June 26, 2008

El-Jadida is a costal city, which is much more popular with Moroccan tourists than it is with foreign tourists. Because there aren't tons of foreign tourists the city is less 'touristy' in the sense that there aren't stalls everywhere selling the same goods, and the locals are welcoming in a genuine way and aren't trying to sell you something,
The main attraction in the city is the 'Cite Portugaise' which was built by the Portuguese as a fort to protect their port, and was called Mazagan by the Portuguese. The 'Cite Portugaise' is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is really interesting to walk around. There are two abandoned churches, and abandoned synagogue (all closed), and the main lighthouse of the fortified city has been converted into a minaret.
Because El-Jadida is a port town, there's a lot of fish to be found. Fish of every kind, cooked in every way possible. Fish tajine, cumin spiced sardine balls in bread, fried fish. I tried a few of the types of fish, and from the photo you can see that one night I got more than my dose of Omega-3 Acids (this dinner was battered and fried sardine, calamari, and sole).
There's a nice beach in El-Jadida, which is the other main attraction. The sand is really nice, and the beach pretty clean too. And of course they had the obligatory camel and/or horse on the beach that you could take for a ride for a minimal fee.

June 24, 2008

I spent one day in Casablanca, or Casa as it's known by the locals, which was plenty of time to see the city. The Arabic name for the city is Dar al-Baida, meaning "White House". It's famous mainly from the film 'Casablanca', which was shot entirely in California and not at all in Morocco.
The original medina is really small, since it was only a village when the French arrived. So most of the city is a French 'invention', with lots of art deco buildings in various states of repair and disrepair. The medina itself has a lot of new buildings in it, and there isn't much of the wall left. The interesting buildings are the Art Deco buildings that the French built.
The main 'tourist' site in Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque, the world's 3rd largest mosque (and largest outside of Saudi Arabia). The mosque is so big that it could fit 25,000 people inside and another 80,000 in the courtyard (quick math = 105,000 people!). The minaret is the world's tallest at 210 metres. Quite incredible to see, and interesting because it's one of the very few mosques in Morocco that non-Muslims are allowed to enter (at a very high ticket price).
After Chefchaouen I headed west to the small coastal city of Larache to meet up with two friends who lived with the same host family as me in Fez. I arrived in the afternoon, and by the evening we had wandered around most of the small port city. Larache has an interesting history though, as it was controlled by the Spanish in the 17th century, and became the main Spanish port city in Morocco in 1911. The city still has a Spanish consulate here, and a distinct Spanish flavour (which includes churros being sold in the main square, and a crumbling Spanish fort at the mouth of the harbour).

Larache still has a minor port, and lots of fish to go around. Not to mention a beach, Phoenician/Roman ruins, and a relaxed atmosphere. There are few tourists who come here, so it's a nice place to escape all the tourist touts of the bigger cities like Casa, Marrakech, and Fez. I've decided to eat well here, since food is less expensive than in the bigger cities. I've had my fill of some amazing pastries, pizza on the sea, an incredible fish, potato and tomato tajine (one of the top 3 tajines I've had in Morocco so far), and a bowl snails eaten with a safety pin from a dirt street vendor at dusk.
Near to Larache is the ancient city of Lixus, which was founded by the Phoenicians and expanded by the Romans. It's not a huge city and hasn't been fully excavated, but it's cool in that you can wander through the ruins yourself without paying an admission. There's an amphitheatre, temple, baths, houses, ramparts and lots of stones strewn about.

June 22, 2008

I decided to try a Moroccan bath while I was in Chefchaouen because it was right next to the hotel. Of course I got charged at least three times as much because I'm a tourist (30Dh compared to 8Dh). Hammams are open at different times (and rarely alternate days) for men and women.
There were three rooms at different temperatures and humidity levels, starting with the coolest and working to the warmest (but not hot) and most humid. Everyone gets one or two buckets, which can be filled from a main source (boiling hot and freezing cold water is mixed to the temperature you want) as many times as you want. There's a smaller scoop that you use to pour the water from the big buckets onto your body. I decided to try the gommage, which is basically a man who works at the hammam with a scratchy mitt who scrubs multiple layers of skin off you as hard as he can. The soap traditionally used in a hammam is made of olive and other products, and is great after having your skin peeled off. It's nice to feel clean at the end of a hot and sweaty day.

June 21, 2008

My first stop after Fez was a city in the north called Chefchaouen. It's a beautiful city in the mountains, and the whole medina is painted various shades of blue and white. It was rather warm while I was there, and one day I drank 3 litres of water and still had a headache from dehydration and too much sun. I stayed at a small hotel, which was of course painted blue, right next to the main square and kasbah in the city.
A two kilometre walk up the hill leads to a ruined mosque, which the Spanish built while they occupied the northern parts of Morocco. It was a nice walk, with a great view of the city from the hill that the mosque is on. That was an interesting thing I found in Chefchaouen that wasn't present in Fez or Meknes -the fact that a lot of people addressed me first in Spanish and then in French.
Chefchaouen is in a valley surrounded by some beautiful mountains and hills. While walking up to the mosque I passed by several goatherders with small flocks of goats. The city was also interesting because there were a number of different berber groups that live/trade in the city, as is seen by the different types of headgear (colourful hats, or coloured clothes folded over the head, as opposed to the Arab headscarf).

June 17, 2008

It's hard to believe, but I've been in Fez for three weeks now studying Arabic. During my time here, I've stayed with an amazing Berber family in the heart of the medina who has been incredibly welcoming. I know that if I were to stay in Fez for three weeks in a hotel, I would have had a totally different experience.
Fez is the third largest city in Morocco, contains the world's oldest continually functioning university (Qarawiyyin), and the old medina where I lived is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Apart from that, Fez is one of the four Royal Cities in Morocco, along with Meknes, Rabat, and Marrakech). The city itself is quite interesting to just wander around. Of course there's a bit of hassle from the shop keepers who all want you to take a look or buy something from their shop, but it's a lot less then I expected.
Fez is famous for a number of things, including the tanneries where they turn animal hide into leather of all sorts of colour. The whole process is done naturally, in huge vats of chemicals (including pigeon excriment) and natural dyes, by people who have learned the trade from their fathers/uncles. The process does smell a bit, though it's not too bad if you go in the afternoon.
The city is great to just wander around, and get lost in (which is rather easy to do). The old city is totally surrounded by the original/repaired medieval wall, which helps a bit with the navigation.
I've enjoyed my three weeks in Fez, and I know that I'll be back ('Insha-allah' as they say here) when I have the chance. I'm now off to explore other parts of Morocco, including the coast and Marrakech.

June 14, 2008

Fez Sacred Music Festival...
The Festival de Fes des musiques sacrees du monde (Fez World Sacred Music Festival) is taking place in Fez until the 16th of June. Part of my reason for chosing to study in Fez during June, was to be able to attend some of the festival. Most of the concerts require tickets, but there are still a fair number of free concerts throughout the city.
I saw a great concert the other night by a group of Tauregs from Timbuktu, Mali. I made two short videos, and although the quality isn't great, the music is amazing. The concert was outside at Dar Tazi, and old house with a beautiful courtyard where the concert was held. The group played on a low stage, and the audience sat on the ground on carpets. The evening concerts start at 23h, so it's dark out, and there's a cool breeze after the heat of the day.

A few nights earlier there was an amazing Qawwali concert by a group from Pakistan who also played at Dar Tazi.

In addition to the free evening concerts, there's also a huge square that has free afternoon concerts at Bab BouJloud. This is probably the most popular set of concerts, because they're free and most Moroccans don't have 400Dh (40Euro) to spare for a concert ticket
Along with the free and paid concerts, there are also a few photography exhibits around town as part of the "Rencontres internationales de la photo". There was an amazing exhibit called "Sons of Abraham" by a photographer named Abbas from Iran.

June 13, 2008

Random (Slingshot) Conversation...
Kid: Bonjour Monsieur. (Hello Sir)
Me: Bonjour. (Hello)
Kid: Un Dirham s'il vous plait. (A Dirham please)
Me: Non. (No -we've been told not to give kids money)
Kid: Un bonbon. (A candy)
I keep walking down the street. Something lands just to my left. Then something hits the back of my shoes. I turn around and the kid has a home-made slingshot that he's using to shoot stuff at me with! He shrugs and pulls the elastic back again.
Luckily he didn't actually hit me -maybe he had bad aim, or maybe he didn't actually want to hit me and have me run after him?

June 09, 2008

Sunday I went to Meknes for the day, a city which is only one hour by bus from Fez. Meknes is one of the imperial cities in Morocco, though is the least touristed. It was a nice day trip, but the palace itself is behind really large walls. The trip wasn't helped by some extreme heat, which lead to a lot of time spent in a park laying on the grass under a date palm tree, and in an air conditioned restaurant.
The main gate
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail

June 03, 2008

I will have to backtrack a little bit here to before I left for Morocco. I spent a bit of time in Girona, which is in Catalunya near Barcelona (where RyanAir flies instead of right to Barcelona). It's actually a nice little city, with some cool buildings. But my highlight in Girona was the white chocolate croissant! I've never seen it anywhere else, and it literally melted in my mouth. Amazing...

Being in Catalunya itself was interesting, because the people don't speak 'Spanish' per se, they speak Catalan. The region is fiercly autonomous (as you can see from the graffiti), and I think that the difference in language is a big part of it. You can actually study at university in Catalan and not in Castilian ('Spanish').

June 02, 2008

110 to 220, and +1...
There were two rather big changes this weekend in my Dar. I woke up on Friday morning, and the power was off. Apparently someone in the city has decided to change parts of the city from 110 voltage (like in North America) to 220V (like in Europe and Asia). Some of Morocco runs on 110V, and some parts run on 220V. So the power was cut while the current was switched to our neighbourhood in the medina. That of course also means that all the lightbulbs had to be switched too! There are very few electrical appliances in the home, as most cooking/heating equipment runs on gas, so it wasn't too big a problem (though the TV did have a minor problem).
I was watching the French new on Friday night, and Morocco is trying daylight savings this year. Apparently they tried it a few years ago, but gave up. So this Sunday we skipped an hour ahead. While in most Western countries we don't think much of this because it's fairly routine, it created a wee bit of confusion here. There were interviews on the news with a few imams (Islamic religious leaders) explaining that the prayer schedule won't change except to add an hour (the Islamic call to prayer is based on the position of the sun). Ther were interviews with professionals explaining why it's important to have daylight savings, how it would help modernize the country, and how much money other countries have saved by using this system.
Note: Even almost two weeks after the time change, I've still heard people refer to 'old' and 'new' time.