Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Africa (page 2 of 2)

Volubilis Morocco

On route to Volubilis

On route to Volubilis

I have come to learn that Roman ruins look like…..you guessed it…..Roman ruins the world over. Sites that I have visited in Syria look similar to sites I visited in Jordan while still similar to sites in Cyprus and also to sites in Morocco. Romans had their building styles down. Seriously. So on route to the Moroccan city of Chefchaouen we stopped off at the UNESCO site of Volubilis. Volubilis is located about 90min west of Fez. We hired a driver to take us to Chefchaouen and had decided to make a stop-off to see these Roman sites.

Volubilis is only partially excavated, and is in varying states of ruin, literally in the middle of an agriculture field surrounded by a small town. They are reportedly the best preserved site in Morocco which was why we were keen to see it. The area was developed in the 3rd century BC and expanded under Roman rule in the 1st century AD. It is estimated that the 40 hectare site housed some 20 000 people at its peak. In the 2nd and 3rd century the basilica, arch, and baths were added and the area was known for its fertile soil and subsequent olive groves. By the end of the 3rd century the site fell to local Berber tribes and the area was abandoned by the Romans. It would remain abandoned for another 700 years before becoming an Islamic settlement in the 8th century. By the 11th century it was abandoned again. In the mid-18th century the ruins were damaged in an earthquake.

We arrived at the site mid-morning, and as it was the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan the site was empty. I don’t remember how much the entrance fee was but as with all tourists sites in Morocco it was very cheap compared to what you would pay anywhere else. There are guides available at the entrance but we decided to wander on our own. You will need at least 60-90 minutes to do it justice, and wear decent shoes as the paths are rocky. Also bring lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat if visiting in the summer months because there is like zero shade and you will be sweating your ass off.

Volubilis is known for its well preserved mosaics and the remains of the Capitol, Basilica and the Triumph Arch. The mosaics are roped off, but otherwise you can freely roam through the rest of the site. The Basilica has reconstructed columns where if you time your visit with stork nesting season you’ll be able to see the storks perched on the tops of the columns. I like the Triumph Arch the best personally. The mosaics were slightly confusing. In the House of the Acrobat there is one of a guy riding a horse (although it looks more like a donkey to me) backwards that was confusing. Also the guy looks naked. I feel like riding a horse backwards while naked is a recipe for disaster. According to my Lonely Planet it is meant to depict an athlete who received a trophy for dismounting his horse and then jumping back on while the horse was moving. Those crazy Romans!!!

The view towards the Capital

See the nesting storks??

 

 

 

 

 

Archway of the Basilica

The view of the Basilica ruins

 

 

 

 

 

Horse vs donkey??

Me at the Triumph Arch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The main road from the Triumph Arch is called the Decumanus Maximus and is lined with the ruins of houses on either side. The House of Ephebus and the House of the Knight contain mosaics that are fairly well maintained, but the best preserved mosaics are found in the House of Venus. They are the Abduction of Hylas by the Nymphs, and Diana Bathing. The story behind the mosaic of Diana Bathing was that a hunter named Acteon saw Diana bathing and she punished him by turning him into a stag. Well played Diana, well played.

Very ornate ruins of a column

House of the Columns

 

 

 

 

 

Diana Bathing

The ruins amongst the fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you find yourself in the northwestern part of Morocco you should make a stop at Volubilis. The green colour of the fields surrounding this archeological site make for great photos, and it’s not every day that you get to see a mosaic from the 2nd or 3rd century of a questionably naked guy riding a horse backwards. Trust me.

Fez Morocco

Fez is the second largest city in Morocco (Casablanca is the largest) and up until the mid 1920’s it was Morocco’s capital (Rabat is the current capital.) Fez is considered to have the largest Medina in the world. It has over 9000 maze-like streets and alleyways. The Medina was founded in the 9th century and the entire area is a UNESCO site. Similarly to Marrakech the city is broken into the old and new parts.

We took a 1st class train from Marrakech to Fez which takes about 8hrs. Moroccan trains are nice. They have AC, the bathrooms aren’t awful (although like Indian trains they just open onto the tracks), and they have a roaming food cart. We shared a 6 person berth and both had window seats. Not a bad way to travel. Personally, I love the motion of travel. I love to watch the scenery, and the world go by as I listen to music or just contemplate life. The train made it’s way northwest from Marrakech towards the coastal areas of Casablanca and Rabat before cutting east towards Meknes and ending in Fez. The city itself was much larger than I had originally expected. We booked a riad on the outskirts of the Medina called Riad Jamai and it was lovely. It you are planning a trip to Fez this is a great place to stay as it’s easy to get to by car, and the staff are super helpful. They have a lovely rooftop terrace which is a great way to take in the sunset while sipping a glass of wine while listening to the call to prayer chime in from all the surrounding mosques. This really is a magical experience. We decided to eat dinner here both nights, and they were 2 of the best meals we had.

First class berth

Moroccan rail travel

 

 

 

 

 

Riad Jamai

Riad Jamai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fez sunset

Sunset over the Medina

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had been forewarned about wandering the Medina at night by many of the locals we met. Petty-crime is the most common complaint. The Medina is so large that it’s rather intimidating, and this seemed like sound advice so we didn’t venture out at night. The following day we hired a guide who took us around Fez for an entire day. With a guide you can easily see everything you want to see in a day- but wear comfortable shoes because you will put on a lot of miles doing it. Fez is also not a flat city, so be prepared for some steep hills and to climb some stairs as you explore. We started off the day by exiting the Medina via the Bab Boujloud gate (otherwise known as the “Blue Gate” although it’s blue on one side and green on the other) and hailing a taxi to take us the the Jewish quarter otherwise known as a mellah. Prior to the exodus to Israel it’s estimated that between 250 000-350 000 Jewish people lived in Morocco, making it the largest Jewish population in a Muslim country- today, it’s estimated that around 2500 remain, mostly residing in Casablanca. We visited the Jewish cemetery and drove past what remains of some Jewish houses which stand in contrast to the Muslim homes as they have open second floor balconies. From here we walked over to the King’s Palace with its ornate golden doors and then visited the Batha Museum which is housed in a 19th century summer palace with beautiful gardens. We then walked back into the Medina winding our way past bakery stalls, butchers, and vegetable sellers. The market was a bustle of activity, as it was day before Ramadan would start and people were stocking up for festivities for that night.

It’s blue on the other side I swear…

Jewish cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

The King’s Palace

Gardens at the Batha Museum

 

 

 

From here we took another taxi to Merenid Tombs dating from the 13th to 15th century. These tombs offer spectacular views of the Medina below. Little is known of these tombs, but they are believed to possibly have housed royalty. From here we visited the Fassi ceramic and pottery co-operative and got a tour about how Moroccan pottery is made. Of course there’s no way to get out of there without buying something, because everything is super beautiful. I bought a lovely oven safe plate- which really is rather silly because I neither cook, nor do I live somewhere currently that has an oven. But it is very pretty so c’est la vie. We were then dropped back in the Medina and our guide dropped us off for lunch before we started touring again. Next on the itinerary was Kairaouine Mosque and University. The university is thought to be the oldest university in the world. It was opened in 859 and in 1963 it was included in Morocco’s state university system. As non-Muslims we were only allowed to sneak views (and photos) thru the doorways.

View of Fez Medina

Merenid Tombs

 

 

 

 

 

Old city wall

Public gardens in the new town

 

 

 

 

 

Pottery making

Beautiful Fassi Pottery

From here we did a little shopping. Then we ended up at the tanneries. Locals all over Morocco love the tanneries, in that no matter where you are going someone will suggest or try and lead you to the tanneries. Obviously the locals get compensated for anything you might buy. So off to the tanneries we go, because according to my bible (the Lonely Planet) Fez leather is some of the finest leather in the world. And I was itching for a new jacket. You can really smell the tanneries before you see them. They are gag-worthy. Luckily, they give you a fresh sprig of mint which only slightly masks the smell but did prevent me from vomiting in my mouth. I’ve read that for photographic purposes it’s best to go to the tanneries in the morning when the colour is most vibrant, but we went in the afternoon, and the pictures were great. So after we’d been told the whole leather spiel the pressure was on for us to buy something. And buy something we did. We both bought lovely leather/Berber carpet bags, and I bought a soft black leather crop jacket. I’m very much looking forward to being able to wear it in the cooler months. From here we wandered back towards our riad while stopping off at Nejjarine Fountain a very ornately restored fountain.

Fez tanneries

Colourful dye

 

 

 

 

 

Berber carpets

Najjarine Fountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that wraps up our 2 nights in Fez. Of course there is much more to explore and we could have spend much more time here, but for us this was a perfect amount. From here we headed towards the famous blue city of Chefchaouen with a stop-off at the UNESCO site of Volubilis.

Have you been to Fez? What did you think?

Marrakech Morocco

This might be a long winded post. Sorry in advance! Marrakesh is a busy, bustling city with a population of nearly 1 million. Almost. It’s Morocco’s 4th largest city and it was the most important Imperial (historical) city. We spent 2 nights here at the beginning of our trip, and nearly a week at the end with an overnight break to the Atlas Mountains. The city itself is broken up into the new and old parts. The old part has the Medina and the majority of the historical buildings, the new part has lovely gardens and trendy upscale hotels. We stayed in the old town for most of our time. Moroccans speak Arabic or French typically. Some people speak English, but often not enough to communicate in great detail. Lucky for me I speak just enough Arabic to make people clap with excitement. Unfortunately they could understand my basic formal Arabic while I was left clueless trying to understand Moroccan Arabic. Sign language would become our language of choice.

The accommodations in Morocco are unlike anywhere I’ve ever stayed. There are many, many “riads” which are Moroccan houses or palaces with a garden, and most have a pool or a fountain. They are breathtaking. And surprisingly not too expensive. Like $50-60US for 2 people a night for a nice place. One of the things I loved in Morocco was that attention is paid to every detail. You will find yourself taking photos of light fixtures, and railings, and doors, and doorknobs. It’s a little absurd really. Can you imaging if you saw tourists in Canada taking photos of bathroom sinks, the lights, and your front door?? Well, that was basically how we were in Morocco. Everything is ridiculously ornate. Good luck not taking a photo of multiple peoples front doors!

Could you resist a photo?

Could you resist a photo?

A riad pool

A riad pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A gorgeous riad

A gorgeous riad

Another door photo...

Another door photo…

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at 3 different riads in Marrakech. The medina is pretty large and the alleys are quite confusing, and also poorly lit in some areas. Often to find the place initially you have to be led there. Unless you don’t mind wandering with your luggage in 100F heat. We spent our days exploring the many old buildings, shopping in the medina, eating delicious Moroccan tajines and sipping cold beer on rooftop bars. Most of our trip was during Ramadan and this did require some adjustment on our part. Not all places were open in the daytime to eat. Most shops were open during the day and then around 6pm most of them would close up so people could break-fast with their families. Alleyways would look very desolate as it was mostly only the tourists out wandering.

There is a lot to see in Marrakech, but I’ll just highlight my favourites for you. You should definitely check out Dar Si Said. It’s part museum part 19th century home, but the courtyard and garden area, and the upstairs rooms are spectacular. Bahia Palace is quite similar but with WAY more tourists, so Dar Si Said is the place to see. Maison Tiskiwin is a cool museum that showcases North African crafts and culture. It always surprises me how similar textile patterns around the world are. In this case Berber patterns look visually similar to patterns in Guatemala and similar still to patterns in Bhutan. Another museum that I especially liked was the Maison de la Photographie which houses a collection of old photos from the early to mid 19th century as well as showcasing new work. Well worth a visit. Ali ben Youssef Medersa was founded in the 14th century and was once the largest Koran school in North Africa. It is impressive, and you can tour the uppers floors where students would have lived. The last thing that I recommend is to head on over to New Town and check out the Jardin Majorelle otherwise known as the Yves Saint Laurent memorial gardens. They are amazing. Seriously. So colourful, with fountains and sitting areas. And since you’re already there you should check out the Berber Art Museum which talks of Berber history and culture as well as showcasing tradition jewelery and clothing.

Dar Si Said courtyard

Dar Si Said courtyard

Dar Si Said

Dar Si Said

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ali bin Youssef Medersa

Ali bin Youssef Medersa

Inside the Medersa

Inside the Medersa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jardin Majorelle

Jardin Majorelle

Beautiful colours

Beautiful colours

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Marrakech Medina takes up a 19km area and is full of old riads, shops, galleries and restaurants. All of the above places with the exception of the gardens are in the Medina. The main square called Djemaa El-Fna is a site to behold and not for the weak of heart. The action really gets going closer to sunset and into the evening. It’s full of pushy henna artists, snake charmers, monkey trainers, souvenier stalls, food stalls, and people dressed in traditional clothing. It’s a very happening place, but it’s difficult to walk around with out getting hassled. Regardless, it’s beautiful at sunset and there are cafes surrounding portions of the square to sit back and watch the entertainment unfold. I’ll write more about the numerous unpleasant experiences we had here in a later post.

The main square

The main square

Snake charmers. Gross.

Snake charmers. Gross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took a side trip to the Atlas Mountains during our time in Marrakech. The Atlas Mountains stretch across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Just over an hour away from Marrakech they make an easy day-trip or a quick retreat from the city. We booked one night at L’Oliveraie de Marigha and it was lovely. We relaxed poolside surrounded by gorgeous views. Since it was low-season we basically had the place to ourselves. Literally. There was only one other guest. The staff were great, and if I ever find myself back in Morocco I would stay here again for sure.

The Atlas Mountains

The Atlas Mountains

Relaxing poolside

Relaxing poolside

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s the low-down on what to see and do in Marrakech. Next up….the Imperial city of Fez…..

Morocco

Flying into Morocco

Flying into Morocco

Mid-June I spent 2 weeks exploring Morocco with my Yankee best mate. We spent a decent chunk of time in Marrakesh, as well as spending some time in Fez, Chefchaouen, and the Atlas Mountains. I’d long wanted to visit Morocco, as I’ve always loved anything vaguely resembling a Moroccan pattern, and the food, but I’m kinda at a loss for words to describe my feelings on it. The food was amazing, and it was a very beautiful and ornate country, but we had some of the worst run-ins I’ve ever had as a traveler. And that’s saying a lot as most of the countries I’ve traveled to are developing countries. In an attempt not to sound super shitty about our time there I’m going to break up my blog posts about each place we went, and leave all the dirty details for the last post. That way I can describe all the lovely positive things we saw and experiences we had, before I tell you of the numerous unpleasant, rude and offensive things that happened. I’ve got 2 versions of Morocco and first I’ll share the good one. Happy reading……

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