• Anna Kwiecinska

You Must Remember This… Casablanca to Fes

You know the rest don't you? ... a kiss is just a kiss ...

Perhaps no place conjures a moment in 20th century movie history more than the 1942 romance, Casablanca, set against the elegant piano bar where Europe's wartime enemies rubbed up against collaborators, conspirators and con men in a city crawling with intrigue.

Rick's Bar in Casablanca - with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman playing in the background

It's October 2019, one of the best months to enjoy Morocco's diverse geographies and climates (my other favourite time is May), and I'm touring with 11 travellers from Western Australia, on my 3rd Sea to Sahara small group tour of Morocco.

From the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, crossing the Rif Mountains, the Middle and High Atlas Ranges, descending into the Sahara Desert, resting, like caravans of old, in a beautiful desert oasis before reaching the greatest trading city in Africa - Marrakech - we then head back to the Atlantic. It's Sea to Sahara and back to sea.

Sure, there are quicker, shorter ways to see this remarkable country, but honesty, I can't even imagine flying into the Sahara Desert straight from Marrakech or Casablanca on a 2-day turn-around trip. Being in the Sahara is so much more than just seeing it.

Besides all of the anticipation from the earliest stages of planning your Moroccan adventure, there is the reality of arriving … the journey … and on this journey we're going to take our time, spending two nights in Tangier, and even longer in Fes, before we reach the Blue Men on the golden sands of Merzouga.

Our Berber cameleers showing us how it's done after we ride into the high dunes to witness a stunning Saharan sunset

Day 1: Casablanca to Tangier Casablanca's history is reflected in its diverse architecture: La Belle Epoque balconies, Art Deco doorways, Moorish archways and an elegant corniche along which we approach the awe-inspiring spectacle which is the Hassan II Mosque.

Floating majestically upon the shore it is the 7th largest mosque in the world (with the world's tallest minaret, 210m.), a monument not only for the faithful of Islam, but a dramatic statement of sovereignty and national pride.

A gift to his kingdom, Hassan II, the present King's father, said of his endowment: "I wish 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."

Completed in 1993, it's construction showcases the ultimate in Moroccan artisanship : enamelled cedarwood from Sefrou, glazed ceramic mosaics from Fes - all the elements within the complex are sourced from Morocco's rich artisan environment - except the Venetian chandeliers. (for another view of the mosque, please refer to the blog post entitled 'Morocco to the Greek islands').

One of the advantages of being in a small group is our flexibility. We've made such great time today that an impromptu detour to Rabat, the nation's capital, and a UNESCO World heritage city, an hour's drive away, seems like an unplanned plan!

in the kasbah of the Umayas, Rabat

The Berber musician, above, is playing a gimbri, constructed in Essaouira, a coastal town farther south A gimbri is made with the neck skin of camel on a thuya wood box and has only 3 strings to produce its soft, percussive twang. Twirling his tasselled cap is an essential part of the performance usually identified with musicians from Mali.

Rabat has the singular honour in Morocco of serving as a capital city during two imperial reigns. Not only that of the present Alaouite dynasty who unified and ruled the Kingdom since 1631, and chose to base their power here when Morocco was freed from the period of the French Protectorate (1912-55), but Rabat was first cast as an imperial capital in the C.12th by the Berber Almohad dynasty.

It is through their mighty entrance gate that we pass to enter the Kasbah of the Umayas, overlooking both the Atlantic and the Bou Regreg River, getting our first glimpse of Morocco's medieval monumental architecture, its iconography and styling ... and here we begin to understand where the impetus for the massive mosque we have left behind in Casablanca might have come from.

Rabat: (1) the C.11th walls of the Umayas Kasbah - capital of the Almohad dynasty. (2) The Kasbah and (3) seen from across the Bou Regreg River (4) the intricate plasterwork of the Almohad dynasty.

In her 1920 travel guide to Morocco, Edith Wharton, (first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize), described Rabat "as noble and complete as some noble Tuscan city", whilst Sale, across the river, was a place of "sly, fearsome and irrepressible pirates and fanatics".

Our journey continues, the Atlantic to our left, and to our right, the scrubby hills of olive groves, cork trees and goats. As we travel, I'm sharing Wharton's chapter on this region;

In Morocco was the first modern travel guide to the country, and in her compact prose there is no mistaking "the lustreless leaves" of the terrain we're crossing.

How marvellous, then, to finally sight the Bay of Tangier and its port - recently revamped, but the 5th oldest in the Mediterranean - immortalised by Matisse a century ago.

The Bay of Tangier by Matisse, c.1912

Matisse created a sensation in Europe with his scenes of exotic North Africa - this is pictured from a rooftop in the Kasbah looking East.

Matisse's iconic scenes of exotic Tangier made a huge impact at the time - perhaps none more so than the view from a window of the beautiful hotel in which we stay - a heritage masterpiece overlooking the medinas, the kasbah and the bay.

Room with a View: Today the view across the English Church towards the kasbah (L) Matisse's view from his hotel room 1912-3 and (R) my view from the same window 107 years later

On TripAdvisor you'll see plenty of comments advising you to skip Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier.

Well, each to her own … but for me this is one of the most magical cities in the world. I love it (I'm planning to go live there one day), as we wander through the Socco Grande and Socco Chico - the Spanish names given to the two small medinas in this city which was known as an 'International Zone' in the mid C.20th - history is brought to life by the stunning erudition of our guide.

Wander narrow alleys we find the unassuming entrance of a synagogue endowed by a Moroccan Jewish diaspora, whilst the elegant salons of the American Legation (Morocco was the first country to officially recognise the fledgling American nation) dedicate a room to Paul Bowles, and stepping into bright daylight again, there's a tiny shop selling what is quite possibly the best nougat you'll ever encounter.

In parts, Tangier lives up to its reputation as a seedy port, a place that author William Burroughs (The Naked Lunch ) called 'the interzone', where nothing was impossible, and everything had a price.

It's here, if you look carefully, you'll find the real 'Rick's Bar', not far from the French Consulate and the camera shops whose founders brought photography to Morocco.

Our candlelit evenings are occasions of glamorous dining in a grand villa on 'The Old Mountain', where the rich and fabulous set spent fabled lives, and a wildly historic riad pushed up against the stone walls of the kasbah, a short walk from the sultan's palace and its dungeon, used as a grim prison well into the C.20th.

Dining in Tangier: from the 'Old Mountain' to several views in the the old kasbah

Day 2 Tangier is a city to fall in love with. Writers and painters have been inspired for centuries - even the famous C.17th diarist Samuel Pepys stayed here - but none could be more renowned that Paul Bowles - he of The Sheltering Sky fame - whose very name is a byword for this 'edge city'.

How many have arrived and not wanted to leave? … we stroll past 'poor little rich girl', Barbara Hutton's sprawling kasbah mansion 'Sidi Hosni', with its poignant Arabic inscription:

"If ever there was heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here"

Lunch on the rooftop of a Kasbah riad and gaze towards Spain, the call to prayer ringing around us, as our guide Mohammed steps out for Friday prayers.

just around the corner from Sidi Hosni, sheltered by one of the most beautiful mosaic fountains in the whole of Morocco

Day 3: The Road to Chefchaouen takes us along the Mediterranean coast. Making good time again, we once again take a chance and deviate left for a spontaneous walk through the UNESCO World Heritage medina of Tetouan with a local guide we pick up in the town. What he lacks in English language skills he makes up for with enthusiasm, and through the architectural details he explains, we are introduced to the role that Andalusia has played in Moroccan history.

above: (1)The UNESCO World Heritage medina of Tetouan (2) a medieval doorway to a riad in the old medina with a brass pomegranate-inspired design, indicating that the inhabitants were Moors from Granada, Andalusia, Spain (3)The tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville cathedral, Spain, with the pomegranate symbolising the great city of Granada, held by Arab dynasties from 710 to 1492.

Our third night is spent in Chefchaouen which we've reached in time for a late lunch.

Rugged and individualistic, the Rif's craggy landscape has hidden smugglers and sufis alike over the centuries, but today Chefchaouen is better known for its illicit kif and blue houses. Funky cafes, the most instagrammed streets in the country ... you either love it - or not.

Chefchaouen hid for centuries amidst the hillsides of the Rif

Day 4 : The Road to Fez

Crossing the invisible border at Sidi Kacem that marked the French (on the northern side) and Spanish (on the southern side) territories during the years know as the French Protectorate, it's a sunny day to spend glorious hours discovering the ruins of Volubilis.

Morocco's most extensive Roman ruins are almost deserted, we have them to ourselves. Well-preserved mosaic floors of the city's hillside elite have escaped vandalism, are a richly varied display of styles over several centuries.

The Kasbah Museum in Tangier provided a wonderful introduction to the extensive trade routes that made this such an important part of what was called 'Mauritania', and the verdant fields of wheat that cover the hills as far as the eye can see make obvious the prosperity that this western perimeter of the Roman Empire contributed.

From here we reach nearby Meknes, Morocco's penultimate imperial city with its enormous palace complex.

Built by Sultan Ismail with slave labour in the 1600s - 'the golden age of piracy' - and completed within his lifetime, it is said that Ismail, described by Wharton as "a mad old architect", wanted to rival Louis XIV, the Sun King, and his palace of Versailles.

What it lacks in stony grandeur (it was constructed in mud for speed), is made up for with monumentality. With its dreadful dungeons and monumental stables into whose walls those that died working were encased, the pages of The Sultan's Wife by Jane Johnson, based on eyewitness accounts, brings this vast, silent edifice to terrifyingly lurid life.

Above : The stables in Meknes and Carmel being coy in the Roman ruins of Volubilis

We continue southwards, reaching the outskirts of Fes by early evening.

Held by the hills which surround the river on which the city was settled in the C.8th, arriving at sunset is special.The medina twinkles with promise and the azan, the Moslem call to prayer, sings out within the ancient walls.

Arriving into Fes is something of a dream - it always is. I lived here for 6 months in 2018 and familiar faces stand behind the counters of shops, just as I remember them.

Staying in the heart of the medina, rather than urban Fes' large hotels, we have our exquisite riad all to ourselves. Described by one of our seasoned traveller's as "the most wonderful place I've ever stayed", it's home for the next three nights, and tonight we celebrate on the terrace with tagine of fish, tarte tatin and French wine.

Fez, World Heritage medina of 9400 streets and home to the world's oldest university

The only way to discover Fes el-Bali is on foot; there is no traffic other than occasional motorcycles, hand-drawn carts (carousas), and pack donkeys.

A truly bewildering maze of narrow alleys running like an ant hill from two thoroughfares - 'big street' and 'small street' - the medina's towering walls are propped up by UNESCO intervention to save this extraordinary city of around one million from falling in upon itself.

A major stop for caravans plying between the Sahara and the Mediterranean, its dark alleys punctuated by arched passages, massive wooden doors open creakily into medieval courtyards where pack animals are still stabled in caravanserais.

above;(1) a medieval carvanserai still stabling pack donkeys and (2) being used as a tannery

Here traders sought accommodation upstairs with others dealing in the same produce, and occasionally you'll see the massive scales where goods were weighed, taxed and traded, enriching the rulers who, depending on their ambitions and interests, waged war or endowed cities with magnificent public architecture.

Above: (1)Fes, looking across from the Merenid tombs towards Batha; (2) Ceramic handicrafts in the making (3) mosaic artisans (4) Fes is famed for its hand-crafts...these are made by a man who lacks speech and hearing

Morocco forbids entrance to non-Moslems in most of its mosques (to my knowledge only the Hassan II in Casablanca and the ruined, but immensely grand mosque of Timrit a day's drive from Marrakech, permit visits). However, in Fes el-Bali we can enter the Bouanina madrasa which drew scholars, including Maiomides, from across the medieval Arab world, to witness the artisanship that the Merenids commissioned to rival that of Al-Andalus in Southern Spain.

And, with its abundance of water, Fes became the site of the Chouara tanneries from where leather to rival the quality of Cordoba's has been produced since the C.11th. Today tiny shops with jackets of soft suede and buttery leather are crammed between those selling spices, bee-buzzing sweets, filgree lamps and a profusion of carpets.

At the height of its hegemony, C.13-15th. the city is said to have housed 40,000 cloth weavers, and today men (it is a male occupation) sit before their looms clattering the time-worn frames and shuttling bobbins of glossy 'cactus silk' to create the colourful striped bedcovers synonymous with the city.

Fes really isn't the best place for most styles of carpets - we'll wait 'til we head towards the Atlas mountains and beyond for that pleasure - but if you're looking for pointy-toed babouche, dazzling mosaics or the finest filigree work of an Aladdin's lamp, Fes is the place. We duck and dive down alleys, climb rickety stairways and shake cobwebs and dust off treasures which have stories to tell at home.

We're welcomed into a private photography gallery by its idiosyncratic owner, Gerald, a bookseller with a penchant for plants, birds and opera who's keen to share the view from his terrace in R'cif. The entire medina, its 40 minarets, and the two grand mosques whose emerald-green rooftiles, made by hand and glazed in the furnaces of Tamgroute on the edge of the Sahara, spreads before us as if a carpet was unfurled.

It's a hard working city, the medina. Illiteracy remains high and many still struggle from day to day. Its authenticity is palpable.

Day 7 We head south via Sefrou, with its troupes of inquisitive barbary apes and Alpine vistas.

This Sea to Sahara journey continues in Part 2 of 'You Must Remember This'

all photos by Anna Kwiecinska. Images by Matisse - Google

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