Morocco Imperial Cities, September 18-22

We finished up our three weeks in Morocco with visits to the Imperial cities of Fes and Meknes, the 2000-year-old Roman ruins at Volubilis (photo 4), and an overnight in the coastal capital of Rabat before flying out from Casablanca.

The Medina (old city) of Fes was even more exhausting than Marrakech, although we're not entirely sure why. The "hassle factor" wasn't any higher, but there's no main square to anchor oneself, and it's very easy to get lost in the maze of alleys. It's recommended that independent travelers consider using a guide for a first visit. We didn't, and we did get lost a number of times. That was part of the fun initially, but when we'd gone in circles several times through narrow and crowded alleys, dodging carts, donkeys, and odd smells at every turn, it did start to wear on the kids. A British gentleman tagging behind his tour group told us we were "very brave" going it alone. He'd tried it when visiting Morocco a few years ago and "it cost me five bloody pounds to get out of here." (We expected him to say he's still looking for the exit.)

In among the network of alleys the shopping is excellent and the bargaining fierce. We added significantly to our souvenir collection. Even more so than Marrakech, the "souqs" (shopping areas) are themed -- the scarves souq, the slippers souq, the school supplies souq, the sunglasses souq, the henna souq, the musical instruments souq, and so on. It's as if all the grocery stores in an American city were gathered in one place, all the gas stations in another, all the Starbucks lined up in a row, etc. With bargaining thrown in, it makes for some interesting competition.

A trademark site in Fes, gracing many postcards and guidebook covers, is the tanneries (photo 1; note worker in upper-left for scale). Apparently the process, and the trade in general, hasn't changed much in thousands of years. We suspect it's now too much of a tourist institution to change: the tanneries are in cahoots with the leather shops, who monopolize the photographic vantage points over the dye tanks.

By comparison with Fes and Marrakech, Meknes is smaller and a bit less chaotic, though it still has plenty of souqs, squares, and sights to explore. There are far fewer tourists in Meknes, which we appreciated, until it caused a serious problem when lunch-time rolled around. Without a steady flow of tourists, it's not worthwhile for cafes and restaurants to stay open in the daytime during Ramadan. We spent a couple of increasingly frustrating hours trying to find a place, anyplace, to eat. (The adults were willing to starve along with the general population, but the kids weren't pleased. Muslim kids don't fast either.) Finally we did something shocking; something we thought we'd never, ever do, when traveling or at home. We went to McDonald's. Emily in particular was extremely resistant at first -- we've trained our kids well. As it turns out, we enjoyed ourselves. Some mosaics and Berber rugs (but not the Ronald McDonald cutouts) gave the place a Moroccan air, the salads had a North African slant, traditional soup and some nicely-set tables were being prepared for the evening Ramadan feast, and the kids dug happily into their McFlurrys.

In Fes and Meknes we opted to stay in conventional hotels in the "Ville Nouvelle," as opposed to riads in the old city as we did in Marrakech. Having a car necessitated this choice, although we appreciated the comparative calm of the new city anyway. The midrange hotels we chose weren't nearly as atmospheric as a riad, but they were nice places for the price, with friendly staff as always. The Morocco driving tour was the first time in our travels that we regularly found hotels on arrival, instead of reserving in advance. It worked out just fine, and our record of not one disappointing hotel on the entire trip stands. (Not surprisingly, restaurants have been more hit and miss.)

Morocco is full of people ready to relieve us of our comparative wealth, from overt beggars (some very badly off), to the ubiquitous "faux guides" wanting to show us around for an unspecified tip, to children and adults -- always males -- attempting to attach themselves without an obvious purpose. (We were forever amazed how people could seemingly appear out of nowhere when we stopped our car, or how someone approaching us at one end of an alley-maze would magically reappear at the other.) Fortunately, safety isn't a big issue in Morocco -- some people may be pushy, but they aren't scary. We did specifically hire guides for fossil-hunting, and one time (in the town of Moulay Idriss, photo 5) we inadvertently acquired a faux-guide who showed us some difficult-to-find sights. His English and guiding turned out to be excellent, and we gave him a nice tip.

Only once did we just hand over money to someone who asked. We'd stopped into a carnival in Meknes, and a polite boy about Tim's age asked if we would give him 50 cents to go on a ride (photo 8) that Tim and Emily were boarding. We did, and we were amply rewarded: the boy clearly enjoyed himself, yelled thank-you several times from the ride, and thanked us once more afterwards without asking for another ride.

Our car-related issues didn't end with Alex's speeding stop and getting stuck in the sand:
  1. Amazingly, Alex got stopped a second time. He passed an extremely slow-moving truck (think 5 MPH) across a solid center line, not noticing the police checkpoint just beyond. He was let off once again, this time with a warning that there are many more accidents during Ramadan -- people are tired and distracted -- and it pays to be extra-careful.

  2. Not long after the episode on the dirt roads of the desert, some kids ran after our car shouting and waving. That's pretty typical, so we didn't pay much attention, but when we pulled into a gas station the kids caught up and showed us that a rubber skirt under our front bumper was dragging on the ground. We paid the kids $1 for their keen observation, and the gas station attendant $5 to fix the skirt. Thankfully the repair held until we returned the rental car.

  3. Upon loading our car for the final drive to the airport, we discovered our tire was booted. It turns out we'd stayed 10 minutes extra in the parking zone -- wow that was fast. Once again picturing hours of delay, we were pleased when the hotel bellman was able to call the parking folks;10 minutes and $5 later (plus a tip for the bellman) we were on our way.
Here's an update on the fossils and crystals. Eventually the large bags of "must keep" finds began to fill up our car trunk and it became essential to do significant pruning (photo 7). The timing couldn't have been better. We were staying at the Kasbah Asmaa (photo 6) in Midelt, heart of crystal country. The kids had befriended not only the hotel shopkeeper, but also the owner of a fossil & mineral "exposition" (really just another shop) across the road. Both men were extremely nice to the kids during our stay. We'll never know if the shopowners were truly interested or just being kind, but they took Tim and Emily's piles of rejected crystals and fossils off our hands in exchange for a few items the kids had been admiring in their shops.

We recently hit the most dire laundry situation of our travels so far, by far. Needless to say, the hiking and camel treks took a large toll on some fraction of our clothes. Even when not trekking, traveling in a place like Morocco tends to "de-freshen" clothes a lot faster than, say, Switzerland. At the same time, we were unable to find a conventional laundromat, or anyone to do laundry by the kilo (as opposed to washing and pressing individual items at $1 per piece and up). When we couldn't stand it any longer Alex undertook a huge hand-laundry in the bathtub and strung clothes to dry all over the hotel room. We're hoping for better luck in Paris, or maybe we'll just try to make it the 1-1/2 weeks until our upcoming visit home.

Incidentally, September is considered one of the best months to travel just about anywhere in the northern hemisphere -- weather is mild and tourists are few. Usually the kids are in school (as they are in May, another good travel month), so this was our golden opportunity. We picked Morocco because it's been on our travel wish list for some time, and it's not a very good destination in the summer or winter months. It was a great choice for this trip, with pleasant temperatures most of the time, and no rain. September is indeed an excellent travel month -- too bad we can't travel at this time every year.

At extremely long last, here's the curated collection of photos (76 of them) from the South of France and Spain.

Next: A couple of days in Paris before heading to the Black Forest and Lake Constance (Germany)

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