The Valley Vagabond: Culture Shock in Morocco- Fes, Chefchaouen, Tangier and Casablanca (Part 3)

This is so late, and there are four cities! You will understand why I can cram it all into the last part in a minute. You can catch up here.

We left early the next morning to start our 8-hour drive to Fes. By now, we were tired of long car drives, but our guide, Hamid, went to great lengths to tell us about the sights we saw. We drove through El Borouj, with its beautiful architecture. Damia, Drâa-Tafilalet, which marks the beginning of the largest oasis in Morocco, before stopping at the Hotel Meteorites near Boulajoul Zaida for lunch.

Little did I know when I regretfully climbed back into the car that one of my favorite parts of the trip was a little more than an hour away near Azrou in a cedar forest. We soon arrived in the forest and pulled over to find MONKEYS.

Barbary macaque monkeys, to be precise. While we did see trained monkeys in Marrakech, these were wild, although habituated to this spot and living in the cedar forest. Two men were selling peanuts to feed them, and we happily fed about 10-15 who came to greet us.

I could have stayed with them for much longer, but we had a schedule to keep and got back in the car for the last hour of our trip. I closed my eyes briefly and opened them to see we were in Europe. What happened?

Ifrane, with its snow-capped mountains, pine forests, and European-style architecture, is known as the “Switzerland of Morocco.” This town boasts the largest ski resort in Morocco, hiking, and Al Akhawayn University, modeled on American universities and the only one of its kind in the country.

Soon after, we arrived in Fes at the Palais Faraj Suites & Spa on the Medina’s edge. Tired from all the driving, we were gratified to find the hotel had been upgraded to a much nicer suite. I had strategically chosen hotels to switch between a more authentic experience and the Western luxuries we were used to. This was certainly luxurious, with four rooms and two bathrooms.

We had dinner in their VERY fancy restaurant and promptly went to bed, only to wake up the next morning to find Mark was sick. On his insistence, I went out on my own to explore the nearby Medina. Phone GPS in hand, and feeling certain I could navigate, I left to explore. The narrow alleyways started going down; the buildings rose up tall on either side and soon I found myself in a residential area utterly lost with no signal.

I turned around to start walking back up, hoping I could either find the Medina or the way out of this Labyrinth, when a local boy offered to lead me out. I knew it was for a tip, but was hopelessly lost, so I followed meekly. When I was back on familiar ground, I thanked him and offered a 20-dirham tip (equal to about 5.50 USD), which he accepted and ran off back into the maze of alleyways.

I was tired and hot by this time and, frankly, a bit burnt out by the chaotic markets, so I returned to the hotel room for room service and sleep. Sadly, Fes was a bust in terms of sightseeing for us.

Fortunately, our next drive was only four hours and took us into the Rif Mountains. In what seemed like no time, the driver pulled off to a viewpoint of Chefchaouen– The Blue City. I had decided against Rabat, the capital city of Morocco, on the advice of one of our guides after I told him what my itinerary entailed. He wisely said since we were visiting many large cities, I would enjoy a smaller one, too. That first breathtaking view of the city convinced me he was right.

Nestled at the base of the Rif Mountain Range, it is a gorgeous city to behold. The driver dropped us off at the town square with our now SEVEN bags (we shopped a little too much), but soon, three men appeared to help us to our Riad, Casa Sabila.

While planning, I often spoke to the riad’s owners via WhatsApp; they were as welcoming in person as they were remotely. After relaxing in our room, they were happy to recommend a couple of dinner spots, and we set off to find them. Surprise! We got lost and never found those restaurants, but we did manage to find an outdoor café where we could people and cat watch.

Have I mentioned cats? They are everywhere in Morocco, in places you would never expect. Locals say there are as many street cats as people in the country. While they are the pet of choice, there are also strays. However, locals leave out water and food, so they look well cared for and fed.

We wandered the city for the rest of the day and the next morning before meeting with our driver and heading to Tangier. I have to say that the desert was my favorite experience in Morocco, but Tangier was my favorite city. I didn’t see enough of Fes to form an opinion; Marrakech was a bit too chaotic for me, and Chefchaouen, while gorgeous, felt touristy.

Our hotel, the Barcelo Tanger, had gorgeous views of the Bay of Tangier and Spain in the distance. Our room wasn’t quite ready when we arrived, so we dropped our bags with the concierge, crossed the street to Tangier Beach and sat on the sand for a while. Our room was finally ready, and I went up while Mark left to find our dinner. We ate and fell asleep almost immediately.

The next day, we set off to find the city’s Medina. This one was at the top of a small hill and had sweeping views of the harbor and marina. It seemed more of a mix of the usual magnets, purses, and scarves but with a sprinkling of VERY high-end shops. The kind of place where they give you the once over before deciding to speak to you (we did not get spoken to). We climbed up and down the alleyways before stopping at another highlight of our trip, La Terraza De La Medina.

We climbed to the rooftop deck of the two-story building to sit just inside sliding glass doors (it was windy). We were greeted very warmly by the restaurant’s owner, who gave us free Baba Ghanoush, an eggplant dip, before bringing our main courses.

One was lamb, and one was Chicken Pastilla, a savory chicken pie made with crispy, flaky phyllo dough and a tender shredded chicken filling, seasoned with warm North African flavors including Ras El Hanout, ginger, and cinnamon—my favorite meal of the trip.

We finished our time in Tangier with more eating, wandering the beach and going to the Caves of Hercules. Many myths are associated with the spot, which is natural and man-made. The Phoenicians are believed to have created the sea opening in the shape of Africa when looked at from the sea. The next day, we boarded a high-speed train for Casablanca and our flight home.

We had one more sight to see: the Hassan II Mosque. It is the largest functioning mosque in Africa and the 14th largest worldwide. Part of this architectural marvel is on land and part over the sea. It boasts a glass floor so worshippers can pray over the sea and a sliding roof to conduct services under the sky. The mosque can hold 25,000 people, and the courtyard outside holds 80,000!

As we chased the sun back to North Bend, our journey through Morocco’s stunning landscapes and vibrant cities closed. From the Sahara Dunes to the enchanting forests where Barbary macaques leaped from tree to tree to the azure allure of Chefchaouen and the bustling markets of Tangier & Marrakech, each moment was a revelation, a step further into the heart of Morocco’s rich tapestry of cultures and traditions.

Our adventure, a blend of unexpected turns, delightful encounters, and cultural immersion, had come full circle. We left Morocco not just with suitcases heavier with souvenirs but with hearts filled with memories, minds broadened by experiences, and a deep-seated appreciation for the beauty and complexity of a land that had welcomed us as strangers and bid us farewell as friends.

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