Dec 022013
 

Right now I’m on a bus to Amman after just leaving Aqaba, which is near Jordanian/Saudi Arabia border. The next 4 hours should offer a good opportunity to catch up on my blog.

My world tour has really shifted gears over the past month.  For starters I can only recall a handful of evening’s where I have consumed an alcoholic beverage or two.  This is a stark contrast to the earlier 5 months where I can only recall a handful of evenings where I didn’t have a drink.

My original inspiration to visit Morocco was born in Budapest a few months back after watching an Anthony Bourdain ‘Parts Unknown’ episode on Tangier. I’m a massive fan of Tony’s style of travel and dry sense of humour.  His passion for food is really contagious and his style of travel is pretty much as local as one can get without being local.

During most of my trip I have relied upon recommendations from fellow travellers I’ve met along the way as well as advice from trusted locals. So when I met an Aussie couple in San Sebastián who said I must visit Chefchaouen in Morocco – that’s exactly what I decided to do.

When I departed the Spanish seaside port of Tarifa headed for Tangier, I really wasn’t prepared for what Morocco was going to throw at me.   From the moment I disembarked the ferry, I can only really describe the scene on the ground in Tangier as total mayhem.  There are people and traffic literally everywhere and you are constantly being touted for pretty much everything under the sun whether it be taxi’s, tours, hotels and hashish – you name it!  I’d definitely compare the level of chaos in Tangier right up there with the likes of Bangkok and Saigon.

So after some hard bargaining with the taxi drivers at the port, I successfully navigated my way to the main bus station in Tangier.  I had missed my bus to Chefchaouen (operated by national carrier) and had to take one of the local buses which are much older and literally only leave once every seat was full.  Once again I had to bargain hard for the ticket which started at 300 Moroccan dirhams and finished at 30.  Probably my biggest frustration with Morocco is that nearly everyone is trying to take advantage of foreigners and you have to haggle for pretty much everything apart from food and hostels.  Even with my limited Arabic skills I found it fun at the beginning but that novelty quickly wore off and I started to get a little frustrated at times.

As the bus started to approach the town I started to realise that Chefchaouen was going to be a very special place.  The town is nestled at the base of the Rif Mountains which offer a stunning backdrop wherever you look.  From the moment I stepped of the bus I could sense the ‘chill factor’ in the air with people just going about their normal business and it was as if I was just part of the furniture.

Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen

Every town in Morocco has an identifying colour, which in Chefchaouen is a light blue. Upon entering the Medina I couldn’t help but be amazed by the sea of colour and the Moorish architecture which featured so prominently.  As I had recently been in Portugal and Spain which also featured some Moorish elements I was easily able to spot the resemblance.

Chefchaouen Medina - The whole place is awash  with blue!

Chefchaouen Medina – The whole place is awash with blue!

One of my favourite moments in Morocco is the call to prayer which can be heard all over the town 5 magical times per day.  I had heard it before during a previous visit to Turkey but in Chefchaouen it sounded and felt uniquely different.  The first time I heard it was on the rooftop terrace of my hostel as the sun was starting to set – it was one of the most defining moments of my trip and I could really feel myself being absorbed into the local culture.

Outside the Chefchaouen Mosque.

Outside the Chefchaouen Mosque.

The Medina in Chefchaouen is smaller than those of larger towns such as Fez, Casablanca or Marrakesh.  Even so, I still managed to get myself lost in the maze of alleyways as I tried to find recommended restaurants and stores.  There are no street names and forget about using anything like google maps, the only real form of navigation you will find is to use landmarks such as Mosques or directions from locals which I found had a 50/50 chance of accuracy (due to my limited Arabic).

No street signs to be seen and no google maps!!!

No street signs to be seen and no google maps!!!

I use wikitravel quite regularly on my tour for logistics like getting in/out, places to see and eat etc. So for my first meal in Morocco I wanted to try the highly recommended fish tagine at Granada but by the time I finally found it, it has closed for the night.  Fortunately, another recommended restaurant (Chez Fouad) was next door and I had an incredible shrimp tagine as well as the staples of couscous and traditional style fresh Moroccan bread – which without a doubt is some of the best bread I have ever eaten.

Shrimp and Fish Tagine was divine at Chez Fouad

Shrimp and Fish Tagine was divine at Chez Fouad

I did actually get to eat at Granada also, here is a pic of me with the chef.

I did actually get to eat at Granada also, here is a pic of me with the chef.

Up until this stage of my tour I was quite impressed with the fact I had not really spent much time shopping.  I was however lugging around a few bottles of port during the past week courtesy of my recent visit to Porto.  In Morocco and in particular Chefchaouen I couldn’t resist the urge to shop in the Medina.  Chefchaouen is well-known for its leather goods as well as distinctive jewellery and clothing – a great place to pick up some genuinely unique gifts.

Not sure if there is enough colour selection here...

Not sure if there is enough colour selection here…

Another memorable moment in Chefchaouen was the day trip out to Akchour Pond de Dieu national park. After arriving at the park entrance, a local guide approached us for his services to which I politely said no. It was just after 2pm and as we set out to find the waterfall and realised about 20 minutes later that this was not going to be an easy exercise. We then decided to return to the entrance only to find that the guides had left apart from a couple of ‘guys’ hanging around.  They didn’t speak much English but one guy did offer to take us to the waterfall and bring us back in time for our taxi pick up at 6pm for the negotiated price of 80 dirhams.  He didn’t look like the most desirable character with his entire set of front teeth being stained dark brown obviously from a lack of dental hygiene and perhaps a little hashish here and there…

Anyway alarm bells started to ring about halfway through the trek out to the waterfall.  First we discovered that his watch was 1 hour behind (which he wasn’t aware of) and that he had grossly miscalculated the length of time it was going to take to get there and back.  I was starting to get just a bit worried at this point as this was no ordinary trek, with no less than 6 river crossings hopping across rocks, ditches, hills and uneven terrain.  I’m not sure which I found more daunting, missing our taxi and being stuck about 1.5 hours from Chefchaouen in the middle of nowhere or having to trek back from the waterfall in darkness.

Stunning, well worth the trip to see this.

Stunning, well worth the trip to see this.

After arriving at the waterfall just after 5pm with the sun starting to set, we quickly took some pictures of what I must admit was beautiful scenery.  It was such a shame we couldn’t stay longer to enjoy it.  It wasn’t long before the sun disappeared after we set off on the 2+ hour return trek back to the park entrance. Navigating the terrain in darkness was an absolute nightmare and our guide provided zero help as he kept racing ahead of us leaving us behind and yelling at us to hurry up.  I lost count of the times I tripped over and I thank my lucky stars I didn’t break any bones along the way.

After arriving back at the entrance to find our taxi driver waiting, I suddenly felt relieved – for a moment anyway.  But when it came time to pay our guide, suddenly the forces of inflation kicked in and the price suddenly became 300 dirhams. He insisted that was the agreed price even though the 3 of us clearly knew it was 80.  A full heated argument then broke out between our dodgy guide, me and one of the girls on the trek.  The taxi driver was siding with the guide and there was no way I was going to pay this guy 300 dirhams on principle alone.  As Bonnie was taking over arguing with the guide and the taxi driver, I came up with the idea to intervene again and say that we only had enough money to pay him 80 dirhams and the taxi driver his owed 250 dirhams and that if he wanted anymore then it would have to come out of the taxi drivers share.  Suddenly we noticed an immediate shift in the taxi driver’s stance and he miraculously sided with us.  To cut a long story short we agreed to give the guide 100 dirhams and go home.

Even with this experience, I still rated Chefchaouen highly and was sad to be leaving.  I was really excited however to visit Fez which possesses a massive Medina.  Upon arriving in Fez it was getting late in the evening and even though we had recently eaten at what was possibly the best roadside truck/bus stop street food known to man, we decided to venture to the Medina for a light snack.

Street food on the way to Fez, best bus stop ever.

Street food on the way to Fez, best bus stop ever.

Our hostel told to us go to the fresh produce section of the Medina where we would be able to find good food at a cheap price.  I’d say we did 2-3 laps of the produce section and nowhere could we see an establishment that sold anything that remotely resembled cooked food.  It was only until I befriended a really friendly green grocer when I discovered that all the butchers had little charcoal grills hidden at the back of their little stalls.  I was super excited choosing the ultra-fresh cuts of meat, kafta and sausage then having it cooked to perfection right in front of us. The added bonus of piping hot fresh bread being conveniently delivered from the neighbouring bakery section and our choice of vegetables conveniently delivered off by my new friend – we chose to have sliced eggplant roasted over the hot coals which was truly awesome.  Everything we wanted was just bought to us so fresh from all the neighbouring stalls.

The hole in the wall (literally) behind this butcher in the Fez Medina

The hole in the wall (literally) behind this butcher in the Fez Medina

The feedback from others and online about Fez not being as friendly as other cities such as Chefchaouen I found completely untrue.  The hospitality we received in Fez was some of the warmest of my entire trip and I look back at many of the people I met so fondly – especially my green grocer friend whom turned out to be my pseudo tour guide and personal concierge. He was my ‘go to guy’ for directions, general recommendations and even cardboard boxes & bubble wrap (which is impossible to find anywhere in Morocco). Sure I paid a little for the service but for me it was well worth the experience.

People regularly get lost in the Fez Medina, even on organised tours.  It is so big and really complex and so many of the streets/alleys look the same that it disorientates you and navigating your way out is all but impossible.  I remember the advice from our hostel manager if I got lost – “take my business card and call me”. The organised tour of the Medina was a real experience with the highlight being a visit to the tannery. I really enjoyed learning about the ancient process used to make leather and definitely discovered a thing or 10 along the way.  The agave silk products were also another stand out of Fez and I couldn’t help treating myself to a couple of great scarves.

One of two Tanneries in the Fez Medina.

One of two Tanneries in the Fez Medina.

With only 2 days left before my flight out of Morocco in Casablanca, it was time to leave Fez. Two days are certainly not enough and I also regret not having the time to visit the highly regarded seaside town of Essouaira.  About an hour or so from Fez is Meknes – a small ‘non-tourist’ town on the way to Casablanca at which I decided to spend one night to explore.  It was a unique Moroccan experience and it was the only town where I was not touted or harassed to buy something during my whole stay.

Bab Mansour: Bab means "gate" or "door" in Arabic, and Bab Mansour is the largest and most striking of Meknes' many gates (27 gates).

Bab Mansour: Bab means “gate” or “door” in Arabic, and Bab Mansour is the largest and most striking of Meknes’ many gates (27 gates).

For my last night I stayed in Casablanca with 3 Aussies I met in Fez.  We shared a nice apartment together in a great neighbourhood and instead of going out to explore Casablanca, we decided to stay in and cook a tagine together which was a brilliant way to spend my last night in Morocco.

Morocco is certainly not an easy country to visit but it is truly unique and rewarding.  I look back on my memories there with the greatest of fondness. It was a great opening to the middle-eastern leg of my world tour and I certainly hope to visit again one day.

So I am almost at Amman now and if you made it this far into undoubtedly my longest post to date – thank you for reading.  There is just so much to write when it comes to Morocco and this post only just touches the edges.

Also keep a look out for my upcoming posts of Dubai, Abu Dhabi followed by Jordan and Jerusalem (where I’m destined today!!!). I might also throw in a 6-month special post looking back at all the places I have visited so far.

Finally some shameless plugs for my social media sites (and no worries if you don’t have an account as you can view freely direct from your web browser)

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/soloworldtour

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Until my next post – Ma’a salama!

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