Morocco Part 1: Tangier, Chefchaouen, & Fez
It was finally time to say good-bye to the European continent. As I previously indicated, upon our earlier arrival in Portugal, we were none so gently told that we had to get the hell out of the Shengin area pretty quick, as our 90-day tourist time was quickly expiring. But, we found it to be for the best, as we were ready for a new adventure. While Europe had been amazing, it was now too easy for us. We all had previous travel experience there even before this trip, and the culture, while different in its own ways, was still very western and similar in some regards to our own culture back home. Europe served as a terrific warm-up for some truly unique and more challenging travel experiences.
Our first new experience lie on our second continent of the trip: Africa. We were planning on staying in Africa until we flew home for our Christmas break. Our first stop on this new continent was the country of Morocco, with its rugged mountain ranges, beautiful beaches, sandy deserts, and labyrinth of medinas. And we wanted to see it all. Our exploration of this amazing country would take us from Tangier to Casablanca, hitting famous cities like Fez, Marrakesh, and Chefchaouen along the way. We were even set to do a camel trek through the desert, spending a night in the Sahara under the stars. We could only hope two weeks would be enough.
We divided this post into three parts because of how long we spent in Morocco. This post covers Tangier, Chefchaouen, and Fez.
What We Did
Day 116 (11/15/16): Today we arrived at the ferry port in Algeciras for our one hour ride over to Tangiers, Morocco. When we deboarded the boat, we made our way through customs (which was more just luggage scanning where they barely paid any attention), and sought out transportation into Tangier (the ferry takes to Tangier Med, which is a little over 50 km outside of the city). After negotiating a taxi price that was lower than taking the bus we headed into town. We found our Airbnb after some confusion about its location due to the odd address we were given and our inability to read Arabic. We settled in a bit, went and got lunch, and then walked out to the beach. We explored the beach, including watching camels relaxing in the sand in front of high-rise buildings, which was an odd sight. We then walked up into the medina, winding through the streets and taking in the sounds, sights, and smells. We then returned to the apartment to relax and plan for the next morning.
Day 117 (11/16/16): After making breakfast and packing lunch in our backpacks, we left the apartment to explore more of the medina. We saw a number of churches including the catholic cathedral, English church if St. Anthony, and the largest mosque in the city. We then spent some time wandering through the winding streets, taking turns picking which direction to go at each intersection, watching people bustling about shopping and sitting in the various tea rooms. From there, we got a cab out to Hercules Cave, a natural cave about 8 km outside of town which was said to be the cave Hercules stayed in before completing his eleventh labor to become a god. We saw the places in the caves where ancient people had carved out grindstones from the walls and ceiling and saw the famous mouth of the cave which opened into the ocean and was said to resemble the continent of Africa (although I didn’t really see it – maybe if you squint). We wandered down to the coast line and had a picnic on the rocks while we played euchre. We stayed to watch the sun set over the spot where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic before heading back to the city to get dinner and relax.
Day 118 (11/17/16): Today we packed our bags and headed for Chefchaouen, nicknamed the Blue Pearl. We took a private car two hours through the rugged Moroccan countryside until we reached the small town. We were met by our host, who took us to the bed and breakfast, Casa de Hiba. We played euchre on the roof-top terrace for a while until our room was ready. Once we were settled, we set out for a traditional lunch/dinner at Bab Ssour of tagine. We wandered around the medina, taking in the beautiful, calming blues that covered the walls and walkways. After the sun set, we returned to the apartment and spent the evening watching movies, drinking rum and cokes, and eating pizza from the best pizza place in the city.
Day 119 (11/18/16): After an amazing breakfast of breads, eggs, homemade cheeses, local jams, and hot chocolate, we decided to explore more of the city. We walked across the medina to a natural spring. It appeared to be somewhat of a social hub of the city; a place where families were relaxing and drinking tea, people were doing laundry, and friends were socializing along the banks. We spent some time chilling by the water, drinking their traditional mint tea. From there we wandered down the road to get a good view of the entire city and snap some pictures. We had planned to visit the Spanish Mosque, but decided against it after seeing how high up on the hill it was (yes, we were feeling lazy). At a loss for how to get back to the medina, we wandered through farming fields and cow pastures on a foot path before reconnecting with the main road in the newer part of the city. We walked back up into the old city, past the Kasbah and through various squares with shops selling all manner of souvenirs. We stopped for lunch at Sinibad and enjoyed skewers, tagine, bread, soup, and Moroccan pastries. We walked up through the walls that enclose the back of the city to get a view of the city from the other side before heading back to the apartment to rest. The rest of the evening was uneventful, with our only departure from the apartment being pizza run to Manda’la.
Day 120 (11/19/16): We once again partook in the free breakfast offered by our hotel before setting out for a hike in the Rif Mountains. We took a taxi to the start of the Cascades d’Akchour. From there we followed the river upstream past various small waterfalls until we reached a large natural rock formation called God’s Bridge. We stopped nearby the play a game of euchre before beginning our trek back. After Katie and Adam smoked Justin and I, we headed back down the path. We had only been walking for a few minutes when we came upon a family of monkeys playing in the stream. We cautiously approached, and they took to the cliffs and the trees and shrubs protruding from them. We sat down on the other side of the creek and watched them socialize. We even witnessed a daring rescue of one of the smallest baby monkeys that was having some trouble navigating the steep rock face. After they vacated the area, we returned to our hike back, and eventually to the city of Chefchaouen. We went to dinner at a delicious restaurant called Café Assaada and then spent the evening watching movies and packing our bags.
Day 121 (11/20/16): We woke up and had our last Moroccan breakfast in Chefchaouen before getting in our taxi and heading for Fez. Our driver dropped us off just outside the medina in Fez. We met our Airbnb’s caretaker, Said, and he led us through the maze that is the medina to our apartment. We were welcomed with hit mint tea, and shown around the apartment, also called a dar. Our dar was ENORMOUS (five bedrooms, five bathrooms, full kitchen, dining room, tea room, and a bi-level rooftop terrace) and cost less than $75 per night. Feeling thoroughly happy with our lodging choice, we settled in. Katie, Adam, and I went out to grab dinner at a restaurant called the Ruined Garden. We had an egg and meatball dish cooked in a red sauce with almonds, zucchini, and yogurt, and a chicken dish served on a very thin pastry dough that was cut into strips like noodles. It was one of the best meals we had in the country. Afterwards, we wandered back to the dar and spent the evening drinking whiskey and cokes and playing euchre under the stars on our rooftop terrace.
Day 122 (11/21/16): After waking up really late and working through some hangover pains, Adam and I set out to get lunch. Katie and Justin opted to stay at the dar and relax for the day. After some wrong turns, we finally made our way to Café Clock. There we dined on camel and lamb burgers on their rooftop terrace overlooking a local mosque. When we finished, we attempted to navigate ourselves back to the dar. However, we quickly discovered that the medina is truly a maze. After searching for home for over an hour Adam and I paid a random guy on the street $2 to show us the way back. We rested for a bit, and then feasted on a homemade traditional Moroccan meal prepared by the caretaker’s wife. It consisted of soup, bread, eggplant spread, olive and lemon chicken, oranges, and pomegranate. Yum! After stuffing ourselves, we cleaned up and got ready for bed.
Day 123 (11/22/16): In the morning, we all awoke earlier to get ready for our traditional Moroccan cooking class. Adam was feeling under the weather and opted not to join us. So, while he rested, Katie, Justin, and I went to Rachid’s riad (we learned his was an actual riad because it has a garden in the center and all the rooms surrounding it). We met his wife and her mother, and began the process of making traditional Moroccan bread. Once we had it ready (and believe me it took a TON of kneading, shaping, and resting before we got to that point), we took it through the medina to one of the community ovens. It was s really cool thing to see. Everyone in the neighborhood is welcome to bring their breads or cakes there and give them to the man working who will put them in the wood burning oven and cook them to perfection. Whatever is baked will then be placed on a rack where you can come back and get it. So, while it was baking, we set to work making two different Moroccan salads (which are actually more like spreads for the bread), a tagine, and flan. We learned how to prep and prepare each dish and then feasted on all of our hard work, while enjoying the traditional mint tea and socializing with our new friends. When we arrived back at the dar, we all decided a nap was in order, especially since it was raining in Fez (the first rain of the entire year!!!). Later that evening, we got a Mexican place to deliver, feeling a bit tired of tagine, and devoured it before heading to bed.
What We Learned
- When taking a ferry from Algeciras to Tangier, it is not necessary to get to the port super early. We arrived at 9:30 a.m. for an 11:00 ferry, and found ourselves waiting around the whole time. They would not even let us go through “security” until 30 minutes before departure. Also, they do your primary customs check on board the boat. Get in line early as it takes a bit longer than I would have expected and make sure to have your customs card 100% completed (they will provide you one upon boarding).
- Tell the cab drivers the price you want to pay (if you have an idea how much it should cost) or get a quote from them before getting in. Also, don’t be afraid to haggle and to walk away if they will not come down to a price you want (you will be able to find another cab not too far away). And do not pay more than 100 MAD to get from the medina to Hercules Cave in Tangier.
- Be prepared to see a lot of cats. They appear to be pretty much everywhere in these Moroccan cities, including the dining room of your restaurant. And cat-lovers beware, you will see loads of adorable kittens who look pathetic and in need of love, and you may need to fight the urge to bring them home in your suitcase.
- Because Morocco is an Islamic country, there are some things to be mindful of when travelling there as a westerner. First, the style of dress is very conservative. I read a couple of travel blogs on how women, specifically, should dress when visiting in order to be respectful and reduce any hassle. Therefore, I decided to dress in a way that my knees and shoulders were always covered. I found this to be fairly easy and I did not have any real issues. In general westerners will get stares from locals, especially in places less travelled by tourist crowds, but women in general seem to receive the most attention. Katie and I did experience some staring and possibly some comments (it is hard to tell when they are all in Arabic or French and I speak neither), we had no real issues and we found the overwhelming majority of Moroccans to be friendly, welcoming, and respectful. Secondly, being an Islamic country means that the vast majority of the country does not drink, which makes alcohol very difficult to come by. Marrakech is by far the easiest to get booze in, because it is such a big tourist destination. However, for the most part, if you want to drink on your trip here you must either bring your own with you or you must have a tour guide who knows exactly which random shops sell it (which we did J). Just an FYI.
- If you are looking for a more laid-back Moroccan experience, Chefchaouen is your city. Unlike bigger, more popular tourist cities like Fez or Marrakesh, you will not find too many of the high-pressure sales tactics here from the vendors and restaurant owners. Nor will you find the crowds as dense. During our time wandering around, we often found ourselves on streets that appeared to be almost completely deserted. Additionally, the blue color of everything lends to the cities calming atmosphere and I promise you will find yourself strolling more than charging through because of it.
- If staying near a mosque, be prepared for the call to prayer. In Muslim countries, the mosque’s will blast the call over the loud speaker five times a day. It is fairly loud, especially since the call will be coming from multiple mosques at the same time, and is at a slightly different time every day and in every city. After some research we found out that this is because the prayer time is based on the positioning of the sun, which changes based on the time of year and a city’s geography, and is determined using a super intense seeming mathematical calculation. It is unlike anything I have ever heard (google it), but you get used to it after a while. Additionally, in Muslim countries, be prepared for things to be closed on Friday, as this is their holy day.
- In some cities, it may be cheaper to eat out. When in Chefchaouen, we found that the most expensive thing on the menu was usually around 45 MAD, the equivalent of $4.50. In fact, for $8.00 both Adam and I enjoyed a three-course meal of Moroccan soup, chicken and vegetable tagine, bread, and a fruit salad. And it was delicious!
- Sometimes it is worth paying someone to help you. I had read online not to accept help from anyone offering you directions or offering to “show you things” in Morocco, because it was a scam in which they would demand payment once they helped you. Therefore, Adam and I tried to navigate the medina in Fez by ourselves using his GPS. What we quickly figured out is that GPSs are pretty much useless in the medinas. Half the streets it said to take did not exist, while it ignored a multitude of streets that were actually there. It also frequently could not even find our current location on the map. We had also tried to remember landmarks, and that helped to a point. However, we still ended up horribly lost on several occasions wandering around in circles. Eventually, we gave in and asked one of the guys in the street for help. He was friendly enough and managed to get us to our place fairly quickly. We knew we were going to have to pay him, and gave him the $2 worth of coins we had on us (20 MAD). He asked for more but gave up when we told him we didn’t have any. The medinas are overwhelmingly large and incredibly confusing, primarily in Fez (we had slightly better luck in Marrakech). We found it to be worth it to give in and accept the help. If you think of it as paying for a service they offered you, rather than as a scam, it really didn’t seem like a bad deal. However, I have also read you can try asking directions from shop owners if you don’t want the hassle or to have to pay anyone.
- We noticed that in Fez, they did not have garbage trucks to collect rubbish in the medina. Instead, they had garbage donkeys. Once we saw this, we spent the rest of the morning singing “Trash donkey! That wonky donkey!” This donkey was not to be made fun of however. He was rocking a neck tie. This donkey was all business.
- Our ferry ride to Morocco was rough. The high winds that day caused very choppy waters, and despite the large size of the boat (which, by the way was nearly empty) it rocked pretty considerably. Walking around made you feel as if you were drunk, wobbling back and forth, trying to clutch onto anything around you for stability. At one point, even the bottles in the duty-free shop couldn’t take it and began falling over en masse. Quite a welcome to Africa!
- While on the coast near Hercules cave outside Tangier, we made friends with a stray cat. While he was skittish at first, he soon warmed up to us with the help of bread and chicken. He took turns rubbing himself up against each of us and patrolling our rock, warding off other cat competitors. Justin named him Peaches.
- Watching the monkeys play on the trail at the Cascades d’Akchour was a definite highlight. We watched them jump from the trees, play, scale vertical rock faces, and take turns carrying the younger monkeys on each other’s backs. It was our first siting of wild African animals on the continent, and we were all thoroughly enamored with it.