By Debora Soutar
Special to The Progress
Casablanca! Kasbah! Berbers! These words make us think of the exotic and mysterious, and they don’t disappoint. I am travelling with a small group of mostly women, mostly from Chilliwack, exploring the kingdom of Morocco in North Africa.
We arrived at the Casablanca airport in the wee hours and spent our first night in a tiny hotel, ornately decorated with tile mosaic and colourful chandeliers. Refreshed from the first horizontal sleep after thirty plus hours of travel, we set out by foot to explore the city. First stop was Rick’s Cafe, of Humphrey Bogart fame, which has been restored to its Art Deco origin followed by the second largest mosque in the world, Hassan II Mosque, perched over the Atlantic and bordered by a pedestrian sea wall with boys surfing on chunks of styrofoam. Our senses were bombarded with sacks of spices, stacks of fresh fish, and open charcoal braziers offering grilled corn, and shrimp. All the food is absolutely delicious. Every meal begins with a selection of marinated olives and fresh bread. We all loved the chicken pastille, which is a puff pastry pie enclosing chicken and topped with honey, raisins and crushed nuts. It was easy for us to get around because everyone speaks French as well as Arabic, dating back to French occupation. Remember hearing about the French Foreign Legion? The forts are called kasbahs!
We travelled in our own modern, air-conditioned bus. Our next destination was Tangier, which is right across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, which we could see from our lunch stop. Here everyone speaks Spanish because of previous occupation by Spain. A brand-new marina supports the fishing industry and we strolled along the thoroughly modern beachfront promenade, grateful that it wasn’t summer when temperatures approach 50C!
By late afternoon we were in a completely different landscape in the Rif mountain city of Chefchouan, the “Blue City”, where all the streets are cobblestone and steeply inclined, and the houses are painted a lovely sky blue. The air was fresh, and brightly coloured flowers flourished in little meadows and in terra cotta pots at every doorway. After a day of walking (climbing!), we strolled among the stunning, important second century Roman ruins at Volubolis on our way to the ancient and massive royal city of Fez.
Fez has been a major hub of international trade for centuries and continues to provide exquisite goods for tourists and Moroccans. Artisans practice traditional skills like metalwork, leather production and dyeing, and pottery and mosaic and the entire old city (medina) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It felt like going back in time as we traded the Moroccan currency of dirhams for luxury goods, like leather slippers and fine pottery. The day was capped with delicious tajin chicken and couscous accompanied by live, traditional music and belly dancing.
Next stop – the Sahara, home of the Berber people.