On my first trip to Morocco, I explored the country's north: otherworldly Fez, laid-back Chefchaouen, melting pot Tangier, and legendary Casablanca.
by midtownmjd on January 17, 2009
Stay at Les Merinides for its sweeping views over the medina of Fez, and you won’t be disappointed with your choice. The hotel’s location atop the bowl of old Fez is the perfect setting for its swanky Moroccan-style indoor-outdoor lobby and one of the world’s great spots for a drink. Even in a steady drizzle of rain, I was drawn to sitting on an outside chaise (under the cover of awnings) to take in the foggy, golden city below; it’s even become a sunny day in my memories.Since you can’t spend all night sipping drinks on the terrace, the good news is that the rooms are equally welcoming havens from the chaotic town below. Draped in a royal-red theme, my second-floor room was comfortable and modern, if a bit worn at the edges. The room had cable TV with CNN International, the BBC, and Al Jazeera, and—my favorite part—free high-speed, wireless Internet access. My king bed and modern bathroom provided all the comforts I needed, though both were sites of major battles with the small army of flies I just couldn’t get out of my room.The best part, though—even better than the inviting lobby, pool, and restaurant—is that the prime hilltop location delivers Fez’s five daily calls to prayer in haunting stereo, including the earliest, a beautiful 5am version that I miss hearing every morning. Les Merinides may not be the newest hotel on the block, but it’s block is the best, and its perks as good as Moroccan hospitality gets.
Full disclosure: I didn’t stay at this guesthouse; I only wish I did. While I was touring Fez, I took a peek at their hammam and rooms, and WOW. It looks perfect, from the gorgeous courtyard to the seven suites to the rooftop breakfast nook, and its spa looks and smells amazing. The owner, a Frenchman from a Moroccan family, has painstakingly seen to every detail, including a doorbell that rings with a bird’s call, iPods with speakers available to guests, and incredible furniture designed by him but crafted by locals.I took a look at one room, the green suite, that had a three-floors-high ceiling, unbelievable tilework, décor elements from Indonesia, and a huge desk. It goes for 220 Euro per night, which will actually almost seem like a deal when you see it; it's such an unbelievable oasis of calm in the medina. And even if you're not checking in, it is worth seeing.See for yourself at http://www.riad-laaroussa.com/!
From the moment you enter the Fez medina and walk into La Maison Bleue—through sky-high carved doors, down a blue-and-white-tiled hallway lined with luminaries, and into an interior courtyard aglow with candelabras—you know you’re in for a special experience, and the food and service do not disappoint.We settled into a table in the courtyard, the focal point of the Maison Bleue riad and a sort of anteroom before meals are served, and were plied with cocktails and tasty snacks like popcorn, peanuts, salted almonds, olives, and pickled vegetables. Two gnaoua musicians played on the floor, filling the riad with perfect acoustics. Under their trance, and the influence of delicious Moroccan red wine, I could have happily sat there ogling the building’s artistry for hours. But we were soon moved to a cozy, round corner table off the courtyard for the main event.Of the versions of high-end Moroccan cuisine I had on my trip, none were better than dinner at La Maison Bleue. We began—or continued—with traditional mezze of eggplant, cauliflower, peppers and tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and lentils, followed by a spicy tagine of chicken with parsley and coriander. Next was a savory-sweet couscous with lamb, cinnamon, almonds, and powdered sugar and, for dessert, a giant, delicate, fragrant b’stilla layered with pastry and cream and accompanied by cinnamon-brushed orange slices—and, of course, mint tea.All the while, the musicians played on, having followed us from the courtyard to the dining room, and, as dessert arrived, they played to a spectacular finale during which they danced so that the tassels of their hats swung around and around. I found myself wishing I knew Arabic, but even without a translator, their sounds were powerful.A fixed-price dinner at La Maison Bleue costs 550 dirham (or about US$65) and includes the meal, freely flowing wine, water, and entertainment—and excellent, attentive service in a magical setting. The riad is also a hotel and spa, one I’d love to check into if I ever have the chance.
This expat favorite, located in a typical dar, is a great place for a coffee stop in the medina. Each level of the old house is decorated with tradition and whimsy (think zellij tiles and utensils hanging from the ceiling), and besides a quirky menu of couscous and camel burgers, it offers fun flavors of tobacco to try in the hookah. If you’re in Fez for a while, they host all kinds of cultural get-togethers, like Sunday night henna tattoos, contemporary dance classes, and concerts.
This Fassi embroidery shop produces incredible pieces, from handkerchiefs to tablecloths, all handcrafted with amazing skill and consistency. The women who sew them begin between the ages of 18 and 20, and at 30 reach the peak eyesight needed for intricate designs like those that require white-on-white stitching. You can watch them work as you browse, and then buy; prices run from 450 dirham for a basic tablecloth with 12 napkins to 35,000 dirham for a highly ornate tablecloth (which takes years to make) with eight napkins.
You can’t go to Morocco and not engage in the dance of negotiating for a carpet. Do it at Coin Berbere, where owner Abdul and family lead a friendly and fair price debate as you watch them lay out carpet after carpet while sipping on your mint tea (the purpose of which, of course, is to get you absolutely loaded on sugar and loose with your cash). They have unique carpets from tribes all over the country and like to explain the story of each piece, so even if you’re not in the market for a Moroccan carpet, you’ll learn a lot about carpet art.
"One-Armed Ali" runs this weaving shop where you can watch silk and wool creations being woven on looms by barefoot men and shop for everything from scarves to bedspreads. The most vibrantly hued fabrics cover every inch of the shop—I don’t know when I've ever seen blue look so blue.The story we were told by a Fez resident to give the shop even more character was that Ali was a ruthless, corrupt carpet salesman until losing his arm in a motorcycle accident and having a change of heart. I can't speak to his intentions (though he was very pleasant to deal with), but his goods are incredible and his shop is definitely worth seeking out.I'm not a big shopper when I travel, but I bought a couple of scarves here for US$5 apiece, and I wish I’d bought a whole lot more.
His place doesn’t have a name, but it’s in his one-room, dirt-floored shop that the last remaining "mat man" weaves grass prayer mats for the city’s mosques. The room smells like tea and looks a bit like a basement or barn, and its humble craftsman beams with kindness and gratitude as he sells you placemats for 10 dirham apiece. His tools are basic—a loom that consists only of holes in which to stand reeds of grass and an old pair of scissors—but his handiwork is beautiful. This shop, if you can call it that, gives you a view of how mat-making probably looked in Fez for centuries, before mosques and worshippers began buying mass-produced mats from abroad. Stop here and step back in time—and make an old craftsman happy.
This pottery depot is not in the medina, so you’ll need some transport, but it’s not far, and it’s worth the detour if you’d like to buy genuine Fassi ceramics. Plus, it’s interesting to take a tour and see how the pieces are made, from their heating in olive-pit kilns to their embellishing with horse-hair brushes. Watching artisans hand-cut mosaic tiles at a century-old business under plumes of black smoke being sent over Fez from burning olive pits—well, shopping doesn’t get much better than this. A giant gift shop awaits, of course, where you can shop for pottery both from Fez (gray clay on the bottom) and from Southern Morocco (red clay on the bottom). Popular pieces range from small perfume bottles to ornate fountains.If you're interested in the tradition of Moroccan pottery or wish to take some home, this is the place to go. If not, you're probably better off sticking to the shops of the medina.
by midtownmjd on June 27, 2009
The Roman ruins at Volubilis compose one of the best archaeological sites I’ve visited, ever. Located a couple of hours’ drive from Fez, close to Meknes, and just below Moulay Idriss, they’re a convenient stop for any visitor to north Morocco.It’s easy to see why, in 1997, they were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Well preserved, beautifully situated, and expansive, the ruins are known as one of the best preserved examples of a Roman-empire town.My group met up with a guide hired through our original Morocco guide. The downpour dampened our spirits a bit, but not his; Rashid was incredibly cheerful and injected a lot of humor into the tour (which may not be so difficult when a site is littered with ancient phallic symbols and innuendo). There’s no need to arrange for a guide ahead of time, as there were several available at the site’s entrance.The rain did cause us to rush the tour a bit, but it didn’t take away from the beauty of the landscape, which is reminiscent of Tuscany, but with agave plants. I should note that the mud at the site is the stickiest mud I’ve ever encountered. It stuck to my sneakers with every step, making walking a huge effort. It was really strange, actually, and I’m pretty sure that my shoes will never be the same.The benefit of the rainstorms was that they cleaned off the Volubilis mosaics, which are the site’s real highlight and are better preserved and larger than any mosaics in Italy or Greece. Even after 2,000 years they remain colorful and, impressively, all are originals and have not been restored.There are intact baths, arches, and many rooms for wandering, but the other highlight was the "main drag," a grand avenue that reminded me of the Champs-Elysees. The site is absolutely worth visiting, and so big that I’d imagine you could spend quite a few hours there—on a sunny day.
by midtownmjd on May 3, 2009
When I arrived at the Hotel Atlas Chaouen on a rainy October night, I wasn’t thrilled to find that my room was chilly, dim, and full of rather hard furniture. The TV only featured a few fuzzy French channels, and while the bathroom had a nice sink area, the shower was as pitch-black as the hallway outside.That said, the hotel’s hilltop location, comfortable common areas, delicious breakfasts, and helpful staff made up for the shortcomings.Rooms have small balconies, which come in handy around 5am; the hotel overlooks the medina of Chefchaouen, and the pre-dawn call to prayer reverberates through the valley. Views of the town and the Rif Mountains are even better from the terraces off the restaurant’s dining room, especially during breakfast, when the morning sun lights up the hills in all different shades of green. Incidentally, breakfast is delicious, with baskets full of all kinds of pastries, cornbread, and pancakes, and wonderful coffee. While the isolated hilltop location could be a drawback for people who would rather stay inside the medina, it does afford you these stunning sounds and views, plus a pool that looks like it would be lovely in the summer. And there’s a convenient 10-minute path down to town, or the front desk is happy to call a taxi (a ride to the kasbah cost me 32 dirham, or about US$4).Downstairs, there’s a convenient bar off the lobby, and a giant sitting area where I relaxed with coffee and cappuccinos in the afternoon sun one day. There’s a tiny, unmanned gift shop as well.In the end, my biggest gripe was that my room key was completely unreliable and I had to return to the lobby after nearly every try to ask an employee for help. They were always happy to oblige, though, so I can’t complain too much. The same goes for the hotel as a whole: it’s not without flaws, but it’s not without charm, either. And it’s not a bad choice for a few nights in Chefchaouen.
I had the best meal of my stay in Chefchaouen at Restaurant Tissemlal inside the Casa Hassan guesthouse. Admittedly, my other meals consisted of an underwhelming pasta dinner at Hotel Parador, a picnic lunch in the Rif Mountains, and various coffee stops at cafes on the Place Uta el-Hammam. Still, Restaurant Tissemlal is a great place for a traditional Moroccan meal in a comfortable, stylish space—even if it comes with its fair share of tourists.Tucked away in the medina not far from Place Uta el-Hammam, the restaurant is centered on a fireplace and an open kitchen and is full of arched entryways, hanging lanterns, plush pillows, and mosaic-pattered dishware. It’s beautifully lit and there’s a polished rusticity about the rooms.We were seated in a cozy corner booth and immediately served baskets of delicious fresh breads, followed by a giant Greek salad that nearly covered the table. The entire fixed meal was served family-style like this, so we shared tagine, couscous, and b’stilla—all absolutely delicious. The restaurant does not serve alcohol, but there was plenty of water and mint tea to go around.Restaurant Tissemlal is the place you’re thinking of when you imagine yourself enjoying an unhurried, unique meal in Morocco; it’s definitely worth a stop.
by midtownmjd on June 26, 2009
Chefchaouen (or Chaouen, as it's more often called in Morocco) is known for two things: its blue-and-white-splashed medina and its cannabis. Having explored the lovely medina extensively, we set off on a guided hike in the Rif Mountains to learn about the city's cannabis culture. On the short trek, we got an education in kif from a local, and great views of the city to boot.As we walked uphill from the medina, we passed a white-washed cemetery, and our guide talked about burial customs in Morocco. He said that the reason these graves don't include name markers is that the families come often enough to never forget which is which. He talked about families breaking fast over graves during Ramadan, and about reburials that take place 35 years after death. As he spoke, the midday call to prayer echoed in the valley below.We climbed further away from the medina and into the marijuana fields (or what would have been marijuana fields had we not arrived post-harvest). Our guide spoke of the regional and national attitudes toward kif (basically, its generally overlooked and largely exported to Europe, and he claimed that there are no fights over ownership of the plants, nor any poaching of neighbors' leaves). He also talked about the history of smoking in Morocco, from when kif was sold in the markets in the early 1900s to when English-hippie visitors made kif into hash in the 1960s to today's general acceptance. It's been banned by the French, made legal by the Spanish, and, it seems, enjoyed by just about everyone. Our guide himself started smoking the local specialty at 9 or 10 years old (he gave it up 25 years ago, though).The tour didn't include smoking, but it did include plenty of interesting history and conversation (and how-to advice!), and lovely views of Chefchaouen and giant olive presses in the fields.I've read that other IgoUgo members were offered hash on every street corner in Chefchaouen, and I didn't find that to be the case at all (maybe because I'm a woman). There's no question that it's a huge part of local culture, though, and has been for a very long time, so a little kif hike in the Rif is a nice introduction to the beloved pastime.
Like other hotels I stayed in or visited in Morocco, the El Minzah features grand public spaces but offers well-worn, almost threadbare guest rooms. The El Minzah, though, is grander than most, and the beautiful lobby, restaurants, and bar feel just as glamorous as they must have when Winston Churchill, Rita Hayworth, Rock Hudson, and Aristotle Onassis were there (separately, I presume).That 1930s-glam character, plus fantastic Moorish architecture, a perfectly central location, water views, and friendly service make it a great choice for Tangier accommodation. The rooms aren't the reason to stay, but they are reasonably large and completely adequate; it's the grand lobby and plush halls that make them seem less impressive, I suppose.As far as modern conveniences, I was able to change money, set up in-room WiFi, enjoy room service, and eat and drink well here (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Others with whom I was traveling spoke highly of the spa's modern take on a hammam as well--if I return, I'll take advantage of that, for sure.The compact lobby was usually crowded with visitors, mostly from Europe, but the ground-floor courtyard was always peaceful, even though it's surrounded by two restaurants (Moroccan and international), a wine bar, and a piano bar.When I stayed in 2008, the price for a water- or courtyard-view single room was about US$210; a comparable double room was about US$250. Various suite sizes are also available among the hotel's 140 rooms.
The American Legation is a must-see in Tangier; its role in diplomatic history, its art collections and libraries, and its notable architecture make it a wonderful place to spend an hour or so.The only US National Historic Landmark located outside the US, the building began its life in 1821 as the home of the US diplomatic mission to Morocco. Some of the artifacts on display predate that, though, such as Morocco’s letter establishing it as the first country to recognize the United States of America in December of 1777. Since the American embassy moved to Rabat in 1956, the building has served as a consulate; an Arabic language school for American diplomats; a Peace Corps training center; and, now, a museum, research library, and cultural institute for Moroccan studies.Entrance to the museum is free, though they accept donations. It’s currently open for tours mornings (10am-1pm) and afternoons (3pm-5pm), Monday through Friday, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org for a weekend appointment.Our tour guide was fantastic; he was knowledgeable and passionate, and spoke such perfect English that it was hard to believe he’s never traveled outside of Morocco.Highlights of the legation’s five stories and 45 rooms include the Gibraltar Room, with a carved-wood chandelier; the Auguste Delacroix and James McBey painting collections; two Malcolm Forbes’ battle dioramas; the Paul Bowles room, featuring much of the writer’s furniture and other memorabilia; the courtyard gardens; and stunning painted and carved ceilings, doorways, and windows everywhere.I thoroughly enjoyed both the building itself and the look at the relationship between Morocco and the US from 1777 to today. And I can’t say enough good things about the staff, who made the paintings and rooms come alive with stories of the people behind them.Our guide lamented the fact that very few Americans visit the museum—apparently most visitors are Moroccan or European. I hope that changes, as the American Legation Museum is a unique and interesting place worth visiting.
by midtownmjd on October 11, 2009
As tourist traps go, the Caves of Hercules, or Grottes d’Hercule, are pretty cool. Whether or not Hercules rested here between performing his 12 labors, as the legend goes, the mirror image of Africa through which the caves’ open into the sea is impressive, particularly when the colors of sunset stream through. Apparently this reverse map was created by a mixture of ocean waves and early Bedouins who mined the caves for olive-press millstones.It won’t take you long to see the entire cave, and then you can head upstairs to a café where you can watch the rest of the sunset over the beach.The caves also provide a great excuse to get out of the city and see surrounding areas: On the way to the caves, we stopped at the Cap Spartel Lighthouse to see where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, and drove through some of Tangier’s ritziest neighborhoods—the hillside mansions of the California St. district are reminiscent of, well, California. According to our guide, Dandy, it’s an idyllic place where the rich picnic on weekends, kings own vacation homes, and eucalyptus grows in the forest. (I thought that last one was a weird fact, too.)It’s also worth nothing that the Caves of Hercules are where I saw my first camel in Morocco. (In the parking lot. Giving rides to children. I told you it was a tourist trap!)
The front-desk staff at the El Minzah recommended Saveur de Poisson Mediterranee when we asked for a local’s-only place to have lunch. Conveniently located around the corner, it was the perfect call for a drizzly day! This cozy, family-run seafood restaurant served up what was easily one of my favorite meals in Morocco.The space is cluttered-casual, its walls covered with tiles, Moroccan art, and maritime memorabilia. Lights hang from the ceiling in wicker baskets, and plastic tablecloths, paper placemats, and wooden spoons line the nine tables. The dining room’s best feature is the open kitchen; as we waited for lunch, we watched fresh herbs and fresh fish arrive and then splash into pots and onto grills.Our fixed-price, 150-dirham lunch began with a house specialty: a steaming bowl of fish soup filled with shrimp, calamari, baby shark, and barley. It was heavenly. We also munched on olives served with chilies and tore into flatbreads from a basket full of different varieties, washing it all down with a rich juice of figs, quinces, carobs, and dates. This may have been enough food for lunch, but there was plenty more to come.The next course was a tagine of spinach, calamari, baby shark, and shrimp, flavored with a spicy mix of cumin, garlic, and ginger. Amazing! Our table also shared perfectly grilled sea bass and tender baby-shark kebabs. It was the sort of shared meal where you have to restrain yourself from being that person who finishes everything before others have had a chance to try each dish.For dessert, a plate of honey-topped pomegranate seeds and a plate of barley, pine nuts, almonds, and honey perfectly complemented each other and the meal.I would heartily recommend a stop at this small gem for what has to be some of Tangier's freshest seafood, served in a completely down-to-earth fashion.
I love a good cup of coffee more than just about anything, and it just so happened that the legendary Gran Café de Paris was a few doors down from the El Minzah, so I grabbed a seat as quickly as I could.Famous as a meeting place for artists and expats during Tangier’s days as an international zone, the Gran Café occupies a prime corner where you can choose from a view of the Place de France and the French consulate or the port and the Terrasse des Paresseux. I went with the busy Place de France, and even in a light rain enjoyed sitting outdoors under a substantial awning.I tried a delicious chocolate croissant and cappuccino and enjoyed people watching for a long while. I eventually headed indoors to check it out, and I discovered a suprisingly huge space gleaming with wood panels.Indoors and out, the Gran Café de Paris has definitely held onto its literary luster—and, more importantly, it’s satisfying coffee and pastries.
The epitome of a chic chain hotel, the Golden Tulip Farah was the most luxurious place I stayed in Morocco, but it wasn’t without a few quirks.First, the great parts. The building was renovated in 2007 and it absolutely shines; it’s all marble floors, glass chandeliers, and sleek lines. The lobby is inviting, with black-and-white sitting areas where you can chat or watch CNN International. And my room was beautiful, with a fabulous bed and shower and nice extra touches like a red rose in full bloom. The lighting was unusually dim, but that didn’t really bother me (and hey, the glow from the big flat-screen TV helped).The front-desk staff was wonderfully friendly, happy to change money or set up the Internet (you have to pay for access).Now, the quirks. You (and your luggage) have to enter the hotel through a metal detector, a result of the 2003 Casablanca bombings that targeted this hotel (two people were killed in the lobby). So this precaution is understandable, if unusual.Another odd thing was that for some reason, the elevator would not go down from my floor (the thirteenth), so I had to take a rather circuitous up-then-down or stairs-then-elevator route. Others were doing it too, so I don’t think it was an issue of myself not figuring out how to work the elevator.Lastly, dinner service at the Quatre Saisons restaurant was quite uncoordinated (and it was a buffet!), to the point where some people were a bit annoyed. But the food was fine, quite good even. There are two other restaurants to choose from, and they seemed to be a destination even for people not staying at the hotel.Overall, I would not hesitate to recommend this hotel as a luxury option in Casablanca; it offers a welcome retreat from the city outside.
My biggest regret from this trip was not taking a tour inside the mosque; I left without protest when the rest of my group did, and I wasn't able to return later.However, wandering around outside it for about an hour was an absolutely incredible experience. It’s truly a must-see in Morocco; there’s simply no way to describe the massive scale of the building with words or photos. It's one of the most beautiful manmade things I've ever seen.Turn after turn, arch after arch, fountain after fountain, and from the foot of the plaza to the tip of the minaret, each architectural detail is perfect. It’s a photographer’s dream and a people-watcher’s pleasure. I saw families playing and people praying, heard whispered conversations and shouted exclamations.The setting of the mosque is beautiful in its own right, sitting on the sea with a lighthouse across the water. It’s a lovely place to sit and reflect.One note: there was a bit of a scheme at the restrooms where workers offered to show you inside for a few coins, but you’re only brought to a storage area of some sort and then hassled a bit—so make sure you pass.I really can’t emphasize enough how much I regret not taking a tour of the mosque. If you’re not there when a tour is being given, return if at all possible! And then please tell me about it!
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