Morocco Recapitulation and Final Thoughts


This is my last post on Morocco. The writing material provided by the country is inexhaustible because, to me as a Westerner, it’s different in ways cultural, linguistic and religious, reasons I find Morocco so fascinating. I’ll conclude by writing down some loosely related thoughts and observations that together have contributed to my understanding of what makes Morocco unique.

Where’s the Desert?

I’d bet on what many people picture Morocco as being geographically—a desert. I know I did until not too long ago. This may come from the belief that the Sahara spans the entire upper part of Africa which might’ve happened geologically if it weren’t for the mountains that include the highest peaks in northern Africa. The Atlas ranges fortify northwestern Morocco like the Wall of the Seven Kingdoms against the encroachment of the Sahara.

Mountain ranges of Morocco (image from mapsoftheworld.com)

High Atlas mountain range, south of Ifrane

The cooling Canary Current makes Morocco as Mediterranean as its European neighbors across the sea. It could almost be regarded as a continuation of Spain and Portugal but for the Strait of Gibraltar. If I’d gone to Tangier, the coast of Spain would be only 17 miles (27 km) away. With a favorable climate, I shouldn’t have been surprised that agriculture is a significant industry.

My wife summarized it, “Morocco is so green.” She was referring to the forests around Rabat and Chefchaouen, alpine scenery around Ifrane with its distinctive cedars, olives trees, orchards and wheat in abundance and grasses and trees covering rolling hills.

We even came across fog and patches of snow at higher elevations.

Morning fog over Chefchaouen

Things did get much drier as we got to Erfoud, Rissani and Tinghir, yet they were dotted with amazingly lush palm groves (palmeraie).

Oasis, Tinghir (Tinerhir)

To the west were the spectacular gorges that the Todra (Todgha) and Dades Rivers carved into the eastern High Atlas mountains.

Todra Gorge

And of course there was the great Sahara. We rode into an encampment by camel.

Finally, the coastal cities of Essaouira and El Jadida had their own unique environments.

Essaouira

Morocco did surprise me, this, as the guidebooks say, a land of contrasts.

Mediterranean Diet

On our drives, Mustapha pointed out many of Morocco’s crops. From his van, I spotted fields or orchards of grains, stone fruits, apples, herbs, nuts, beets, citrus, grapes, sugarcane, onions. And there was a bounty of olive trees. I lost count of how many local markets (souks) I saw where all this is sold, not only in the medinas but in small towns as we drove past. With scarce supermarkets and home refrigeration, Moroccans shop at the souks almost daily. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised that meals I had were made with ingredients gotten at market not too long before, fresher than most food I could get back home.

Predictably, Moroccans eat a Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is used liberally in cooking. Meat doesn’t dominate the table; vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and legumes do. Tajines are noteworthy not only for the cooking vessels but the impressive amount of vegetables (and legumes).

Tajine

Throughout our trip, my wife and I ate Moroccan salad which is nothing more than cucumbers, tomatoes, mint, lemon juice and olive oil. Simple but delicious. The meat-free version of harira (chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes and warm spices), most popularly eaten during Ramadan, is now my favorite vegetarian soup.

Harira soup, Moroccan salad

Zaalouk is a combination of eggplant and tomatoes, traditionally served cold or at room temperature. It’s very much like ratatouille. The version I had at Riad Boussa in Marrakech was so extraordinary that it had me searching for recipes when I got back home.

Because Morocco has a long coastline, seafood is plentiful. I didn’t see much of it on menus, because Moroccans don’t seem to eat large amounts of it, restricting themselves mainly to sardines, tuna and shrimp. Predictably coastal residents eat more. Most of the seafood catch is exported.

I’ll Have a Meal with Those Olives

Like its Mediterranean cousins, an abundance of olive trees signifies the oils and fruit are important parts of the diet. There were olive groves everywhere, acres upon acres of them, from the hillsides surrounding Chefchaouen, down through the Middle and High Atlas foothills and westward toward Essaouira on the Atlantic coast.

Is it any wonder that cured olives are more than an occasional condiment? They were served at the first dinner in Casablanca fresh off the flight from Paris and the following morning for breakfast. Every day after that, all lunches and dinners were incomplete without them.

Every souk had impressive displays of olives, sometimes occupying entire stalls. And what variety: black, green and red mixed with different herbs and spices. At an average price of, say, 16 MAD/kg, that amounts to 80¢/lb here in the U.S. Not suprisingly, Morocco is also one of the world’s leading producers of olive oil.

The Romans are credited with introducing olive trees after they expanded their empire to North Africa.

This Is Not the Middle East

Morocco, Mustapha pointed out, was the first country in the world to recognize the independence of the United States from Britain. I thought it was France. It wasn’t lost on me that even then Morocco was a monarchy (sultanate), part of the Alaouite dynasty that still rules today.

It would continue to surprise the world on the political stage when Mohammed V refused to give Vichy France a list of all its resident Jews. “We have no Jews in Morocco! Only Moroccan citizens,” the king reportedly said. On the tours of the medinas of Fes, Chefchaouen, Essaouira and Marrakech, it amazed me that the Muslim guides included visits to the old Jewish quarters (mellah). Our Essaouira guide gave us a tour of the home and synagogue of rabbi Haim Pinto to whose grave Jews from all over the world make a pilgrimage.

Rabbi Haim Pinto’s synagogue

A gate in Essaouira is decorated with Arabic Koranic inscriptions and the star of David.

Morocco recognizes the contributions that Jews have made to its history and development. Arabs and Jews had been co-existing since the Spanish Inquisition. Morocco even goes so far as to restore many synagogues even after the departure of most Jews from the country. The striking blue paint that covers Chefchaouen could very well be a combination of the symbolic colors of Judaism (blue) and Islam (white). Revealingly, over 50,000 Israeli tourists visit Morocco annually.

Moroccan Berbers now make silver jewelry whose craft was passed down by Jewish artisans (Centre de la Bijouterie Mâalem Ali, Essaouira)

Today Morocco doesn’t deport Syrian refugees who seek political asylum from the Assad regime, even those who may have entered the country illegally.

Call to Prayer

The muezzins sing out the call to prayer five times daily. It used to be that they climbed to the top of minarets and used nothing but their voices. Nowadays, amplifiers and speakers help do the job. The adhan, as the recitations are called, I heard throughout Morocco, their sonority a contrast to city noises. With two mosques nearby, one muezzin could begin a moment after the other. The asynchrony has its own melodiousness.

Bab Souk Mosque, Chefchaouen

The feeling of adhan reminds me in its sound-over-the-city way of the tolling of church bells I heard throughout Italy.

This Is California

Mustapha pointed out a section of Rabat that looked strangely familiar. “This is California,” he said, driving through an exclusive neighborhood. It had an uncanny resemblance to certain residential areas of the Golden State with their large stucco homes, winding streets, palm trees, lawns and bougainvillea. Every large city in Morocco has an enclave called California where the well-heeled live. The designation is more a status symbol than Morocco’s climate being likened justifiably to Southern California’s. So what do American Californians do? Their developments are named like Spanish haciendas and ranchos.

Parlez vous français?

Even if France occupied Morocco for only 40+ years, its influence remains strong. Other than Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and the Berber dialects, French is widely spoken in government, education, commerce, the tourist industry and professional circles. It is a required language in schools. The largest ex-pat community is French and tourism from France remains Morocco’s foremost. I had trouble communicating with some riad staff. In français, things would’ve been much less bumpy. My two years of college French taken long ago did little good. I could only pick out words here and there. I tried to order a cocktail at Kasbah Tizimi’s poolside bar but thought better of it after the bartender’s quizzical looks and ordered bière instead. Fortunately, we got by everywhere because there was at least rudimentary English spoken by someone.

With the rapid rise of visitors from other countries, especially the big English-speaking ones (United States, Australia and Canada), English will become more important because, for better or worse, it’s the de facto universal language. I have to say though that this continues to get us Americans off the hook to learn another language.

Tout Les Touts

The one thing I dreaded most before arriving in Morocco was being harassed by armies of touts as many guide books warn. Fortunately, it never became much of a problem. The usual advice is to politely and firmly say ‘no,’ which served us well. The hawkers were most aggressive in Marrakech, whom I still managed to avoid eventually.

But one incident had to make me chuckle. Each stall in Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa square has a number, which is posted on a sign somewhere above the stall. We walked through one group offering mixed grill when a hawker got in our face to eat there. We said no and walked on. He followed us. “No food poisoning,” he promised us. “Maybe later,” I said as we pulled away. Within earshot, he yelled, “Remember, 75, still alive.”

Infrastructure

We would be driving in the middle of nowhere when suddenly we’d come across a sparkling new town with new construction, including apartments, and wide paved boulevards flanked by sidewalks and the most beautiful light posts. Absent were the narrow streets of older towns teeming with people and traffic that had to pass each other cheek by jowl. My wife and I were puzzled. There were several such towns like Errachidia. When we asked Mustapha about this, he told us that the government subsidizes their development to help Moroccans find cheaper housing. Many Moroccans see it as a way to escape the big cities. Government support could also be part of the its effort to encourage agricultural development.

And what about electrifying these far-flung, isolated places? On our way to Ouarzazate, Mustapha told us about Noor I nearby, the first phase of a massive solar power plant project (Ouarzazate Solar Power Station) which when completed will be the largest in the world. Noor I will provide power for nearly one million Moroccans. Noor II and III are on their way. Of all the Arab-speaking countries, Morocco is the most dependent on Middle East oil, so shifting toward energy independence can only help. If all goes as planned, Morocco will become an energy exporter in the near future with the help of renewable sources.

Noor I (image from http://www.challenge.ma)

Gendarmes

I could swear there were gendarme stations every mile or so on the Moroccan highways. I’m exaggerating of course but there certainly were several checkpoints along any of our long-distance drives. Roadside gendarmes have the authority to randomly stop any vehicle and ask for papers. The gendarmerie is charged with policing and maintaining the nation’s security. They’re more concentrated near the Algerian and Mauritanian borders and near military installations. It occurred to me that law enforcement vis-à-vis travel within the U.S. is not so restrictive, that Americans wouldn’t put up with such interruption to their freedom of movement.

Whenever we got stopped, which may have been a half dozen times, Mustapha had to show documents. My wife and I never once were interrogated nor asked for our passports, which I thought curious. I just wonder if we were ‘off limits’ because tourism is very important to Morocco’s economy.

Mustapha

As you might’ve guessed, I owe much of this post to Mustapha, our driver who took my wife and me all over Morocco. He picked us up at Mohammed V International in Casablanca and drove us in a great clockwise circle through Morocco, providing insights and pointing out things that surprised me, educated me. Here’s a man who went to university to get a degree in English linguistics. Not language, but linguistics, the scientific study of languages. I gathered he is an avid reader, having mentioned several books or articles he recently read. Even if I thought another profession might better use his talents and education, he appreciates his job. He undertook the 17-day assignment while suffering physical ailments. He smashed his thumb in a car door the day before picking us up and experienced a long, debilitating allergy on our trip. But he soldiered on.

I made the mistake of asking him if it was boring to take tourists over the same route time and again. “How can I get bored when I can see this beautiful country?” As he drove us out of Chefchouen and into the Rif Mountains, he’d point at the valleys and say, “Look how beautiful!”

Mustapha was more than a driver; in many ways he was a guide. He would talk about many things Moroccan. All our wonderful city guides who led us through the medinas were arranged by Mustapha. On the road, he’d identify various agricultural crops along the way, knowing I was interested. “My time is your time,” he said several times. By that, he meant whatever we wanted to see or do, all we had to do was ask. I regretted that I didn’t ask him more about Moroccan history, for he seemed capable of teaching me that as well.

Not once but twice I forgot to return room keys to the front desk (both in Skoura and Taroudant) after checking out. They were in my pocket, well on our way to the next stop. Not to worry, Mustapha said. He arranged to have the keys returned by other drivers who were going the opposite direction.

I don’t know how drivers like him do it, not getting sleepy despite long hours behind the wheel. On occasion, he requested to stop somewhere to get coffee. “It is needed,” he’d say wryly. And, yes, I would get bored driving over the same route repeatedly, so for his stamina and service I applaud him.

Despite his terrible bout with allergies, he refused to take meds in the morning to avoid drowsiness. The next time I make the long drive from Seattle to Los Angeles on I-5, I should refrain from saying how boring the California stretch is. Yeah, that’ll really be a stretch.

Coda

Going to Morocco was out of my comfort zone certainly, but so is travel to any foreign country. Westerners especially seem concerned that Morocco is an Islamic country. Any look at the news shows that there is much less upheaval in Morocco than other North African countries, let alone parts of the Middle East. There never was a moment when I felt uneasy or threatened. Safety for my wife and me never became a concern—except crossing the street in busy traffic or avoiding motor scooters in the alleyways of Marrakech’s medina quarters.

I knew little about Morocco before arriving except what I read in Lonely Planet. But now, having seen and experienced much of the country, I’ve gotten a better understanding. The people were friendly and gracious, as people all over the world tend to be. But, here’s the difference. Almost without exception, when meeting someone for the first time, “Welcome to Morocco.” I rarely heard that kind of greeting anywhere else.

With that, my fond farewell to Morocco.

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The Delight of Staying in Moroccan Riads


When traveling, I’m not particularly interested in staying at hotels.

I don’t look for a spa experience, 24-hour fitness center, or concierge services. I don’t book stays at the Marriotts, Hiltons, Hyatts, Radissons and such, never mind luxury hotels like The Four Seasons. Yes, they’re elegant, clean, sleek, efficiently run, and have marvelous guest services, in some cases earning 4-5 stars by the AAA or similar rating service. This is all well and good. But, I’m lukewarm about them because they’re big and impersonal. They’re islands of separation from the people and cultures I’m visiting. And you probably agree the rooms have the same, predictable layout.

That’s why my wife and I were excited about the idea of staying at riads in Morocco because many travelers feel it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Our reservations (and travel itinerary) were arranged by Experience It Tours, an excellent tour company based in the U.S. with an office in Fes that encourages riad stays.

A riad is a type of accommodation where one or two floors of rooms face an inside garden. It only has a handful of units, about 4 to 6, sometimes a little more. Each room is different and uniquely furnished. A similar kind of house, called a dar, has a courtyard instead of garden in the center, otherwise there is a great deal of similarity between the two. Both are uniquely Moroccan. I’ll refer generically to these accommodations as riads.

In medinas, you’d be hard pressed to spot a riad from the outside; there are no large windows facing out. It can be tucked away deep within a maze of alleyways that can rapidly disorient you. In every case, my wife and I had to be ushered there by our driver or porter or risk getting lost. Wandering through the Fes and Marrakech medinas, I was surprised by the sheer number of riads where signs only revealed their existence; otherwise you’d never know they were there. A door on an otherwise featureless wall hinted there might be a dwelling behind it. Once inside, I invariably was flabbergasted by the transition to a beautifully decorated interior—soaring spaces above the courtyard, center fountain or one designed in the Andalusian style along one wall intricately decorated with beautiful tilework (zellij), cozy salons or lounges where guests would be served tea or meals. With their small staffs, I had a sense that I could get to know everyone. And I did. Hotels are missing this feeling of intimacy and charm.

In every instance, when we first arrived, mint tea and little desserts were served while we filled out registration papers. Both my wife and I appreciated this kind of hospitality, a small gesture that made us feel like welcomed guests. We were even offered tea when we happened to be in the courtyard.

Breakfast and dinner were served at all the riads where my wife and I stayed. Here were where we got to know the Moroccan breakfast, which consists of hot beverages, orange juice, sometimes olives and an impressive variety of breads. Generally not fond of high-carb breakfasts, I welcomed the occasional egg or cheese.

Typical Moroccan breakfast

Some of the riads had terraces where you can choose to take a meal (weather permitting) or while away the time lost deep in a book.

Roof terrace

These lodgings were not without minor issues, in my experience mainly in the bathrooms. While the shower spaces were creatively designed, it was difficult to keep water from wetting the floor in some cases, or a few lacked a cradle for the flexible hose shower heads for hands-free bathing. A wash basin faucet in one spurted out water with enough force that it spattered all over the counter; another faucet fixture dangled loosely over the basin. The toilet tank in another took forever to fill up because of low water pressure. Many riads had inadequate outlets to charge up our appliances or lacked anywhere to sit other than the bed. I say again, these are small quibbles that hardly overshadow the riad experience. The beds were all very comfortable, the rooms quiet, clean and beautifully decorated and the service above reproach. As a bonus, we enjoyed our best dinners in Morocco in a few of them.

Foreigners have taken a big interest in restoring riads. Australian Suzanna Clarke wrote about her sometimes exasperating, sometimes humorous experiences in converting a house (A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco). Four of the riads were owned wholly or in part by Europeans. One of the bonuses of the French-owned riads where we stayed was the option of having wine with dinner; alcohol is prohibited by Islam and therefore not available at restaurants and cafés (except a few that cater to foreigners).

The many pictures below are of places where we stayed. It’s easy to see why they had such appeal for us. There was nothing cookie-cutter or mundane about any of them.

Riad the Repose (Rabat)

Courtyard

Main room

Shower space

Dar Meziana (Chefchaouen)

Stepped approach. Meziana is at the top.

Courtyard from the salon

Main room

Shower space

Dar al Madina al Kadima (Fes)

Fountain

Courtyard

Main room

Bathroom

Moroccan breakfast served in the salon

Kasbah Tizimi (Erfoud)

Other than the hotels in Casablanca on arrival and departure days, this is the only accommodation that was not a riad or dar but is classified as a hotel. A kasbah is a military fortress.

One of several courtyards

Main room

Dar Jnan Tiouira (Skoura)

Dar Jnan Tiouira from garden

Courtyard

Main room

The alcove was a wonderful place to relax or read

Bathroom

Dining room

Riad Tafilag (Taroudant)

Main room

Sitting area outside room

Dining room

Riad Mimounia (Essaouira)

Salon

Main room

Bathroom

Riad Boussa (Marrakech)

Main room

Bathroom

Wash basin

Courtyard

Are Moroccan Carpet Makers Getting Fleeced?


“We don’t have room for any.”

That’s what I told the salesman more than once at a licensed carpet dealer in Fes. He was showing us Moroccan rugs. My wife and I were taken there by our local guide. There might’ve been a kickback involved.

“I want you to know that we have no intention of buying,” I said to the salesman at the start.

He probably heard this refrain countless times from tourists who wound up buying a carpet anyway.

“Pick out which ones you like most,” he continued as we sipped mint tea. Employees unrolled one carpet after another as he was trying to discern the preferences of my wife, whom he addressed as Madame.

“Which one do you like the best?” followed by, “which is the next best?”  We favored the Berbers for their simplicity and resemblance to Native American rugs at home.

He was friendly but persistent, oblivious to our comment that we were downsizing and while we found everything beautiful, we had no use for them.

The salesman proceeded without missing a beat. “I will shock you with the price,” pointing to not one but two that we admired. He was sure to mention that the same pieces at Bloomingdale’s would cost thousands of dollars. “Allow me to shock you.” He punched in some numbers on his calculator and showed us the figure. We said no. He discounted the price even further. We said no again. He came back with yet another lower offer. Sticking to our guns, we declined and finally rose to leave. Sensing our resolve (more tellingly, we made no counter offers), he thanked us for coming and wished us good travels.

Shopping in Morocco involves bargaining (or haggling, if you like). It’s a pervasive cultural practice that takes getting used to since bargaining in the industrialized world is uncommon. The art of it involves offering much less than what is asked for and then going back and forth with the seller until a price satisfactory to you both is reached.

What if we had purchased a rug? Who stood to benefit most from the sale? My money is on the carpet dealer.

By Moroccan standards, what tourists spend on purchases is enormous. A 1000 MAD buy (a little over $100 US) would amount to a small fortune for a typical Moroccan. Therefore, how sale proceeds get distributed is an important question in a country where poverty is a big problem (the median annual income in 2014 was US $2,800). There are a myriad of artisans who struggle to eke out a living. They work hard to make exquisite things but lack the wherewithal to distribute or sell in quantity. They rely on middlemen who buy at negotiated prices. If the carpet dealer sells dearly to greenhorn tourists, none of the profits goes back to the artist. Where is the ‘fair trade’ in all this? I can see now where concerned buyers would want to do business directly with the producer.

It’s all the more encouraging and remarkable then that there has been a rise in women’s cooperatives that make a range of products—argan oil and cosmetics, rose water and oil, djellaba buttons, weaves and carpets. The proceeds get distributed back to their members.

There are many wonderful and world-famous things made in Morocco, including ceramics in Fes, leather products by the Chouara and Marrakech tanneries, thuya woodworks and silver jewelry in Essaouira, rose products in the M’Gouna Valley, argan products in the Souss Valley, fossil furniture in Erfoud and of course the carpets of the Moroccan nomadic and Berber peoples. We visited them all and wound up only buying small gifts for family members back home, little household things for ourselves.

Lest you think I’m a savvy bargainer, I offer this. I can only hope that what I spent on a camel-skin coat at a Marrakech tannery co-op, which I had no idea I wanted let alone buy, got distributed equitably to the people who had a part in making it. I’ve no idea if I was fleeced. The guy who sold it to me was most convincing.

Images to Remember Morocco By


This post has only images. They reflect the personal wonder and beauty I felt about Morocco’s diverse landscape, architecture, craft and food. They were photographed in and around Casablanca, Rabat, Chefchouen, Volubilis, Meknes, Fes, Erfoud, Erg Chebbi (Sahara), Todra and Dades Gorges, Skoura, Taroudant, Essaouira, Marrakech and El Jadida. (Click on the first to start the slideshow.)

White Storks of Morocco


I’m not a birder. But when an interesting bird appears in my travels, I take note and try to find out a bit more about it. In several places throughout Morocco, I saw the white stork (Circonia circonia) that builds its large nest in high places, atop roofs, walls, even ancient Roman columns. The one above was seen at the ruins of the Chellah necropolis near Rabat. The storks apparently migrate to and from Europe depending on the time of year.

White stork at the ancient ruins of Volubilis

Follow Your Nose—the Scents of Morocco


I experienced Morocco through my nose. Not intentionally. It just happened. Morocco’s scents and aromas accumulated in my mind subconsciously until it dawned on me that smelling should be as important as seeing to have an appreciation for the country.

It started with mint tea, the beverage that Moroccans drink in gobs. It’s consumed as much as coffee by Americans and Europeans, usually with lots of sugar. When we arrived at our first riad (in Rabat), mint tea was offered with cookies while we filled out travel registration forms.

Mint tea

All riads thereafter did the same. Serving tea is a gesture of hospitality. The preferred though not necessarily practiced ritual is the same. Tea is poured from a considerable height, easily 3 meters or so, into tiny glasses to aerate the hot liquid of boiling water steeped with Chinese green tea and fresh mint. A variation involves putting mint directly in the glasses.

mint tea

A frequent trio of containers (here, behind the teapot) contains sugar, milk and more mint

I loved the beverage (without sugar) in no small part because of the refreshing scent. All the produce stalls sell bushels of fresh mint to satisfy Moroccan passion for tea.

Mint

The faint perfume that I smelled in the courtyards of many riads came from a basket of dried rose buds. They’re sold in bulk at all the spice stalls (image above). Originally from Syria, the Damascene (Damask or Damascus) rose is an important crop grown commercially in the M’Gouna Valley. Berber women manage the rose co-ops. Our driver Mustapha took us to a shop in Kelaât M’Gouna where the process from picking to distilling the petals for making rose water and oil was explained. The backroom had faint hints of rose attar. I was fortunate to see the flowers in full bloom, which happens in April and May, bushes growing in almost every conceivable corner.

Freshly picked Damascene roses

Rose buds drying in oven

Strolling through Jardin Jnane Sbil and the garden of the Dar Batha Museum in Fes, I caught the heady fragrance of orange blossoms, which has a jasmine-like bouquet. Not surprisingly Moroccans try to capture it in the production of orange water.

The fragrance of orange blossoms is incredible

Spring is the time for oranges. Vendors in carts everywhere peddle freshly squeezed juice. Grown mostly in and around Fes, the fruit is sold widely in markets and souks. I had orange juice for breakfast every morning no matter where I was in the country, surprising because I don’t normally have juice when at home.

Carts offering orange juice

Freshly squeezed orange juice

Lavender was just beginning to flower in the country. It wasn’t a flower that I associated with Morocco, but they were growing in significant amounts.

Lavender in Fes’ Jnan Sbil garden

Moroccan cooking is known for its use of aromatic spices like cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger and paprika, especially in tajines, which are made everywhere by virtually every restaurant that serves Moroccan cuisine. Tajine may just be its national dish. The other popular items are couscous and brochettes, as is Moroccan salad made with cucumber, tomato and red onion. The fragrances of these spices along with lamb, chicken or beef, hit me when the tajine vessel lid was lifted.

The vessel and dish are both called tajine

Tajine with chicken brochettes

I find it hard to resist the aroma of freshly baked bread. It’s as likely to be coming from a commercial bakery as a eucalyptus or olive wood-fired communal oven (faraan) where women bring their unbaked goods. Bakery stalls in narrow streets of the medina are difficult to walk past without getting stopped dead in your tracks by a tantalizing whiff. The display cases or shelves are piled with freshly baked bread. Moroccans consume mountains of bread, especially khobz that always accompanies tajine. No meal would be complete without bread. Breakfast at the riads in particular were showcases for all manner of bread, flatbread and pastries. Besides khobz, there could be msemen, batbout, harcha, meloui, beghrir, small Napoleons filled lightly with chocolate. As I’m not partial to high-carb breakfasts or of yogurt, it became a challenge for me to eat contentedly in the mornings, unless there were eggs or cheese.

Khobz

Msemen

Typical riad breakfast

I saved the ‘best’ for last—the tanneries. Both Fes and Marrakech have them, though the former is much more famous and easier to find. The odors have been described as a retching stench, of cow, sheep, goat and camel hides being treated in stone vats of pigeon dung, cow urine and quicklime solutions. Tourists are encouraged to hold sprigs of mint under their noses to mask the smell. It’s true that the tanneries reek but I didn’t find them overly offensive, stinky but tolerable. Still, I can’t imagine being exposed to this every day as are the tanners who follow a tradition that dates back a thousand years.

tannery

Chouara tannery in Fes

When you go to Morocco, keep your eyes open but do pay attention to your olfactories.

What Is a Berber Pizza?


“You want to eat something different?”

This is a thorny question that depends on who’s asking and why. Mustapha, who’d been driving us throughout Morocco, found out early that my wife and I were willing eaters. Maybe not willing so much as open to trying local food. To a point. We’re not Andrew Zimmern after all. In researching Moroccan food before the trip, I drew the line at eating sheep’s head in Marrakech.

“Like what?” The question was pregnant with doubt.

“Berber pizza.”

“What’s in it?” Again, hesitation. Crap, why can’t I just go with the flow? Carpe diem.

“You’ll find out.” This was not the answer I was hoping for.

We were in the Ziz Valley on the edge of the Erg Chebbi desert. Towns here are spread out among wind-blown sand dunes and palm trees. The entire area is famous for its Paleozoic and Mesozoic fossils. We had just completed an overnighter in the Sahara.

I said to my wife out of earshot, “It’s probably camel.” She nodded hesitantly. Even our local tour guide in Fes (Idriss) didn’t like the taste.

We had just finished visiting the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Cherif and the 17th-century ksar in Rissani. It was time for lunch.

Mustapha led us past restaurants along the main street and into an alley. “Rissani is known for its Berber pizza.”

Upon entering, he seemed to know the proprietor of La Baraka and introduced us. The dining room was hung with Arab carpets, the columns wrapped in Berber fabric. Some of the diners, probably guides, had on Tuareg robes and turbans.

La Baraka in Rissani

We ordered a Moroccan salad and the ‘pizza’ (called medfouna or madfouna), which is more like a calzone but filled with minced beef, onion and aromatic spices. The yeasty crust was crispy and chewy, like a traditional pizza, a combination of semolina and regular flours. In all, a tasty meal.

“What did you think of the pizza?” asked Mustapha. We told him we enjoyed it. “It doesn’t have cheese and tomato sauce. I hope you didn’t mind. I like it better,” he said.

Then it struck me. He wasn’t trying to be coy about the meat filling but was concerned we’d be disappointed with the lack of Italian flavors. We breathed a sigh of relief that the “something different” wasn’t camel.