Bustling Rabat and Casablanca coupled with romantic Chefchaouen and medieval Fez complete the puzzle that is Morocco, writes Zalina Mohd Som
WE are still talking about yesterday’s desert excursion when our coach starts to leave the compound of the four-star hotel in Erfoud, the oasis town at the edge of Sahara.
The image of the camel at sunset trekking to Erg Chebbi, the sand dunes of Sahara, was the highlight of the first leg of our 10-day Discover Morocco Tour that kicked off from Casablanca five days ago.
We have already visited Marakech — the city that gave the country its name, Ourzazate — a city located 1,151m above sea level at High Atlas Mountains and finally, Erfoud.
Today our 21-member tour group, handled by Casablanca-based Travel Expert Morocco, is moving up north to Fez and Chefchaouen before making a full circle by heading west to Rabat and Casablanca. Both Fez and Chefchaouen have been in my bucket list for the longest time.
While I can’t wait to reach Fez and Chefchaouen, my heart beats a skip at the thought of hitting the mountainous road again.
The road trip from Casablanca to Erfoud, passing through Marakech and Ourzazate that took us up to Atlas Mountain on the Road of 1,000 Kasbahs, so far has never failed to amaze me with its scenic mountainous landscape, dramatic bends and turns, and colourful culture.
Knowing that we will take the N13 route — famous as one of the most scenic and dangerous roads in the world — to Fez gets me all excited to cross the city limits of Erfoud. The route traverses the Ziz Gorges located in the Middle Atlas Mountains.
The long, whole-day drive takes us to Fez, the third largest city of Morocco, just before the sun goes down.
From my bus seat, Fez looks like a bustling European city — wide and busy boulevards, modern architecture and urban-looking city folk.
I try to find any hint of the old medina that Fez is so famous for, but I can’t. Ahh, I should just wait for tomorrow, I pacify myself.
And tomorrow comes with a bright and windy morning — signs of a good day. Our day in Fez starts with a short photo stop at the golden gates of the Royal Palace before entering the oldest part of the medina, Fes el Bali.
Founded as the capital of the Idrisid dynasty between 789 and 808 AD, which makes it the world’s largest surviving medieval city, Fes el Bali is famous as the home to world’s oldest university, University of Al-Karaouine.
With a population of over 150,000 people, it is also believed to be the world’s biggest car-free urban zone. And all I’m excited to see is its 1,000-year old Chouara Tannery!
Just before we get to the tannery, we are led to gremial handicraft areas and streets — covering woodworks and copper to textiles and nougat.
Yes, the alleys are narrow — some so narrow that they only allow two people to walk side by side.
There are times when we have to give way to donkeys and twowheelers.
There’s no clear signage and direction. An alley lined with colourful textiles can lead up to an alley of woodworks. It is easy to get lost here but I do wish that we’re given time to explore the medina.
“There are over 9,000 narrow alleys in the medina.
Even I get lost here,” says Casablanca-based Abderrahim Soukani, managing director of Travel Expert Morocco who has been with us since we landed in Casablanca six days ago.
I guess that’s the reason why Abderrahim engages the service of two local guides — one to lead us and one to make sure that no one is left behind. Following blindly the leader, we’re then ushered into a much smaller alley. A strong smell of leather fills the air in the alley. Almost everyone walking out of the alley is holding a sprig of mint leaves.
Some put the leaves closer to their noses, while others hold it like a precious rose.
When we reach a small door, a man passes a sprig of mint leaves to each one of us while ushering us to walk up the stairs. The higher we go, the stronger the smell becomes. Now I know the purpose of the mint leaves.
When we finally reach the destined floor, our noses lead us to a huge balcony at the end of the floor.
That balcony has a view of a court of stone wells filled with white and coloured liquid, surrounded by ancient buildings. This is Chouara, the iconic 11th-century tannery that still operates the same way it did when it started 1,000 years ago.
“The white liquid is made of cow urine, pigeon dung, quicklime, salt and water while the coloured wells have natural dyes,” explains a staff in a thick American accent. So, that is where the pong comes from! But the pong completes the tannery experience.
Watching the men work the raw leather at the coloured stone wells while the air is laden with the pong is much better than watching it on TV or YouTube.
Chouara Tannery, checked!
Happy with Fez, I am open-minded about what Chefchaouen has in store for me, even though I know a row of blue houses has been used over and over again to promote it. It’s less than a four-hour drive from Fez with a short coffee break at a restaurant. Just before we enter the city, Abderrahim suggests a short stop at a viewing point with a sweeping view of the city.
Oh yes, it’s all blue alright. There lies a cluster of white buildings washed in cobalt blue in a valley surrounded by mountains. “The blue, some say, keeps the mosquitoes away and some say it reflects purity and serenity based on Jewish tradition, a legacy left by the European Jewish who moved to Morocco during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century,” Abderrahim says.
Piqued by the sight and the story, I can’t help but take pictures even as the bus slowly moves into the city. There’s loud oohs and aahs each time the bus passes by blue-coloured houses.
“This is not it yet. You will have plenty of time and spots to take photos in the old section of the city,” says Abderrahim.
He is right. There are better-looking buildings and brighter blue shades as our bus moves into the city centre, and it gets even better when we walk into the old medina.
Like the old medina in Marrakech and Fez, the much smaller old medina in Chefchaouen is a maze of narrow alleys. The only difference is its colour! Blue is not my favourite colour but, surprisingly, I like what I see in Chefchaouen. Some alleys have shades of blue popping out from whitewashed walls.
Some are painted with strong cobalt blue only to have softer shades of blue and pops of red and pink to break the monopoly. Whatever the shade of blue, every stretch and corner makes Instagram-worthy shots.
Here, I learn there’s nothing wrong to put blue against blue and it’s totally okay to go all blue. If Chefchaouen is a man, he is a strong, bold and enigmatic, yet gentle, romantic and friendly.
And I’ve forgotten all about multi-coloured Fez!
BUSTLING RABAT AND CASABLANCA
I don’t look forward to Rabat and Casablanca. One, because that means I have to leave beautiful Chefchaouen and, two, because our 10-day tour is ending soon. But I know all’s well will end well.
It’s a slow four-hour drive to Rabat. Though it’s not our final destination for the day, Rabat is included in our itinerary for a scrumptious seafood lunch and quick city tour.
Like a typical capital, Rabat is busy and elegant. The roads are wide, the buildings are modern and the infrastructures are superb — all built around its charming Kasbah of the Udayas and the old medina.
A visit to Rabat is not complete without visiting Yacoub Al Mansour Square, home to the city’s iconic landmarks — Mausoleum of Mohamed V across from Hassan Tower, a 12th-century minaret.
These are the country’s most mystical places — one is an incomplete project of august proportions and the other, a masterpiece of modern Moroccan architecture that holds the grand tombs of past kings.
Rabat prepares us for the more chaotic Casablanca later that day and the impressive King Hassan II Mosque which is the star of our Casablanca tour the following day.
Completed in 1993, the mosque was built on a promontory looking out to the Atlantic Ocean at a huge expense to commemorate the former king’s 60th birthday.
It is the largest mosque in the country, the second in Africa continent and the 13th in the world. Its 210m minaret, which serves as the city’s major landmark, is the world’s tallest. It’s no doubt one of the most beautiful and the grandest mosques I’ve the privilege to pray in.
After all the centuries-old kasbahs, medina and charming countryside, I thought I wouldn’t like modern Rabat and Casablanca which are not different from any other big cities I’ve been to.
But as the last day slowly ends, I begin to appreciate the role these two cities play.
Not only do they make me miss the rustic side of Morocco but they are the missing puzzles that complete it.
THE 10-day Discover Morocco Tour is organised by Travel Expert Morocco. Priced from RM8,800 per person, the fullboard package includes night stays in four- and five-star hotels, a well-equipped coach, tips (hotels, restaurants and driver), an English-speaking guide, travel insurance and return flights.
For details, contact Travel Expert Morocco KL representative Sharifah Nor Aini Jamalulail (013-336 3534) or email@example.com
PICTURES TAKEN WITH FUJIFILM XA5 BY ZALINA MOHD SOM