)

From the prison we walked to the nearby mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, the local ruler between 1672–1727 and builder of many of the places we visited this day. He and other members of his family buried here are considered the founding family of Morocco.  The mausoleum, like all the other Moroccan buildings, was spectacular with intricate mosaics, carved plaster, and cedar roofs.
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The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.
The last stop of the day was the Bab El Mansour gate. The gate, designed by El Mansour, is one of the most spectacular imperial gates. When the king asked El Mansour if he could do better, El Mansour said "yes". The angry king had El Mansour executed. We had our pictures taken in front of the gate before we returned to Fes.
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The Bab El Mansour Imperial Gate.
That night we had our last dinner in Fes at our hotel which was just as good as the first dinner in Fes which we also ate in the hotel.

Tomorrow ... Marrakech.

Pictures of Fes, Volubilis, and Meknes can be found in my Morocco 2014 Flickr album.

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