(click on pictures to enlarge)
I’m back in Rome and have been busy with guests including my sister Florinda since I got back a little over a week ago. It was nice to have people here during these sad and troubling times with Trump elected as the new U.S. President and the deaths of two iconic musicians Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell. I find myself not wanting to read another word about ‘that man’ (and I’m not referring to either of the Ls!) and yet reading everything I come across to see what new madness is afoot. As one of my friends commented, its like watching a horror movie unfold. We can only wait and see how it`s all going to shake out.
I’m depressed about the political climate and don’t feel like continuing with the Moroccan journey but I shall plow on in an effort to distract you with something less dismal than what we’re facing.
From Fes, we drove north to Chefchaouen at the base of the RIF mountains stopping at Meknes on the way to see the Royal Palace. Meknes, established as the royal capital by Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th cent. is a mixture of Andalusian and Moorish architecture surrounded by high walls and gigantic gates.
The Royal Stables are truly an impressive sight, built to house 12,000 horses reputedly each with its own groom and slave. Legend has it that Moulay Ismael was fanatical about his horses and cared more for them more than for his subjects! He was a one of Morocco’s more ruthless leaders and treated his labourers inhumanely. Ruthless and bigoted leaders are not a new phenomenon! The roof of the stables was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755 but the structure still stands and is truly a remarkable sight complete with water supplies and enormous grain stores to feed the horses.
Chefchaouen translated as ‘Looking at the Peaks’ is a quaint little village with all the houses painted white and blue. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2010, it looks more Greek or Andalusian than other places in Morocco.
Many Arabs and Jews came here from southern Spain after 1492 when the inhabitants of Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism, bringing the Andalusian style of architecture with them. Chefchaouen is also the region where marijuana can be legally grown (kif in the RIF) and which supplies the majority of the hashish sold in Europe. It is not legal to buy it in the streets, not that we were looking to do so. We enjoyed walking around the streets, seeing the Berbers from the mountains selling their wares, watching the children playing and their mothers chit chatting in doorways, all without the need for mind enhancing drugs!
Our next stop was Tangier where the Mediterranean and Atlantic ocean meet on the bay of the Straits of Gibralter. A modern city with cafes and restaurants but with an ancient medina and a varied and fascinating history. A Phoenician trading post in the 1st cent. BC, it was successively Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Spanish, Portuguese, British, and international city of its own from 1912 until the independence of Morocco in 1956. As a result of its international status and mild climate, it became a haven for many writers like Paul Bowles, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams Jean Genet and Alan Ginsberg. Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch in Tangier. The French painters Delacroix and Matisse also spent time there.
Despite it being dark in the early evening, I dragged one of our party, Jill, to the Café Hafa which used to be the meeting place for many expats. A lovely location with terraces overlooking the ocean to the Straits of Gibralter and a great place to sit sipping mint tea. We saw lots of young people as well as couples and it seemed that the atmosphere was more relaxed in Tangier than in some other parts of Morocco. One of the sights I was glad to see was the Hercules cave on the coast just outside the city which has an opening in the shape of the continent of Africa reputed to have been cut out by the Phoenicians. Legend has it that Hercules stayed in the cave before completing his eleventh labour which was to get golden apples from the garden of Hesperides supposedly located closeby.
We spent a day in Rabat, the capital city but were not up to racing around seeing all the sights so we stayed close to the medina where our riadh was located. I only visited the Oudaias Kasbah and walked around the medina. There were no people trying to push their wares and though bargaining is the norm in the souks in Morocco, prices here started at a reasonable sum. The Kasbah is on the edge of the city overlooking the ocean. We saw a lot of young people enjoying the views and hanging out with their friends and also young couples showing public affection.
Our final stop was Casablanca, famous for the Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca. Here too, the women seemed less traditional and many wore western dress. Its hard to judge how much independence women really have in this male dominated culture and I wish I had been able to talk to a woman about this.
One of the most impressive sights in Casablanca is the new Hassan II mosque situated partly in the ocean and partly on land which took 7 years to build. Its minaret is said to be the tallest in the world. It is the only mosque in Morocco that non-Moslems are allowed to enter. Casablanca also has one of the only Jewish museums in the Arab world. It was interesting to visit as it shows how Jewish and Muslim Moroccans once had a harmonious coexistence. There`s more to be gained from peaceful and tolerant communities than from divisive politics and hate mongering. I hope Trump can come around to that view.