I cannot seem to write other entries, not until I finish my Morocco entries. I still have a lot of articles pending in my pipeline. Haha! Anyway, Morocco is an amazing place. There are many similarities of the country with our homeland, the Philippines, that’s why it’s not so hard to be smitten with this country. We’ve made many memories in our eight days in the country and here are our top five unforgettable experiences in unforgettable places in Morocco. Join us again in this heavy-photo entry (hopefully I’m not boring you with my narratives haha!). There is a reason why my introductions are getting shorter… uhuh, because the main content are too long! Haha!
1. Marveling at the extraordinary architecture and design of the world’s most beautiful mosque.
Mosques are not new to us especially when you’re living in Saudi Arabia. There are mosques every where and we’re kind of fascinated and at awe with this because truly, Saudi Arabia gives utmost importance to their religion. In Morocco, what is dubbed as the world’s most beautiful mosque rises above the Atlantic Ocean. The Hassan II Mosque (Grande Mosquée Hassan II) is the largest mosque in Morocco. And while it’s just the 13th largest in the world (the 1st being Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca), its minaret is the world’s tallest at 210 meters. Over 100,000 people can pray in this mosque at the same time.
King Hassan II wished Casablanca “to be endowed with a large, fine building of which it can be proud until the end of time … I want to build this mosque on the water, because God’s throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the creator on firm soil, can contemplate God’s sky and ocean.” And so work on the mosque commenced on July 12, 1986 with French architect Michael Pinseau (who was a Christian btw, and a very good friend of the king) designing it and civil engineering group Bouygues in charge of construction. Construction of this mosque was intense and never-ceasing during its peak! Over 1,000 men worked during the day and another thousand worked during the night! It cost Morocco over 500 million euros to build this. The mosque was completed after seven years in 1993.
Outside, the mosque was pristine. It has a large outdoor patio that welcomes guests from all over the world and the grounds can accommodate up to 80,000 worshippers. Wow, just wow! What makes the design of the mosque amazing is the blending of various designs from Islamic, Moroccan and Moorish architecture. You’d think they’re just trying to preserve traditional designs but they were influenced by urban designs too. More amazing is the fact that 6,000 Moroccan artisans worked for five years to create the designs all over the place: beautiful mosaics, stone and marble floors, sculpted plaster mouldings and painted wood ceilings. The materials used like granite, plaster, marble, and wood also came from all over Morocco. For example, the cedar wood came from the middle Atlas mountains, the marble is from Agadir, and the granite is from Tafroute. There were some imported materials like the white granite columns and 56 glass chandeliers (like no other!) came from Italy. However, while the mosque is grandiose and all, it it not without controversy especially when it came to the funds: they came mostly from the people of Morocco, and they were obligated to donate. The contrast of the mosque’s grandeur against the living standards of most Moroccans is quite unnerving. Some countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia also donated.
We were ushered inside the mosque with an order to remove our shoes, at least while we’re walking in the carpeted ground floor. We placed our shoes on plastic bags available in the entrance. An English-speaking guide told us of the history of the place and pointed out notable architectural features of the mosque’s interiors. There were murqanas (ornamented vaulting) in the ceiling and horseshoe-shaped arches. The ocean can be seen from the glass walls inside the mosque. Our guide asked us to locate the sound systems inside the mosque and in all fairness, they hid it in plain sight. The first-class sound system were incorporated to the design of the pillars. Amazing work! Because the mosque is standing in salt water, the mosque was reinforced with moly-grade stainless steel combined with high-grade concrete to make the structure resistant to chloride attack which causes the expansion of steel and the cracking of concrete.
I probably stood in the middle of the mosque just staring at the marvelous ceiling and chandeliers. The designs are so exquisite and so apt. And yet another grand feat of this mosque is that the roof opens to the skies. I’m a non-Muslim but just the thought of being able to offer prayers standing both in land and the sea and gazing into the skies is a surreal experience. We were then ushered into the basement where the ablution room and a vast public hammam are. The Turkish-style baths and fountains for washing.
Non-Muslims can enter the mosque through guided tours which happen from Saturday to Thursday from 9:00 AM onwards. The tour is around 120 Moroccan dirhams (approx. SR 60) and lasts for an hour or so. Visitors need to respect the dress code of no shoes in the ground floor and clothes that cover the knee and shoulders.
2. Drink mint tea and eat Moroccan sweets at the Kasbah De Udayas like a boss.
After Casablanca, we went to Rabat and our first destination is the Kasbah De Udayas which held my interest from the first time I saw it from afar. It sits on a cliff-like portion overlooking the Bou Regreg River. And yes, it does look like a mini version of Santorini in Greece. Maybe that’s why I wanted to visit it asap as soon as I saw it. Originally built in the 12th century, the kasbah (fortress) has seen several renovations and rebuilding in its time. It has been home to Arab tribes, Andalusian immigrants and powerful sultans. The city of Rabat began in this place where the Almohad dynasty built this fortress to protect the city from pirates and invaders. During the Alouite dynasty, Sultan Yacoub al Mansour hired an Arab tribe known as the Oudayas to defend the city (ergo, the name) but the city was soon deserted when the sultan died.
Today, the Kasbah is home to some of Rabat’s residents. It’s called a city within a city because it flourishes under the management of the city of Rabat and its people. The kasbah has both the allure of the past with its historical sites and the charm of modernity with its hip cafes and shops. When we walked into the kasbah, our guide said he’ll give as a free time to drink mint tea and eat Moroccan pastries and sweets for snacks. We couldn’t say no to a break in our tour.
Also, the kasbah has a charming vibe to it. The girls and I wanted to sit along a terrace with a great view of the river but most of the visitors had first dibs on the seats so we were contended to take photos and bite on an almond and coconut pastry that Reina bought from the cafe nearest to us. They also brought out a tray of glassed filled with Moroccan mint tea. They were hot and sweet.
After a while, we toured the area and and walked in the narrow streets of the Kasbah. We wandered up and down the winding streets while admiring the picturesque houses and their even more beautiful doors. I think I took photos of every door I passed by. Haha! The blue paint on most walls and doors remind visitors of Santorini (and yes, nag-feeling kami sa photos haha). The area also is home to the Jardin des Oudayas, the Jami Al-Atiq (oldest mosque in Rabat) and the Museum of Traditional Arts.
3. Stroll in Volubilis… during noon time, just because we like walking under the sun so much!
I think what made our tour of the Volubilis a great feat is not the place but the fact that we were touring it during the hottest time of the day! Haha! While waiting for our English-speaking tour guide near the entrance of the city of ruins, we huddled on a small shaded part and began asking ourselves why the heck are we standing outside the comfort of our air-conditioned bus into the warmth of the Moroccan sun, are we crazy?! Yes, we are. But then again we were already there and we have to do it yannow? And then we saw the Volubilis from afar and we were like, “Really?! We have to walk there?!? In this heat?!” Well, what to do yanni? We always maximize our time in trips so we can’t let the sun hinder us from seeing what the Volubilis is all about. (Besides, aren’t we used to the heat as Riyadhizens?! 41 degree Celsius pfft! Haha!)
Volubilis doesn’t sound like Morroco-ish noh? Because it isn’t. Like I mentioned in our previous Morocco entries, Volubilis is the ruins of an ancient Roman city. Those Romans conquering lands as far as Africa! Haha! The city was built around three centuries BC by the Carthaginians and thrived under the Romans until the third century. Volubilis was built on top of a fertile land and bordered on both sides by two small rivers. They grew olives and grains and raised wild animals here in the ancient times. It had spacious roads and huge public monuments like temples and thermal baths. It wasn’t as huge and awesome as Ephesus in Turkey but we can see the similarities between the two especially with the style of buildings and ruins. Volubilis was first abandoned in the 18th century when it was demolished to provide for building materials in the construction of the palaces of Moulay Ismail in Meknes.
The main area that we visited was around 800×600 meters only but the ruins of Volubilis are of quite good quality and there were still some intact mosaics in the area. The truth is I couldn’t focus on what our guide was saying and I couldn’t grasp the full history of the place because we were busy looking for shaded places (there were little to none) and uhmn, taking pictures haha. Our guide looked as if he didn’t mind because he didn’t call us back when we strayed from the path. I think that I already have a good inkling into what happened in Roman cities in the olden days because of the history of Ephesus and Pammukale in the back of my mind. But the arch de triomphe of Volubilis is magnificent. It has stood the test of time! What’s wonderful too is the view of the countryside. That took our breath away!
4. Get lost in the souks.
No, I’m kidding. Please don’t get lost in the souks. It’s really hard to find your way and get out of the maze-like streets. The medina (souk) in Fez is where I really got a good sense of what the souks of Morocco will be like. It gave me all kinds of #feels. I was happy to be going around the place, discovering what the little stalls have in store for tourists, and just breathing in the energy and colors of the souks. But it also got me agitated and annoyed because of the aggressive way some vendors ask their customers (us) to buy their wares. I get this; I am a Filipino after all and we have these in the Philippines but I wish people don’t have to resort to being touts who ruin the experience for tourists.
Anyway, touts aside, we had a great time in the medina of Fez, the largest in the world. It has a cultural and spiritual energy that is felt wherever we go. This UNESCO World Heritage site was founded in the 19th century and home to madrassas (Islamic schools), residences, fountains, mosques, and markets. This is where you really get down and dirty. Well, I mean just don’t expect first class surroundings. Haha! While walking in the streets of the medina, we saw all kinds of things! There are vendors selling fruits, meat, souvenirs, and sweets. Various carts ply the alleys and it’s a normal occurrence to have someone shout at you from the back as a replacement for “Excuse me!” They’re trying to pass with their donkeys mounted with all sorts of packages in the back. Someone will just suddenly appear by your side asking you to buy their lether wallets, copper keychains, woven hats, etc. Some men were just sitting about drinking and passing mint tea to each other; others are minding their wares and crafts. Some are preparing street food; mostly bread, and some are selling and peeling prickly pears (el karmouss el hindi in Morocco) which at first we didn’t know about. Every time we see it, we ask, “What is that?!” but never really given answers. There are also unmanned carts of nougats that I wanted to try but was too afraid of its sweetness, haha. The spice carts were so colorful but I was afraid to go near because I might sneeze like crazy.
Many parts of the Fez medina, especially its walls, are decorated with mosaics. Even their communal fountains are decked with mosaic tiles and they’re just so beautiful to look at. But the art here are not just for aesthetics purposes; they’re actually used for every day life. The fountains are used for washing while the mosques with detailed decors are open for praying. The labyrinth of Fez’ souk is the perfect place to be in the old and modern times. The harmony that blends them together is what makes this a great experience.
The souk in Marrakech has almost the same unpredictability like Fez’. We thought it’s just another souk but we got surprised with how the maze opened up to scores of stalls selling gold, ivory, leather, copper, scarves, etc. existing side-by-side with stalls of more modern clothes, class-A rubber shoes, house wares, etc. There were also newer boutiques and galleries. But the highlight of the medina of Marrakech is the largest open air show. The Djemaa El Fna in Marrakech, a market place in Marrakech’s medina is entirely a new experience from the Fez medina. Surprisingly, the meaning of Djemaa El Fna goes something like”the assembly of death,” or “The Mosque at the End of the World”. Huh right? It’s so different from the square is today. The energy in this place, whether you go during the day or night, is high and palpable. I get excited with bazaars and being in this place is such a treat for me. Djemaa El Fna is like an action movie. It has twists and turns that open up to a new adventure every where you go. Our tour guide described it as the largest open air theater ever. Haha. The entertainment is ever-changing and there’s something for everyone!
In the afternoon, the square is filled with snake charmers and medicine men. I’m afraid of snakes so I didn’t get close to the huddle of men playing their flutes and holding cobras. I cringe just by looking at the men putting the snakes on the shoulder of tourists. Waaaaah! No! At least, not for me. Some tourists are brave though and would watch the snakes and touch them. The square then gradually fills when the sun sets and it becomes a carnival of entertainers. The empty space in front of the food stalls and carts was filled with small circles of people watching the musicians, acrobats, dancers and storytellers. Watching for a few minutes means you have to contribute a dirham or two in the hats passed around by a member of the group. There were also fortune tellers scattered in the area. One of the Kuwaiti women with us in the tour group mentioned that she something “dark” in one of the women fortune tellers that were looking at us; her eyes were rimmed with kohl and her hands are lined with henna. I didn’t feel anything and I just think she’s just making a living out of what’s popular in the square. I’m not into knowing my fortune though so I didn’t sit in front of them to know it via my palms.
We also toured the food area and we were so amazed at the sheer number of stalls! The orange juice stalls were lined up in both sides of the square. Plump fruits were in full display and the juices are so refreshingly cold and sweet! There were also water sellers in full traditional costumes rounding up the square; in their shoulders were leather water bags and brass cups. I find this charming but I’m not sure where the water comes from so I had to decline a few times. The number of people in the food stalls grew as the smoke from the grills filled the air. There were so many food stalls selling various dishes but most of them have the meats, seafood, and vegetables on display and they cook right in front of guests. Plastic tables and chairs were arranged in front of the stalls and people can enjoy beer or other drinks while waiting for their food. Some servers were in the walkway asking everyone to try their food and handing out menu.
It would have been lovely to try the food here but we only had 15 minutes to go around. The girls and I didn’t go around; we went to one of the rooftop terraces that overlooks the square to see the action from above. We did have a good view and a good milkshake… if we only had more time to linger. We had to take out our milkshakes and drink while walking fast to our meeting point.
The Djemaa El Fna is truly one-of-a-kind. If you’re not used to the raw and rough and rowdy atmosphere, you won’t enjoy this but if you’re always in the lookout of something new and embrace the vibes of this open air theater, then you ought to visit and experience this. Now, it is not a perfect venue and it would be necessary to take caution while visiting the souks and medina. Be mindful of your stuff, especially your wallets, bags, and mobile phones. Sometimes, pickpockets might be lurking in the crowds and will use every opportunity they’ll see to take valuables from unknowing tourists. Scam artists operate every where too so it’s important to trust only your companions or tour guide and be street smart all the time.
5. See the magic carpet fly at Chez Ali.
If it’s your first time I recommend going to Chez Ali just for the experience. It’s unforgettable, truly, but it’s forgettable if you go the second time around, or more. If you repeat, you’ll probably find it boring and cheesy. I already read the reviews online even before we went to Morocco and I wasn’t really interested in going but once we were in Marrakech, we just went for it because we were already there. Chez Ali is known for its fantasy show and Arabian Nights experience. I didn’t know what to expect but Mokhtar, our guide, mentioned horse-riding and a magic carpet and I immediately forked over my remaining 400 dirhams. There was a promise for a grand dinner too so might as well.
Our tour bus arrived at around eight in the evening and we were driven to the outskirts of Marrakech. We arrived in Chez Ali after 45 minutes or so and we were welcomed by musicians and dancers complete with a guy in costume blowing a trumpet. The place was looked like a palace in the middle of the desert. So yeah, Aladdin feels you guys! There was a “Ali Baba” cave filled with weird stuff actually, haha. It was a bit corny to go through it. Before entering the main door, there was also a photo opportunity for ALL the guests. Walang takas! Haha! The photos will be available for sale outside the venue after the show.
Anyway, once inside Chez Ali, we were surprised at how huge and wide the place is. There were tents surrounding a huge rectangular arena. While going to our tent, we were welcomed by folklore troupes dancing and singing giving the evening an animated feel. Once inside the tent, we were cramped into round tables. We were served with forgettable, a huge slow-roasted lamb dish called Mechoui that was bland, and some fruits. The dinner was a waste of time and money.
After eating we went to the middle area and sat on concrete benches to watch the evening’s finale… the Fantasia show. It featured acrobats on Arabia horses doing their exhibitions and firing rifles (which surprised the hell out of us). There was a lone belly dancer that danced in the middle atop a stage that moves. And finally, the magic carpet flying from afar.
All in all, a bit underwhelming compared to the ambiance they created with the decor and design of the place. We were all, “that was it?!?” Hahaha! In all fairness, the acrobats were good and they were the highlight of the night (as opposed to the so-so routine of the belly dancer).
If you’re planning on going to Chez Ali, just go for the Fantasia show and not the dinner.
We have a LOT more unforgettable memories in Morocco and as much as I want to write about them all, I’m afraid I have to leave that for a novel I’m writing. Chos. Joke. Haha! This entry will get longer but then I’ve written about how we ate Chinese food on our second day right? And how we ventured into a night in Fez just to get a fast food meal. I also mentioned how we changed rooms in one of our hotels because it was warm as crazy in the first hotel we went to. Or how Reina thought she turned on the aircon switch in our hotel in Rabat but she didn’t and no one realized it until the following day. Or how we elbowed our way out of a really narrow alley with touts walking fast after us. And how we wanted to avoid stairs because our friend Jamila has a knee condition and was using a cane BUT we always go to places with lots of stairs or uneven cobbled streets in Volubilis and Fez… such is the ironic twists of life. Reina was also summoned to dance with a belly dancer or I was given a birthday gift I will never forget… but those are stories for the next entry. Stay tuned. 😉