Exploring Meknes, Volubilis and Fes

It feels like we’ve been in Morocco for weeks now because we have done and seen so much, though we’re only on the third day of the tour. Yesterday morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and set out for Meknes. Our bus is a small but comfortable white van with just enough seats for our tour guide, driver and us. We stuffed our luggage in the back and grabbed our seats in the cabin.

After my second day wandering around Casablanca, I grew to really like the city, but I was excited to leave and head off to new parts of the country. I quickly learned that even the drives are a memorable part of the trip. As we drove through the Moroccan countryside, we were exposed to a 360-degree view of rolling hills with peasant farms.

The terrain in this region is very dry with sparse foliage, but the farmers seem to make do with that resources they have. The sheep and cows on the farms looked under-nourished since they don’t have much to eat, but there were still hoards of them scattered through the farms. All together, the farms and hills made for rustic yet ethereal scenery.

image

 

Admiring the houses sitting on the siting on the hilltops, a man sitting next to me said, “Imagine waking up to this view every day. You’d feel like anything is possible.” I pondered that a while and though about how much I agreed. Open air and nothing but the world around you. What a powerful feeling.

We rolled along for four hours until we hit our first stop — Meknes. I learned that it was a city built by a medieval sultan who wanted to create a palace and surrounding town that would be the Versailles of Morocco. He succeeded.

We drove into the city and stopped at the gates of the palace. Huge rows of arches stood above a body of water. We took pictures then walked inside the palace. Our guide took us first to a series of rooms that looked like dungeons, but apparently were where the sultan’s horses were fed. In a rush, we then zoomed the rest of the outside of the palace. The architecture very clearly resembled that of Andalusia, Spain, which made sense because the Spanish had invaded Morocco several times and brought along major aspects of their culture. We saw that the Spanish architectural features persisted throughout Meknes as we walked across town to a beautiful mosque. Mosaic tiles covered the walls and the ceilings were detailed with intricate carvings. I had fun taking pictures there 🙂

image

image

 

Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 196

Our last stop before lunch was in a shop where the workers showed us how Moroccan table clothes are woven. As early as in school, children are taught to weave designs into cloth to make sure the same design was visible on both sides. They had several designs in many colors, depending on table size and shape. I never knew how much went into crafting table cloths! We all bought of and rushed to lunch because we were starving.

There are three main dishes here: couscous, skewers and tajines. Tajines are pots that look like the tin man’s hat from the Wizard of Oz and act like crockpots or small kettles to cook mixes of vegetables and meat. I’ve had one tajine dish so far, chicken with lemon and olives, and it was out of this world! In Meknes, however, I had an omelette (also popular here but not served in as many restaurants) because I filled up on free bread before the meal. Hehe whoops.

Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 203

After lunch, we hit the road again and strolled along to Volubilis, a small town characterized by ancient Roman ruins — Volubilis itself being the Italian word for a type of flower. We got out of the van and were greeted by a tour guide who showed us around the grounds. The area was vast and barren, with dry ground and stones everywhere and atop a hill that overlooked stretches of farmland.

The guide showed us the remains of a Roman house that’s ruins outlined the structure’s foundation. He explained what each of the rooms were, even where the Romans kept and fed their pet lions — which were rooms only slightly larger than my dog’s cage. Ha, just kidding, they were huge!

We saw a few more features of the house, like where the baths once were and a set of stairs leading up to the entrance of some nonexistent room gated by tall columns. Again, this stop was an amazing opportunity for photos, so we took plenty, but soon became wary from the blazing sun and headed back to the van.

Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 247 Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 217 Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 219 Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 231 Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 232 Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 246 Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 214 Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 212

For the last leg of the day’s long road trip, we rolled along the countryside once more on our way to Fes. We arrived in the city about two hours later and drove straight to our hotel. Even from our arrival, I could tell I was going to like Fes. The city was as developed as Casablanca, meaning various modern buildings spattered with a few decrepit and vacant ones, but unlike Casablanca has cleaner roads,greener foliage and many fountains situated in the center of traffic circles.

I learned that Fes is known to have the cleanest and one of the most plentiful supplies of water in Morocco. The city’s colors are even green and blue; green for the color of Islam and blue to symbolize fresh water.

A few members of the hotel greeted us and helped carry luggage to our rooms (for a fee of course). The rooms were clean and simple, and small but comfortable for two people. We were going to a group dinner that night, so we had to quickly change and head back down to the lobby to meet our guide.

Once everyone was ready, we hopped on the bus and drove to an authentic Moroccan restaurant (and when I say authentic, I mean overly authentic and very clearly a place that caters only to tourists). Upon arrival, our ears were greeted with the sounds of loud singing and instruments.

The restaurant was arranged like a courtyard, with tables lining the walls and an open space in the middle. While waiters served us several rounds of small dishes, we happily watched a series of performers dance, sing and plays songs. I was a fabulous night full of merriment, and got a few of us excited enough that when we went back to the hotel after dinner, we weren’t ready to sleep yet.

Summer 2014 - Home and Morocco 306 Summer 2014 - Home and Morocco 307 Summer 2014 - Home and Morocco 309 Summer 2014 - Home and Morocco 310

Six of us decided to go for a nighttime jaunt though Fes to see how the city looked in the absence of sun. Our path took a figure-eight form with our hotel at the center, since we didn’t want to stray far away from our safe spot. Fes as night was busier than we expected. Lots of locals were out on the streets, talking, laughing and, in two cases, cleaning cars. The six of us relieved a few honks from locals who drove past and could tell we were foreign, but we embraced it and even smiled back at a few strangers.

But soon our adventure came to an end as we got tired and we settled back into our hotel rooms. It had been a long day full of lots of sights and information, so we were all ready for a good night’s sleep.

Markets and Meetups: Day two in Casablanca

I quickly acclimated to Moroccan culture and was able to enjoy my second day with fewer culture blasts than the first.

I got a late start to the day, enjoying my time to sleep and eat breakfast at the hotel (which was wonderful, by the way! I highly recommend Moroccan House Hotel for anyone staying in Casablanca.) After breakfast, I had to switch hotel rooms because I had a new room which was booked as part of the tour. By the time I had settled in to my new room and gotten ready for the day, it was around noon.

I began the day by going back to the crowded part of town where I had eaten previously — the part that was full of shops and cafĂ©s. I turned a few different corners than I had before, and suddenly found myself in a   packed street market. It was exactly how I’d expect a market in Morocco to be. There were rows and rows of tiny stands packed with hand-crafted goods and plenty of knock-offs. I spent about an hour roaming around the market, getting lost in the winding walkways. I stopped at many shops and bought souvenirs for pretty much everyone I know. I’m terrible and bargaining because, though I, too, have very little money, I like supporting the local community; but at times I would buy two or three items from a stand and ask the seller for a discount for all of them. I had a pretty productive day at the market and found many neat knick-knacks, but after a while I grew tired and decided to leave to go somewhere else.

imageimageimage

Summer 2014 - Home and Morocco 178 image

I walked toward the water and stopped at a bench where I could feel the sea breeze blowing despite the view of the ocean blocked by big buildings. I took out the book I had with me any read for a while in peace while I stopped to look up every once in a while to watch cars zoom past.

When the sun became too hot and I reached a good breaking point in my book, I rose again to continue walking. This time, I walked around until I found Rick’s Cafe, the restaurant named after the famous cafe from the classic film Casablanca. When I saw a woman get rejected from entering the cafe because she did not meet the elite dress code requirements in her jeans and t-shirt, I figured that I, in my casual tee and maxi skirt, would be rejected as well so I did not ask to go in. But I did ask the bouncer at the door to take a picture of me in front of the cafĂ©. 🙂

Summer 2014 - Home and Morocco 207

After that success, I headed back to the hotel where I was to meet my tour group for orientation. I got there briefly before the meeting, and went up to my room where I met my roommate, a young Canadian who is between jobs and now off traveling. We walked to the lobby together and met our tour group in a lavishly decorated sitting area.

The guide introduced himself and gave a brief background of the tour. After filling out some necessary paperwork, we all got to know each other and became familiar with names and home countries. My tour is a diverse group; I’m the youngest, and one of three from America, the other two being a middle-aged couple form Missouri. Then there’s my roommate and her friend, both mid-20s and from Toronto. Another middle-aged woman from Toronto is on the tour, along with three other solo travelers — a girl from Vancouver, and young woman from Milan and a young guy (who’s apparently already a doctor!) from Sydney. There are two other Aussies, an elderly couple from New South Wales who are still very alive a kicking.

Everyone on the tour is extroverted, friendly and jovial — a blast to have on a small tour. We went to dinner together and enjoyed some traditional Moroccan cuisine along with wine, mint tea and Casablanca beer. Dinner was fabulous, but we all felt tired from traveling so we ended the night early and headed back to the hotel for sleep.

Summer 2014 - Home and Morocco 215 Summer 2014 - Home and Morocco 224

Tomorrow, we’re off to Meknes and Fes, and I cannot wait to have tours of both! After today’s adventure, I’ve grown to really, really like Casablanca, but I’m ready to leave tomorrow and see some of the other beautiful cities Morocco is known for.

I won a trip to Morocco — and I’m leaving in 2 days!

Image from moviepilot.com
Image from moviepilot.com

I haven’t posted anything to the blog about this yet, because it seemed too surreal, but in two days, I’m leaving for a 10-day trip to Morocco.

Yes, Morocco. Totally random, right? I mean everything else on this blog is about Europe – how I’ve been saving up for it, planning itineraries, sharing tales of my adventures and so on.

And now I’m going to Africa.

Here’s how it happened:

The Contest

In March, I got a promo email from StudentUniverse, my ride-or-die site for booking flights, about a contest the company was hosting. Entrants were to create boards on Pinterest tagged #NeverHaveIEver and pin a bunch of travel-related things that they’ve always wanted to do, like skydiving, going snorkeling in Sydney, riding a gondola through Venice, etc. The grand prize was a trip to Morocco and $500 towards a flight.

Morocco had never crossed my mind as a destination to but on my bucket list, but I thought Y-O-HACTVMFF-O (you-only-have-a-chance-to-visit-Morocco-for-free-once), so I entered the contest.

Already a devoted pinner, I had no problem getting the board going. For the entire month of April I poured all pinning efforts into my Never Have I Ever board. Any free time I had before and during classes, I’d take to the board and pin pictures of all the beautiful cities I want to visit and crazy escapades I wanted to embark on.

neverhaveiever

For a month this went on, and along the way I shared some of my pins with StudentUniverse on Pinterest and Twitter, grasping their attention and promoting their contest. And then, about a week after the contest ended, I saw this tweet:

StudentUniverse Tweet

OHHHHH EMMMMM GEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!1!!1!!!!!1!!!!!!!

I couldn’t believe it. I won. I won a trip to Morocco. I was going to Morocco. Morocco. MOROCCO!

The Dilemma

I sent an email to the address provided and waited, and waited, and waited. I finally heard back and got the details of the contest. The tour dates are all pre-set, so I had to choose any from the list provided that worked for me.The only conditions were that the tour had to depart before the end of August and already have at least four people signed up.

That’s where I hit a brick wall. My internship was already letting me take off a month for my trip to Europe, so I definitely couldn’t take off another week to go to Morocco.

Frick.

The other option would be to go the last week before school starts, but then I’d be missing crucial preparation time.

Frickety.

Decision time. I sat on it for a while, evaluating pros and cons, but then had to smack myself upside the head (in Homer Simpson style) when I realized traveling to a new country was way more important than missing preparation time for my last year of college.

I sent StudentUniverse my dates and mentally prepared myself for the adventure that Morocco would bring. But then I got a response. The tour group I chose did have enough people signed up, so I couldn’t go on that one. I had to choose another tour date that departed the week after or the week prior. My only options, then, were to have my internship boss kill me (figuratively…kinda) or miss the first week of school.

FRACK.

I was forced to make an ultimate decision. I definitely couldn’t take off from my internship because I desperately needed the money to afford going on the trip (Young, Broke Traveler). That left me with option #2. (Keep in mind that I’m an honors student who’s had perfect attendance since kindergarten, graduated high school with a 4.0, and has been on the dean’s list every semester of college — and I’m not bragging, I’m just trying to convey how important school is to me!) It killed me to think of missing my first week  of class, but I also thought “When will I ever get another chance to experience northern Africa and spend a week learning about a culture completely different from what I’m used to, meeting people who will teach me a different way of life, and appreciating the natural beauty of the world?”

A trip to Morocco would teach me more than I could ever learn sitting in a class that first week of school. Plus, Y-O-HACTVMFF-O, right? I responded to the agents at StudentUniverse that I’ll take the tour to that goes from Aug. 30 – Sept. 6. And that was that.

I completely pushed Morocco out of my mind to return my focus to my Eurotrip. Over the next few months, Europe was all I thought about, wrote about and talked about. But now it’s Aug. 26, and I’ve got some preppin’ to do.

The Details

The tour, a G Adventures tour called Morocco Kasbahs & Desert, begins in Casablanca and heads through Meknes, Fes, Merzouga, Todra Gorge, AĂŻt Ben Haddou and Marrakech. The 14 of us on the guided tour will be traveling in a quaint van from town to town, staying in hotels, walking through medinas and meeting locals. Midweek, we’ll even be hopping on camel-back (I’ll do my best to refrain from making Hump Day jokes) and riding out to the desert where we’ll camp out overnight.

Morocco Tour Map

Yeah, sounds better than sitting in a classroom taking notes on data analytics, doesn’t it?

I’m flying into Casablanca early to have an extra day to explore the city. I leave Thursday the 28th and will arrive early Friday morning, spending the day alone until my tourmates arrive the next day. Saying I’m nervous doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m realizing how sheltered I’ve been traveling to touristy places where most people speak English or Spanish and I’ve been comfortable on my own. Morocco, while generally safe, is not the safest place for a young woman to travel alone due to the forwardness of most Moroccan men. And the primary languages spoken are Arabic and French, of which I know nothing. So I better not get lost.

I’m aware that I am freaking out for no reason and I’ll be fine — especially in a city as metropolitan as Casablanca. But for now I’m just doing my best to prepare and make sure everything can go as smoothly as possible. And trying to get the phrase “Here’s looking at you, kid” out of my head. 🙂

Have you been to Morocco? Casablanca? What did you think? Any advice to offer me?