- Rabat – so much more than an administrative capital
- A sophisticated and unique maze
- The medieval every-day life of Fes
- The oldest university in the world
- A border of contrasts – from Nador to Melilla
I am now in Seville, in the South of Spain. The last time I wrote we had just arrived in Rabat after a tortuous bus ride straight from the Sahara. Since, we have made our way up towards the coast, passing some marvelous cities and finally crossing the Mediterranean back to Europe.
Rabat – so much more than an administrative capital
Most guidebooks do not really suggest going to Rabat, stating that it is simply an administrative capital. Hence, we didn’t expect anything special and though that it would just make a convenient stop-over on our way north. However, exactly because this city does not depend on tourism like many others we visited, the atmosphere is really relaxed: people do not offer their “help” 24/7 and do not try to sell you anything from an orange juice to stuffed camels.
The hostel we stayed in was quite weird, cold, and with separate dorms for women and men. There was no point really spending much time there and we headed straight into the city. Unlike others, especially Fes as you will see soon, the Medina in Rabat is very well structured and easy to navigate. Interestingly, the French would have destroyed all Medina´s in Morocco if it hadn’t been for the first Resident General the French sent, Marshal Lyautey, who not only ensured that the Medina´s remained untouched and that all French buildings be built outside the gates, in a Ville Nouvelle, but he also proclaimed the Medinas historical monuments ensuring that his successors would be forced to continue this policy.
Rabat also boasts an impressive Kasbah, which housed an Arab minority threatened by a Berber kingdom in the eighth century. These Arab fortresses were called Ribat, hence the name of the city. Moreover, one of Morocco´s most important Mosques, the Hassan Mosque, can be found in the capital. It has an unusual shape, much thicker than the Marrakesh role model. The reason is that the emperor who ordered to build it died during construction and the top of the minaret was never finished as planned. It does look impressive and has different, elaborate patterns on each side, overlooking the city.
One last thing that really struck me in Rabat was how liberal it was, more than any other place we have been to on this trip. In Agadir maybe 5% of the women did not wear a headscarf, here probably 25%. Apart of these numbers, you can feel that the people in general feel more Western here and I still haven’t decided whether that it a good or bad thing: good for development, bad for the rich, ancient culture that is lost along the way.
A sophisticated and unique maze
A sophisticated and unique maze
Unfortunately, Rabat did welcome us with heavy rain, with forecasts suggesting a sudden tropical rainy season in the capital. So we decided to head on to the urban highlight of this trip: Fes. Whoever you talk to, whatever you read, this city always seems to be praised as one of the most incredible not only in Morocco, but in the entire Arab world.
The reason for this is that Fes has a huge Medina, most of which is exactly the same as it was 1000 years ago, just electricity supply and running water suggest that time has passed. It has nearly 1000 streets, road and alleyways which create a maze like I have never seen it before. I am quite good at orientation, and I have seen some complicated Medinas, but Fes just plays in another league. If you dare to leave any of the main roads (which are also only 2 meters wide and change direction all the time), you will get lost, 100%. There is absolutely no logic in how they built it, most of the alleys are dead ends and the buildings around you are so tall that you cannot even see the sun to orientate yourself.
But we learned from our past mistakes, and in the choice of our guesthouse we went for the one with the most accurate description on how to get there! It was an old merchant´s house, a riad, turned into a guest house 4 months ago. We booked the cheapest room, but got their “suite”, a really nice long room, with decorated walls and painted ceiling, overlooking the patio in the middle of the riad. The owner, a young Fassi, went a little bit too far with his love for the West for my taste, but that didn’t change the fact that we had, again, stranded in a very beautiful place.
The medieval every-day life of Fes
On the first day, we tried to cruise the Medina ourselves, and were surprisingly successful. However, we did not leave the “big” main alleys and sensed that the real magic of this place took place somewhere else, in those hidden roads we could never reach. Just once we tried to find a shortcut, probably not more than 30m away from the hostel. We got lost and had two children following us offering us to help us out of the maze for 5 Dinar. We did make it out ourselves, but decided that we would actually get a guide to show us around.
Our riad offered guided Medina tours, and we got a well-educated Fassi, a bit boring as a person but with excellent knowledge of the maze. What really struck me when running through tunnels and alleys of Fes el Bali (the name of the medina), was just how many tasks are carried out in a traditional manner within these walls. Smiths melting, shaping and hitting iron in the middle of the streets, dyers coloring textiles in big buckets of natural colors, bakers preparing the ever present bread in huge ovens right next to the alleys, painters patiently decorating tables (it takes one month for one small table). They even have parking houses (some with an overnight service) for mules and donkeys, as they are the only means of transportation that can be used in Fes el Bali.
The most extraordinary sight was the tannery. We had already been to a very small one in Taroudannt, near Agadir. However, we felt really pressured there and did not actually witness what was going on. This time, we were lead on top of a roof overlooking the process and our guide explained: the whole complex is hundreds of years old. It is still run by the families who live around it. First, the skins are placed in holes filled with water and pigeon pooh, which contains ammoniac and separates the wool from the skins (pigeon pooh is sold by the kilogram and is very precious here…). Next, they are placed in holes to dye (along with cow piss which makes it softer), with five different natural colors created by saffron for example. And lastly they are dried and rubbed to make the leather even softer. All of this is done by men day in day out, amid horrible smells and without any sort of protection. They claimed that it´s not that bad, I really cannot imagine how standing in urine and pooh for 6 days a week cannot be damaging…
The oldest university in the world
What Fes is actually most famous for are not its infinite and intricate alleys. With Cairo, it boasts the oldest universities in the world. During times when Europe regressed hundreds of years in historical development, Arabs were studying law, mathematics, theology and astronomy.
The oldest were built in the 9th century and acted both as student accommodation and universities. Moreover, most of them had a mosque as well. Most of these Medersas cannot be visited and some are still in use today. We accessed one that is open to the public, and we were struck by just how elaborate the interior walls and roofs were. Every single square centimeter is carved by hand, with sophisticated patterns which are never used twice. All of this underscored by vivid colors, especially green as it is the color of Fes, and verses of the Koran painted along the walls.
Meeting all expectations, Fes was one of the most incredible cities I have ever seen. It is challenging, and I do not think I could ever live there, but the feeling of a place stopped in time and the omnipresent beauty of its Medina left me speechless. If you have the chance to go there, do so! Just make sure you visit another Moroccan city first, as it might be slightly overwhelming otherwise.
A border of contrasts – from Nador to Melilla
Our trip was coming to an end and we had a ferry booked out of Melilla, one of the two Spanish autonomous territories on the Africans continent (the other is Ceuta a bit west, opposite Gibraltar). We took a bus to Nador, an important port town just before the border with Melilla. During the bus ride, we realized just how different the north of Morocco is. Everything is green, lush and it looks more like France in spring that Africa. These landscapes couldn’t be more different from the ones we saw on the other side of the Atlas or in the Sahara.
Nador itself is quite an ugly port town with dodgy hotels and dirty streets. However, we found out that 80% of the people who live here speak German or Dutch. We were told that all the Moroccans moving to Germany and Holland come from Nador, but many of them decided to come back to Morocco now, saying that being unemployed in Germany is worse than in Morocco.
After tons of Tajines, we couldn’t resist the temptation of the “Pizza” signs in Nador and so our last meal in Morocco was actually not that exotic.
The next morning we headed north to Melilla, crossed a very busy border and just 20 minutes from Nador, we immersed in a different world: clean, wide streets, sophisticated Art Deco architecture, public green spaces, water fountains, supermarkets – welcome to Spain! We spent a nice day along the beach, picnicking with delicious Spanish ham and even went for a small beer (the first in two weeks, and we actually felt merry afterwards).
It was astonishing to see just how big the difference between these two cities is, and to be honest, we have been missing Morocco and its people since we got to Spain. Here, despite having less language barriers and officially more in common, we do not encounter this unconditional warmth, the silent friendliness that accompanied us all the way for the past two weeks.
This is it from Morocco, the next time I will be on the road will be in June, 3 weeks in the country that defies history – Cuba.
Well Inshallah of course,
One last time,