Things to do in Morocco

Marrakech to Essaouira – Goats in Trees and the Moroccan Coast

The last town we visited in Morocco was the coastal city of Essaouira, as a day trip from Marrakech. It was a 2.5 hour drive each way (177 km or 110 miles). The highway was good and you see some interesting sights along the way (see below). While we had a rental car, you can also find a bus tour out of Marrakech.

Morocco has a long coastline (1835 km or 1140 miles) and Essaouira was one of two stops we made along the coast (the other being Rabat). Most of our itinerary took us to vast and varied interior of this fascinating country.

Moroccan Coast (2)

An old mosque on the coastline just north of Essaouira.

The Moroccan coast does offer spots for surfing, swimming and windsurfing; however, since we were going on to the Canary Islands (which has some terrific beaches), we did not spend a lot of time on the coast in Morocco.

Essaouira Beach (29)

You can take a camel or horse ride along the beach.

Essaouira had a unique feel, with 18th century ramparts that give the town a Mediterranean European feel.

Essaouira (12)

A view of Essaouira’s ramparts.

Essaouira (21)

Cannon and an old gate along the ramparts.

Essaouira has a quaint old quarter with numerous restaurants and artisan shops.

Essaouira (6)

A gated entrance into the old part of Essaouira.

Essaouira (7)

One of the narrow alleyways in old Essaouira.

Essaouira (8)

One of the many shops found in old town of Essaouira.

Essaouira (16)

Fishing boats in Essaouira’s old port.

Essaouira is the third largest fishing port in Morocco. In the 18th century, it was a major trading port with Europe, along with Tangier.

One of the most interesting sights we saw was on our way to Essaouira. There are numerous argan trees along the highway, and imagine our surprise when we saw goats standing in the argan trees!

Goats in Trees (2)

Goats in the argan trees, seen right off the road between Marrakech and Essaouira.

The goats climb the trees, and eat the argan fruit. The seeds/nuts are then “pooped out”, and then processed into argan oil, a highly valued ingredient in many hair care and other products for which Morocco is famous. Next time you get shampoo with argan oil, you’ll know where it comes from!

At the Edge of the Sahara – the Dunes of Erg Chebbi

From Fez we made our way south through the Atlas Mountains and on to Merzouga (about 9—10 hours by car, split over 2 days) which is one of the main desert outposts in Morocco (the other being near Zagora, even further southeast).

The drive down to Merzouga was interesting, with a varied contrasting landscape of mountains, desert, and oases with occasional kasbahs along the road.

Driving through the forest in the Atlas Mountains.

Driving through the forest in the Atlas Mountains.

An abandoned kasbah on the way to Merzouga.

An abandoned kasbah on the way to Merzouga.

One of the many contrasts on the way to Merzouga - palmeries (oases) with the desert background.

One of the many contrasts on the way to Merzouga – palmeries (oases) with the desert background.

Right before reaching Merzouga the landscape turns pretty bleak.

Right before reaching Merzouga the landscape turns pretty bleak.

Merzouga is a small town with dirt roads. It has a few shops, but other than that, it’s pretty quiet out there, and you feel like you’re way out in the country.

A view of Merzouga from the top of our hotel.

A view of Merzouga from the top of our hotel.

Our guest house in Merzouga. The owner helped us arrange a day tour and camel ride.

Our guest house in Merzouga. The owner helped us arrange a day tour and camel ride.

Our room in Merzouga - very comfortable, with adobe-type walls and tile floor.

Our room in Merzouga – very comfortable, with adobe-type walls and tile floor.

The pool at our hotel, which we enjoyed in the afternoons.

The pool at our hotel, which we enjoyed in the afternoons.

We spent two nights in Merzouga with a day in between on a desert tour followed by a camel ride in the evening. There were a handful of other tourists, but it was pretty quiet in this part of the country, at least in October. Our desert driver was great, and spoke pretty good English.

Our driver with our wives. He was very helpful and provided a good overview of the area.

Our driver with our wives. He was very helpful and provided a good overview of the area.

Not a mirage - an actual lake in the desert. They had some rain recently. It's several feet deep.

Not a mirage – an actual lake in the desert. They had some rain recently. It’s several feet deep.

An abandoned mining community in the desert.

An abandoned mining community in the desert.

One of the desert mines - they mined quartz and lead.

One of the desert mines – they mined quartz and lead.

A berber camp in the desert.

A berber camp in the desert.

A berber grave yard. No names, but the gender is determined by the placement of the headstones.

A berber grave yard. No names, but the gender is determined by the placement of the headstones.

Ancient sea life fossils in the desert - they are found throughout Morocco. Obviously at one time most of this country was a sea bed.

Ancient sea life fossils in the desert – they are found throughout Morocco. Obviously at one time most of this country was a sea bed.

Children showing us their homemade dolls and other trinkets.

Children showing us their homemade dolls and other trinkets.

A well. Surprisingly, the water table is pretty high - water is found just a few feet below the dunes!

A well. Surprisingly, the water table is pretty high – water is found just a few feet below the dunes!

Merzouga is close to the Algerian border (only about 8 miles away).

The Algerian border is the high ridge in the distance.

The Algerian border is the high ridge in the distance.

As shown above, there is a lot more to see than just towering sand dunes (which are also cool). We got to see a variety of things, and it was a fun way to spend the day.

Riding our camels into the dunes.

Riding our camels into the dunes.

A view of the Erg Chebbi dunes at sunset.

A view of the Erg Chebbi dunes at sunset.

Don’t miss the desert experience when visiting Morocco!

Fascinating Fez – Part 2

In addition to those sights mentioned in my first post on Fez, Morocco here are a few others. We enjoyed getting a feel for “real” life in Fez.

Tanneries. One of the highlights of a visit to Fez is a visit to the tanneries. These tanneries are world famous and a real sight to behold. They were the commercial backbone of Fez for hundreds of years. The process hasn’t changed much in all that time, although more sophisticated chemical treatments are used more frequently now rather than the natural dyes used in the past. The workers pass down their knowledge and skills from one generation to the next.

An overlook of Chouwara Tanneries. The white vats in the foreground contain pigeon dung, used to clean the skins.

An overlook of Chouwara Tanneries. The white vats in the foreground contain pigeon dung, used to clean the skins.

If you want to gain a new appreciation for your own job, just observe the workers here for awhile. Although fun to watch, I can’t imagine what life would be like standing in these vats day after day breathing in the strong odors and working in these conditions for a lifetime.

The large Chouwara tannery is located on the southern side of the Medina and while there aren’t signs pointing the way, just ask anyone for directions. There are several viewing areas located above leather goods shops. The proprietors will provide you with mint leaves to alleviate the smells.

A closer look at the Chouwara Tanneries. The workers are constantly moving from vat to vat to keep the skins moving through the process.

A closer look at the Chouwara Tanneries. The workers are constantly moving from vat to vat to keep the skins moving through the process.

Once you have observed the tanning process and workers, you then exit through the huge shops where can buy high quality leather jackets, purses and other leather goods for a pretty reasonable price. Surprisingly, there was no pressure to buy anything. My guess is that with the volume of tourists coming here, the shops do a pretty good business.

We happened by chance upon the Gueliz tannery located in the heart of the Medina. Our book seemed to downplay a visit here but Gueliz was actually a lot of fun and a more intimate experience, since you can walk through the middle of the tanning “factory” and among the workers treating the hides.

The recently skinned sheep hides await the first step in the processing.

The recently skinned sheep hides await the first step in the processing.

A worker in the vats at Gueliz tannery. I am really glad I don't have his job!

A worker in the vats at Gueliz tannery. I am really glad I don’t have his job!

Colored sheep hides laying out to dry. These will be made into shoes, purses and other goods.

Colored sheep hides laying out to dry. These will be made into shoes, purses and other goods.

A worker doing some final processing of the leather before it turns into a product for sale.

A worker doing some final processing of the leather before it turns into a product for sale.

At this tannery there was a Berber side and an Arab side, an arrangement probably dating back among these ethnic groups hundreds of years. We met some Berber families who accompanied their husbands to Fez to work here and were staying at a “hotel” (if you can use that word to describe the living quarters).

The Berber

The Berber “hotel” where families of the tannery’s workers are housed.

Craft shops. On a hillside right behind and above the Gueliz tannery was a craft shop area. When we first entered, we thought it was a slum community and what we found in reality was a beehive of industry – wool, leather, woodworking, and many other crafts. People were everywhere producing and refurbishing many goods.

The craft shops area in Fez.

The craft shops area in Fez.

In the craft shop area - wool, wool everywhere!

In the craft shop area – wool, wool everywhere!

The Jewish Quarter (Mellah). This is an old part of Fez that doesn’t have any sights per se but was fun to wander around, seeing all the old decrepit buildings and signs of a thriving Jewish community.

A view of a main street in the Jewish Quarter, known as Mellah (

A view of a main street in the Jewish Quarter, known as Mellah (“salt” in Arabic).

Fez had a pretty good size Jewish community in the 17th – 19th centuries and there are remnants from this era – some unique architecture, a few Hebrew signs, Stars of David, synagogues and cemetery.

A sign noting this building is a 17th century synagogue.

A sign noting this building is a 17th century synagogue.

Look closely at the decorations on the 2nd story and you'll see a Star of David, and note the year - 1531.

Look closely at the decorations on the 2nd story and you’ll see a Star of David, and note the year – 1531.

It is now an area inhabited by poor Muslim immigrants from the countryside.

Shuttered windows in the Jewish Quarter, which are unique features of this area.

Shuttered windows in the Jewish Quarter, which are unique features of this area.

There are still a few Jewish families here, although most emigrated to Casablanca, France or Israel after Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956.

We had a great hotel in Fez, called Dar Dalila. It was in the Medina, but in a quiet section near the exterior Medina wall. The interior was beautiful and our room was large and comfortable. I highly recommend this location. Nearby was a covered car park since a car is pretty much useless in the Medina.

The reception room in Dar Dalila.

The reception room in Dar Dalila.

Our room in Dar Dalila.

Our room in Dar Dalila.

Fez is definitely one of the highlights of a visit to Morocco and one of the most unique and fascinating places to visit in the world.

Reference: The Rough Guide to Morocco.

Fascinating Fez – Part 1

There’s so much to see in Fez I’m breaking this post into two parts. We arrived in Fez from Meknes (about 43 miles or 69 km). Fez was one of four imperial capitals of Morocco and was regarded as one of the holiest cities in the Islamic world due to its connection with Moulay Idriss who founded the city the late 8th century (see my post here for a little information on him). Travelers have been coming to Fez for a 1,000 years, its reputation as a center of learning religious heritage was known far and wide. Fez is a large city, and like most Moroccan cities it has a newer part (Ville Nouvelle) built by the French during their colonization period and an older section (the walled portion of the old city known as the Medina), which is huge, and is split into two parts (Fez el Bali and Fez el Jedid). Fez’s Medina is called the most complete medieval city in the Arab world. The streets and narrow alleyways wind all over and are intriguing to wander – don’t be surprised if you get a bit lost.

An centuries-old water clock in Fez. It has 12 windows and the outside is being restored, but no one really knows how it functioned.

An centuries-old water clock in Fez. It has 12 windows and the outside is being restored, but no one really knows how it functioned.

There are maps of the Medina available and the locals will help you out too. All kinds of fun things lurk behind almost every corner. We wandered into a small tannery area by accident (I was just peeking through a gate) and got a fascinating tour.

A hidden leather working area near a small tannery run by Berbers in old Fez.

A hidden leather working area near a small tannery run by Berbers in old Fez.

At another point we were taken up on top of a person’s house for a great view over the city.

A view of Moulay Idriss II's tomb from the roof top of a local's home we visited.

A view of Moulay Idriss II’s tomb from the roof top of a local’s home we visited.

The entrance to the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, a holy site in Islamic culture. He was the son of the founder of Fez and lived in the 9th century. He established Fez as a place of refuge for muslims retreating from Spain and other places.

The entrance to the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, a holy site in Islamic culture. He was the son of the founder of Fez and lived in the 9th century. He established Fez as a place of refuge for muslims retreating from Spain and other places.

Here as some of the highlights of Fez (more to come in another post). Walls and Gates. If you love medieval settings as much as I do, Fez will take you back in time. There are huge gates and walls everywhere and I didn’t figure out how they all connect. We wandered outside the walls in a few sections to get a feel for their extensiveness.

One of the main gate towers of Fez, known as Bab Sagma.

One of the main gate towers of Fez, known as Bab Sagma.

The gate known as Bab Boujeloud.

The gate known as Bab Boujeloud.

A market by the walls of Fez.

A market by the walls of Fez.

Merenid Tombs. Just outside the walled city on a hillside are the ruins of the Merenid tombs, former rulers of Fez in the 13th century. While the ruins aren’t much, the views overlooking the old city are terrific. There are 365 mosque minarets in Fez, but we didn’t try to count them.

A view of Fez and its old walls from the Merenid Tombs.

A view of Fez and its old walls from the Merenid Tombs.

Ruins of the Merenid Tombs.

Ruins of the Merenid Tombs.

Medersas. Medersa means “place of study”. These were student colleges and used largely as residence halls, since most teaching would be done in the mosques. Fez was a great center of learning and the architecture of these halls is stunning. We visited two. The layout is similar – a main courtyard, student cells, prayer hall and oratory. Medersa Bou Inania. This is one of the highlights of a visit to Fez. The dark cedar wood, tile work and stucco is beautiful. This building is the city’s only building still in religious use that non-muslims are permitted to enter. It was built in the 14th century.

Detail of the intricate carvings at Medersa Bou Inania.

Detail of the intricate carvings at Medersa Bou Inania.

A view of the courtyard of Medersa Bou Inania.

A view of the courtyard of Medersa Bou Inania.

Medersa el Attarine. This building was completed in 1325 and is also beautiful.

The courtyard of Medersa el Attarine.

The courtyard of Medersa el Attarine.

Another view of the courtyard of Medersa el Attarine showing the tile work.

Another view of the courtyard of Medersa el Attarine showing the tile work.

The narrow alleys of the Medina. As mentioned above, just wandering around the old Medina is fun. There are also a few squares where the locals gather.

The buildings are almost touching in this narrow Fez Medina alleyway.

The buildings are almost touching in this narrow Fez Medina alleyway.

Another alleyway in the Medina.

Another alleyway in the Medina.

A small square in the old Medina - Place en Nejjarine. There is a large museum in the background.

A small square in the old Medina – Place en Nejjarine. There is a large museum in the background.

Another small square, called Place Seffarine with copper pottery being created.

Another small square, called Place Seffarine with copper pottery being created.

In my next post, we’ll explore the tanneries – one of the most interesting sights to behold anywhere in Morocco and also the Jewish Quarter, a dilapidated part of Fez that is pretty much off the tourist radar. For a map of locations visited in Morocco, click here.

Visiting Volubilis and Moulay Idriss – A Great Day Trip from Meknes

Outside Meknes, Morocco are two historical sites that make for a good day trip adventure. They are about 25 km (15 miles) from Meknes.

Volubilis – A Roman Provincial Capital

Volubilis was one of the Roman Empire’s most remote outposts. The city exported wheat and olives to Rome along with wild animals from the Atlas Mountains that were then slaughtered in the Coliseum games and gladiatorial contests. Within 200 years, the local lions, bears and elephants became extinct.

The Tangier Gate - the east entrance into Volubilis.

The Tangier Gate – the east entrance into Volubilis.

Roman influence in Volubilis began a long slow decline starting in 285 AD with the withdrawal of the Roman garrison. They wanted to conquer the local Berber population but never succeeded.

The Forum and Basilica at Volubilis.

The Forum and Basilica at Volubilis.

The city was still thriving in the 17th century, when much of the city’s marble was carted away by Moulay Ismail for the building of his gigantic palaces in Meknes.

The Triumphal Arch, erected to honor the emperor Caracalla. It once had a bronze chariot at the top.

The Triumphal Arch, erected to honor the emperor Caracalla. It once had a bronze chariot at the top.

The House of Columns.

The House of Columns.

Another view of the ruins and mosaic floors at Volubilis.

Another view of the ruins and mosaic floors at Volubilis.

One of the main highlights of Volubilis are the outstanding mosaics floors, of which there are about 30 and many of which are largely intact 1,700 years later (although the colors are fading due to exposure to the elements).

A mosaic floor of "Dionysos and the Four Seasons".

A mosaic floor of “Dionysos and the Four Seasons”.

Another mosaic floor  - "The Labors of Hercules."

Another mosaic floor – “The Labors of Hercules.”

Allow a couple hours to wander the ruins, which run along the main promenade. Bring your own guidebook for information about the mosaics and other ruins.

Moulay Idriss – A Sacred Pilgrimage Site

Tucked up in the hills just 4 km from Volubilis, Moulay Idriss is a very holy and important pilgrimage site to the Islamic faith, which was named after its founder. The focus of the pilgrimage is Moulay Idriss’ mausoleum. He was Morocco’s most acclaimed saint (a great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) and the creator of Morocco’s first Arab dynasty.

A view of Moulay Idriss. The large green roofs indicate the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss.

A view of Moulay Idriss. The large green roofs indicate the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss.

The main square of Moulay Idriss.

The main square of Moulay Idriss.

The only round minaret in Morocco is in Moulay Idriss, it is part of the Merdersa Idriss, a Koranic school. Built in 1939 from materials taken at Volubilis.

The only round minaret in Morocco is in Moulay Idriss, it is part of the Merdersa Idriss, a Koranic school. Built in 1939 from materials taken at Volubilis.

While there are no specific sights for non-Muslims to visit, it was fun to wander around. A friendly local man gave us a tour of the town, taking us up through the steep narrow lanes (the locals musts be in good shape since they have to haul their supplies either using mules or their own backs).

Mules are the means of transportation in this hill top town.

Mules are the means of transportation in this hill top town.

One of the many narrow lanes in the town.

One of the many narrow lanes in the town.

Our impromptu guide showed us a number of viewpoints (the town’s location and surrounding area are quite scenic). Moulay Idriss reminded us a bit of the medieval villages you might find in Italy or other European towns.

Reference: The Rough Guide to Morocco

Meknes – One of Morocco’s Finest Cities – Lots to See and Few Tourists

One of the many gates in Meknes.

One of the many gates in Meknes.

Meknes is about halfway between Rabat and Fez and makes a great stop for a couple days. Due to its historical significance and numerous sights, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. For a map of places visited in Morocco, click here.

This is the city of Sultan Moulay Ismail who reigned for 55 years (1672 – 1727). He is revered as a father of his country who united Morocco by campaigning against rebellious Berber chiefs and the Europeans, and creating Morocco’s strongest-ever army. Unfortunately he was also extremely brutal – responsible for 30,000 deaths (not including those killed in battle!). In Meknes, you can get a glimpse of the scale and enormity of his lifestyle and building projects.

The main square, Place el Hedim, is quiet during the day and hopping at night with numerous food stalls, shops, snake charmers and all kinds of other entertainment. There are a number of restaurants lining the square.

A view of Place el Hedim from our restaurant perch. This is late afternoon before the evening crowds arrive.

A view of Place el Hedim from our restaurant perch. This is late afternoon before the evening crowds arrive.

Paul trying to put a ring around the soda bottle neck. A lot harder than it looks! One of the many things to do in Place el Hedim.

Paul trying to put a ring around the soda bottle neck. A lot harder than it looks! One of the many things to do in Place el Hedim.

On the south side of the Place el Hedim is the Bab Mansour, a huge gate that marks the entrance into the overwhelming expanse of palaces and grounds of Sultan Moulay Ismail. It is quite beautiful and has an intricate design. Supposedly Moulay Ismail asked the architect if this was the best he could do, and he said “no”. Oops. The answer cost him his life. If he had said yes, I wonder what would have happened (it would probably have been the same outcome).

The beautiful Bab Mansour gate.

The beautiful Bab Mansour gate.

Near the Bab Mansour is a large courtyard enclosed by walls, where our Riad (hotel) was located.

Interior of Riad Yacout, our home in Meknes. Great place.

Interior of Riad Yacout, our home in Meknes. Great place.

The square near our hotel with carriages waiting for their next fare.

The square near our hotel with carriages waiting for their next fare.

From this courtyard it is a short walk to several sights, starting with the Prison of Christian Slaves, an area of subterranean vaults, lit only by the skyholes to the square above. It is believed these vaults were actually storage areas although Moulay Ismail did have Christian captives, so who knows…

Inside the subterranean vaults of the Prison of the Christian Slaves.

Inside the subterranean vaults of the Prison of the Christian Slaves.

Close to the prison is the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, which is the one of the few active Islamic shrines that non-muslims may visit. It is quite beautiful and worth a stop.

In the courtyard of the Mausoleum.

In the courtyard of the Mausoleum.

Inside the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.

Inside the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.

Ville Impériale is the creation of Sultan Moulay Ismail. Most of the palace is not open to tourists, since it is still in use by the Moroccan king. You can take a carriage ride around never-ending walls and visit some of the old ruins, such as the stables and granaries. This area is known as the Heri es Souani.

Robyn with our friends and horse-drawn carriage for our tour around the Ville Impériale.

Robyn with our friends and horse-drawn carriage for our tour around the Ville Impériale.

The long passage road (about 1 mile) along walls of the Ville Impériale.

The long passage road (about 1 mile) along walls of the Ville Impériale.

Inside the granaries of the Ville Impériale. There was an underground water supply system here.

Inside the granaries of the Ville Impériale. There was an underground water supply system here.

The gigantic stables at Ville Impériale. Everything about this place is on a huge scale.

The gigantic stables at Ville Impériale. Everything about this place is on a huge scale.

In addition there are numerous souks to keep you busy shopping for all those things you won’t use once you get back home!

No lack of pottery available in Meknes!

No lack of pottery available in Meknes!

Outside Meknes

About 25 km (15 miles) outside of Meknes is one of the greatest Roman city ruins in Africa, Volubilis. Just 4 km from Volubilis is the holy Islamic hill town of Moulay Idriss which until a few years ago did not allow tourists to stay over night. I will review these sights in a future post.

References: The Rough Guide to Morocco.