Ruins in Rabat

The view from the Kasbah

So I mentioned that we had a couple of unexpected surprises in Rabat (I’m sorry for the long cliffhanger – internet access has been spotty here in Senegal). The first surprise was a good one. Though the streets of this massive, cosmopolitan city are as chaotic as any I’ve seen on the African continent, the medina in the old town, though not as picturesque as Fez or Chefchaouen, is relaxed and laidback. Perhaps it’s because most tourists avoid Rabat, but hassling from vendors was kept to a minimum.

The sea breeze brings a welcome reprieve from the hot summer sun, and the underrated sights included an old Kasbah with beautiful gardens overlooking the ocean and some impressive Roman ruins on the edge of town. Even the new part of the city, bustling with all the intensity of a European capital, made for a lovely stroll.

I haven’t talked much about the food in Morocco to this point in our travels. That’s because, while it’s been decent, a lot of the places we’ve been are so focused on tourists, so nothing yet has been outstanding. Our meals in Rabat changed that.

Perhaps another Venus de Milo?

The first was a simple lunch at a workaday diner in the old town. We were the only non-Moroccans in Restaurant de la Liberation. Taking a cue from our fellow patrons, we had delicious couscous with vegetables for cheaper than any prices we’d paid in Morocco. The food was so good, we went back the next day for lunch.

Our second meal in Rabat was a dinner at a little nicer place called Le Petit Beur in the new part of the city. The ambience was great, with the wait staff breaking up their service with sessions on traditional instruments. I had great brochettes, and Anne-Claire had a magnificent lamb tajine (sort of a crock pot that’s used over an open fire) with apricots.

In my mind, these positives still outweigh the struggles we had with the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat. The procedure calls for dropping off your passport before noon, and then you come back and pick it up with the visa after 2 o’clock the next day. Oddly strict protocol, but at least you know what you need to do.

Anne-Claire walking among the ruins

After waiting in line for about two hours the first day, the nasty attendant took our passports. We arrived a little before 2 the next day and stood in the already-formed line outside the embassy gates. At 3:15, the door still hadn’t been opened, and the people standing in line were getting restless. A few even banged on the big metal door, eliciting a shouting rebuke from the (same) nasty attendant inside.

Around 3:30, they finally began handing out passports, but ours weren’t among them. We waited until nearly everyone had gone to see if there was anything they could do, but they just told us we’d have to wait for a decision from Nouakchott (the capital of Mauritania). We met another American couple who had been trying for several days to get their visas. They were particularly stuck because they had their own vehicle, which they’d imported from the States.

The husband, Mitt, said he thought this was due to tensions between the US and Mauritania brought on by America’s imposition of democracy there. I’ve also since heard that the government wants to make it as difficult for Americans to get Mauritanian visas as it is for their citizens to get American visas.

Whatever the reason, we took our passports back and ended up flying from Casablanca to Dakar, thus missing our first African border crossing (and perhaps the most dangerous one) on this trip.

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Fez to Rabat

Marrakesh has a reputation among travelers for being something of a den of thieves. Fez and smaller jewels like Chefchaouen, they counsel, are much more laid back, with harassment from eager-to-make-a-sale vendors at a minimum. That may have been true at one time, but travelers looking for that chill vibe have come, and in turn the salespeople have learned that the right combination of enough (insert your preferred language here) and pestering persistence will win them a sale from time to time.

I don’t have much to compare it to, as it doesn’t look like we’ll make it to Marrakesh on this trip. While annoying, the pestering was manageable and worth the hassle to get lost in the streets of both Chefchaouen and Fez. We picked a hotel right outside the medina at a gate called Bab Boujloud. Though our first day in Fez had the hairdryer-hot wind and withering sun that reminded us of Niger, our second day was cool as clouds blocked the sun for much of the day.

We took the opportunity to check out one of Fez’s unique attractions far on the other side of the medina. The leather tannery has become a justly popular tourist draw, and as such, a host of ‘guides’ greeted us in several languages, English, Spanish, and French, and offered to show us the way. We ignored them, and instead asked a passerby who hadn’t approached us. He pointed us in the right direction, and in a few turns, we found a leather shop offering to let us view the tannery from their rooftop (for a few dirhams, of course).

On the way up, an old man handed us a few sprigs of mint, warning us that the smell might be a little overwhelming. Up the narrow staircase we climbed, coming to a room full of finished leather goods with a railing on one side, from which we could look out onto dozens of pools for curing and dying leather. A steady stream of donkeys brought in stacks of hide to be treated. Once they were unburdened, they were loaded with treated skins to be ferried off to craftsmen.

Everywhere among the pools, men were scraping the hair or trimming the last bits of fat from the hides, soaking the skins in ammonia from a mixture of water and “pigeon shit” as the leather shop’s obligatory guide told us, and staining the hides with indigo and saffron. It was fascinating to see, though it’s not a profession I envy. Even with the mild temperatures, we still got the occasional waft of abattoir stink.

According to the guide, there are a group of families that have been working this tannery for generations, and each man (no women work there) sticks to his specific role, be that carting of hides or standing thigh deep in the milk-white pools of ammonia. I haven’t done any research, but it’s hard to believe health problems aren’t an issue, even if the vendors claim that the dyes are all natural.

In the afternoon, we took to the streets of the new part of the city. Though thronged with Moroccans, we were almost entirely left alone, which was a welcome feeling. We bought a few glasses of orange juice and tried the melon-like fruit of a local cactus we’d see a lot of in the days to come.

Our goal was to find the beautiful bronze gate to the royal palace. We were on the right track, when a helpful looking guy offered to show us the way. Unfortunately, he took us on a detour and tried to take us past his shop, then wanted money when we happened on the door. That aside, the door, like so much of Islamic art and architecture was something to behold. I wonder if the Islamic prohibition of using images led to the creativity of Muslim craftsmen manifesting itself in the painstaking repetitive patterns that must take so much concentration and skill to accomplish.

In all, Fez was a great stop. The following day, we took an early train to Rabat – not a place we’d planned on stopping, but the only place we could get a visa for Mauritania. A host of surprises were in store, some good, some bad.

A Sole’s Rebirth

Just a quick blog to mark what I thought was the end of an era…after 5 years and 4 months of cradling my feet through 15 countries, of staying on when launching my kayak, and while scrambling around on the Lovejoy basalt lava flows and Monkeyface of Upper Park in Chico, my Chaco flip-flops finally gave a last gasp.

As I was walking through the streets in Chefchaouen, I felt a slight tug on the tongue between my toes. Upon investigating, the fabric pulled right out of the sole of the shoe, to the great delight of one of the vendors who just happened to be selling the fashionable pointy-toed men’s slippers in every possible color, alongside a selection of leather sandals. Convinced I’d never get a good price in such an obvious state of desperation, I hobbled past, telling him, God-willing, I’d be back later, and I retrieved my running shoes from the hostel.

Anne-Claire convinced me to try to have them repaired. And so the next day in Fez, I walked up to a cobbler – from what I can tell, they’ve got more work than they can handle – and in a couple of minutes he’d sewed the tongue back in, glued the top and bottom layers of the sole together, and thwacked it a few times with hammer for good measure. He waved off my first offer to pay, but ultimately took 5 dirhams (~60 cents) for his time.

I don’t mean this to be an advertisement for Chaco’s flip-flops. In my eyes, they made the unforgivable decision to replace the far-superior Vibram sole with a cheaper, less rugged version a few years ago on this model. Though the word ‘Vibram’ is barely legible on my shoes, I’m thankful to have enjoyed its benefits.

This is Africa

So, I’m caught up on our time in Europe…just as we’re about to leave Morocco. I posted a few pictures last week of our first stop, Chefchaouen, a little town in the Rif Mountains. We took the boat from Tarifa in Spain to dusty, sun-soaked Tangier, and thanks to Morocco’s efficient bus system, were able to get all the way to Chefchaouen by mid afternoon.

We haven’t been too thrilled with the information in the Lonely Planet Morocco book. The latest edition was published in 2009, so prices have changed, ticket offices have moved, hotels and hostels have fallen into decay. Plus, it lacks a singular voice in its recommendations, and consistency suffers in both facts (e.g., prices of travel, visas, etc.) and opinions on what to see.

A glaring exception, however, is Hostal Gernika – recommended highly by the guide’s authors. The Spanish woman who runs it made us feel at home right away, and to call it a hostel when each room has a bathroom and shower isn’t really fair. We had a comfortable room right beside an immaculate rooftop terrace, perfect for enjoying the hostel’s great breakfast and escaping the late-night heat of the narrow streets below.

The city itself is built into the side of Jebel El-Kelaa, a peak in the Rif that, we were told, gets snow in the winter. That was hard to believe, as temperatures were in the 40°C range (100+ in Fahrenheit). But mitigating the heat are the winding walls of the medina, painted cool blue throughout the entire old part of the city. Aside from getting stung by a yellow jacket when I disturbed a nest that was under our dinner table, our first night was pleasant enough.

The next day, we took the obligatory tour of the former royal palace in the center of town and admired the parallels between the architecture and decoration here and those in Sevilla. In fact, Chefchaouen used to be a Spanish outpost until the early 20th century, and to this day, when you’re recognized as a foreigner, you more likely to be spoken to in Spanish than French.

By midday, the sun was hot, with few clouds to make the temperatures more bearable, so we headed to Ras El Maa, a waterfall at the base of El-Kelaa. As waterfalls go, it’s not tremendously impressive, but it does attract a lot of local folks looking for respite from the heat, and if they need to wash some clothes or a rug. On either side of the stream, the town had built chutes that led to perhaps a dozen wash basins. Moroccans seemed to have perfected the art of moving water to suit their needs. Driving through some of the driest parts of this country, swaths of green will suddenly burst from the rocky hardpan – the result of leveraging mountain streams and rivers via expertly engineered, cement-walled irrigation ditches that flow through nearly every town and in some cases right through houses themselves. So while kids played in the ankle-deep spillway in the stream, men and women washed clothes or used the continuously flowing water to help them in soaking and beating the dust out of their massive area rugs.

We spent the rest of the day wandering the streets, stopping at nearly every fresh-squeezed orange juice stand that seem to price a glass of the beverage on a sliding scale – the more you look and talk like a Moroccan, the less you pay. Our American-ness also earned us a few false friends in the form of carpet sellers, who have learned to leverage Western guilt by learning copious amounts of English, talking really fast, and accusing you of prejudice if you don’t join them in their shop for a cup of tea. “No pressure! No pressure,” they say. “This is not Marrakesh. This is Chefchaouen. We are friends here.”

With no intention of spending a hundred dollars or more on a rug, we nevertheless were lured in by a plump diabetic Moroccan who speaks better English than I do (learned from the 500 channels he gets with his satellite dish) who served us tea (his without sugar) and threw out en vogue clichéd phrases to indicate he was a businessman of principles like “This comes from a women’s cooperative” and “We pay the mountain people a fair price for this.”

We didn’t buy anything, and he seemed to take it well, though that did little to assuage the feeling that we’d just been taken for a Moroccan pony ride. We did however stumble on a random square with few tourists and a café with lots of men watching soap operas and playing dice-based games. For less than a dollar, we sat and drank a couple cups of mint tea while several boys played soccer on the cobblestones in front of us, stopping every so often for a drink from the spigot in the middle of the square.

For all its modernity – electrification and running water seem to be seen as a right rather than a luxury, as opposed to less-developed countries – its big cities that hum with traffic and hold both some of the newest and oldest vestiges of civilization, and the genuine belief on the part of the occasional Moroccan you meet on the street that they’re really more a part of Europe than Africa, our first few days in Morocco made clear in my mind which continent I was on. From our rooftop terrace, I watched the streetlights come on just as the slightest chill brought on by darkness began to stir activity. The smell of cooking fires and occasionally burning trash – two scents I’ll forever associate with my time in Niger – swirled skyward. And the chorus of prayer calls began, one after the other, from the five mosques visible from where I stood, the disjointed round leaving little doubt that this is Africa.

Two Nights in Sevilla

After our long weekend in Marseille, Julie’s father was kind enough to drive us the 45 minutes to the airport so we could catch our plane to Sevilla in Spain. The flight was comfortable, as was the trip into the center of town. But wandering around for almost an hour in the Andalusian midday sun left little doubt that we’re heading south.

A well-intentioned Dutch guy who spoke English pointed us in the direction he thought would take us to our hotel from the bus station. But five minutes and two turns down narrow cobblestone streets found us staring up at a church (one of about a dozen we’d passed since getting off the bus) but clueless as to which of the many on the map it might be. Southern Spain seems to have a church-to-people ratio in the neighborhood of 1-to-1.

Confusion is pretty universally recognizable apparently, as a well-bronzed older gentleman with his shirt unbuttoned to his sternum stopped to see if he could help us. We fumbled around trying to give him a street name that might be recognizable. As with most of the Old World cities I’ve visited in Europe, street signs in Sevilla seem to be more optional than obligatory. Yes, bigger streets do have signs if you know where to look for them, but it’s as if city planners figured if you were on one of these tiny capillaries, you ought to know where you’re going. If you don’t, serves you right if you get lost.

Finally, we uttered a street name the man recognized (and that we could pronounce at least somewhat intelligibly), which fittingly turned out to be ‘Love of God Avenue’ (loosely translated). He gave us a litany of directions in Spanish, which might have led us straight to our hotel, had we understood them. However, the only word we recognized had something to do with time, so we started looking for a clock.

That was easy enough to find, but once again, we were faced with a wagon wheel of spoke-like, nameless streets to choose from, and each with a seemingly prominent but unnamed church at its head. Anne-Claire found a hotel (not ours), got a better map, and figured out where we were on the map, and eventually we stumbled on the dead-end alley where our hotel was located.

The beginning of our visit notwithstanding, Sevilla, once the seat for administration of Spain’s conquered lands in the New World, turned out to be a lovely way point on our journey to North Africa. We settled into our hotel, then set out to ply the empty afternoon streets for some food. Our first choice came highly recommended on Trip Advisor, but was more expensive than we thought. We’d probably have had to cook our own food too, as it seems the entire was taking their siesta, though they’d left the air conditioning on and the music playing inside.

On a no-name (surprise, surprise) back alley, we found a little bar with no menus per se, only a chalkboard laying out the day’s offerings. We only recognized the word for calamari, so we tried ordering that. Somehow, the request didn’t land. The gruff-looking barkeep with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth communicated to us that that wasn’t what we were going to have, but rather, he’d choose a few dishes and bring them to us.

Ten minutes later, we had a plate of fried fish, a plate of tomatoes with tuna and olive oil, two ham and egg sandwiches, and a richly flavored roll of meat that had been breaded and fried. The food found a happy home in our stomachs, as by this point we were pretty hungry, but we fretted over what the bill would come to. It’s part of traveling, we figured, to be fleeced every now and then – and something we probably deserved coming to Spain and not speaking Spanish.

All that food, plus a bottle of water (we hadn’t yet figured out how to say tap water – pardon my spelling – ‘agua del grifa’), and 4 small beers came to…€19.80. Little does that bartender know how much he did for a cranky, tired American couple that afternoon.

We had another pleasant meal late that evening, though the area we went was touristy and the prices weren’t as good. What was good – superb, in fact – were the toasts with slices of rank goat cheese and drizzled with olive oil and vinegar. That, washed down with sangria and the most refreshing lager I’ve had in my life, made the evening’s (~10:30 pm) 90+ degree heat bearable.

After a cheap breakfast of toast, tomatoes, olive oil and coffee at a bustling café the next morning, we checked out the Cathedral y Garibaldi in the center of town. It’s a massive church, somehow incorporating Moorish and Gothic architecture beautifully. It was built over several centuries by architects adhering to the different styles, and the absence of a singular unifying design makes it fascinating to look at from every angle. The abundant use of tiered flying buttresses creates ever-changing snowflake patterns of sky visible through the arches, and it makes the builders’ use of the same technology on the Notre Dame Cathedral look downright timid.

Close to the cathedral sits the Real Alcazar, a royal palace that apparently is still a residence for the Spanish monarchy. Again, the entire complex reflects the site’s past as a Moorish fort. Stunning tile work and intricate designs were the handiwork of Moorish craftsmen hired by the Catholic royals to lend a piece of their culture to the construction when it was rebuilt more recently than Moorish occupation of southern Spain. Like a smaller, Mediterranean version of Versailles, the palace wends through al fresco hallways and past courtyard fountains. Behind it lie immaculate gardens, and a perfectly tranquil underground bath tricked us into thinking the reflection in the pool was an empty trough.

As the streets became quieter and quieter, we figured we too should avoid being lumped in with the ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ who are said to come out in the oppressive late-afternoon heat. Still, we saw our retreat into air conditioned comfort a bit of a defeat, as we figured things would only get hotter as we traveled further south.