We returned home to Barcelona midday on Tuesday Nov 2nd, leaving us a bit of time to do some school work in preparation for classes the next day. We were given that Friday off from classes, so we really only had 2 days of classes that week. On Wednesday, we did some field studies in the morning and then met up at the Barcelona Forum with Lorcan O’herlihy (http://www.loharchitects.com/), now a professor at USC, who was a guest panelist at the World Architecture Festival going in Barcelona at the time. He was able to get us into the festival for a short amount of time for free (students usually have to pay €250 to get in…), so we took full advantage of our opportunity.
Anyways, with the short work week/long weekend, Michael and I decided to take advantage of another opportunity: traveling to Morocco. We left midday Thursday for Tangier from BCN on Royal Air Maroc. Just on a side now Air Maroc flies old planes (the ones that still have ash trays in every armrest), and their flights are generally delayed at least an hour (from our experience), BUT they gave us a semi-decent meal on our 1 hour 45 minute plane ride. So it wasn’t too bad.
Armed with very detailed instructions from Caitlyn, my friend from back home on Mercer Island who currently lives in Morocco, Michael and I made it to Tetouan via the grand taxis. English speakers seemed fairly sparse once we left the airport, and we ended up using more Spanish in Morocco than we do in Spain. By the way, the taxi drivers refuse to let you wear a seatbelt there. They said “don’t you trust my driving?” No, I do not, thank you very much. Caitlyn and fellow Fulbrighter Cath were returning from a side trip of their own later in the day, so we had a few hours to kill in Tetouan before we could meet up with them.
So we walked up into the city a little ways to get ourselves oriented and see what was there.
As we were standing there discussing what to do, a nice old man started chatting with us. He spoke pretty good English, and told us a few things to do while in Tetouan. It was pretty obvious we had no idea what we were doing, so he started to take us around. Clearly, this was his intention from the beginning, and Micheal and I only realized about halfway through our tour that he would be expecting some kind of exchange of money at the end. But he took us around to some places we otherwise would have never have known about or access, so we decided it would probably be worth it. Also, we had no idea what else we would have done with our 3 hours of time to kill. Se here’s what we did –
He took us into the medina, the old super-dense core of Tetouan, which was basically a network of unmarked winding alleyways lined with vendors of all sorts. If we had tried to go in there on our own, we very well could have been lost forever.
He took us down a few dark streets and through a small doorway into a place where they make leather – here are some (blurry) shots of the soaking pits with some of the hides hung up in the background:
And up to a balcony overlooking an old cemetery on the edge of the medina:
He then took us to an artisan school specializing in rugs and carpets. He said he was going to take us there because it had a roof deck with a great view of the city, but the real intention was probably more geared towards trying to get us to buy Moroccan carpets. Which, eventually did happen. But here is the view out over the medina first:
The sort of headmaster of the whole operation came and talked to us about traveling and school and everything before offering to show us some of their work and some tea. Well, it wasn’t as much an offering as it was a polite command that we couldn’t refuse. So we went inside with the man and he had one of the younger workers come unfold dozens of rugs in front of us.
He told us to point out ones that we liked, which subsequently turned into a bargaining session for buying the things. They really had the whole process down very well. They separated Michael and I into different rooms for this part, saying the rugs we pointed out were crafted by different people and required different negotiations/prices. But really they just wanted us to separate so we couldn’t collaborate on a scheme to get out of there without buying anything. So in my room, the guy came back with a pad of paper and a pen, and wrote down the price of the blanket – €95. I told him I was broke and couldn’t make him an offer. He gave me the pad to write down a counter-bid, which I didn’t do. When he came back and saw I hadn’t written anything, he said, “Ok since your are student and visiting Tetouan, we give you special price.” Although he dropped the price to €55, it was still way more than I wanted to pay. At this point, I actually started considering purchasing it if the price went low enough though. So he left me again so I could have some time to come up with a counter-bid.
Again I wrote nothing. He came back and said “Okay just give me a number.” So I said €20. He wrote down 55 and then 20, crossed them both out, and told me “now you choose something in between.” Again I wrote down nothing by the time he came back, this time with Michael, who had gone through a similar process and come away with rug of his own. At this point, another man came into the room to negotiate with me. He said “Okay, since you are a student, we give you even better price. All of the students come buy rugs from me when they visit Morocco. €40.” My response: “I can’t pay more than €20, sorry.” So he kind of sat there thinking for a second before saying “Okay, because your friend bought something, we give it to you for 30,” and they started packing it up and putting it in a bag and giving it to me like I had accepted the offer. But I said no again and started to stand up to leave with Michael. And of course just as I did that, he said “Okay give it to him for 20.” Funny part was, I only had €18 on me. So I had to pay the remaining amount in the little dirham I had left from the taxi ride. All in all, Michael walked away with a rug and a blanket, and I a blanket, which we collectively got for 25% of what they initially wanted for them. So although we fell face first into this tourist trap, we were at least able to bargain the price down to a point where we weren’t too ashamed of ourselves. Only a little.
So, after the all of this, we headed back to the bus station to wait for Caitlyn and Cath’s bus to arrive. Eventually the bus did come and the four of us went up to Caitlyn’s apartment (which was amazing – more on that later) to drop of our bags before grabbing some dinner. It was around 10pm at this point, so after finishing eating and chatting we went back to the apartment to catch some sleep and figure out what to do for the next few days.
Friday morning we decided to take the taxi to the small mountain town of Chefchaouen, also referred to as just Chaouen, which was recommended to us by Caitlyn and Cath, and as well by the friendly old man from the previous night. Chaouen is a little over an hour from Tetouan by taxi, which didn’t seem that bad to us. Caitlyn had explained the taxi situation to us beforehand, but we still weren’t very prepared for the ride. Taxis in Morocco don’t operate the same as in other places. The way it works is that you buy a seat for yourself in a taxi going to your destination. Then, they wait around until there are enough people to over-fill the taxi before departing. And yes, I mean over-fill, not just fill normally. The drivers wait until there are two people wedged in the front seat and four across the back. Not the most comfortable situation to be in for an hour-long taxi ride up into the mountains. Especially when there is a larger woman taking up one of the back seats to herself, and the two of us and another unlucky dude had to cram into the other two. Anyways, we made it to Chaouen in one entangled piece.
Chaouen is a small hill town that sits up in the Rif Mountains, just south of Tetouan. Like most of the older cities we visited, it has a dense medina surrounded by an old fortified wall. With the help of one of Caitlyn’s guidebooks, we found our way into the medina and spent some time exploring the narrow alleys.
One of the things the medina in Chaouen is known for is having blue-shaded buildings and walkways. Near the gateways, you begin to see the blue creep around some of the buildings. But as you get into the heart of the medina, the streetscape becomes almost entirely washed in blue. It’s a really spectacular thing to see – I don’t think the pictures even do it justice.
We successfully navigated to the gate on the other side of the medina leading towards a small hike to an overlook of the town. Just outside the walls of the medina were the washing basins, which were currently in use by some of the women of Chaouen.
We then walked up the small trail to the ruined mosque perched on one of the hills overlooking Chaouen. Here’s the view of the town:
And the view down into the medina, where you can see some of the blue popping out of the roofscape:
After getting some lunch at a small restaurant (that didn’t serve couscous on a Friday…), we headed back to Tetouan to meet back up with Caitlyn and Cath who stayed behind to get some work done. On the way back, we decided to buy an extra seat in the taxi between the two of us so that we could be a little more comfortable.
That night we went out for dinner so that we could get some good Moroccan couscous (since we missed out at lunch). And I have to say, it was the best couscous meal I’ve ever had. Sorry Mom. Caitlyn was explaining to us that the process of making couscous properly involves steaming it multiple times and takes several hours. We could definitely tell the difference.
The next morning, Michael and I set out for the beach town of Martil, located on the Mediterranean side of Morocco. Since it was only a 20 minute ride, we decided to just deal with the crammed seats this time. Supposedly Martil is a bustling places filled with beach-goers and vacationers during the summer month. Since we were there in November, all we saw was a beautiful beach town with no people and a lot of half-built buildings. The weather was very nice and we walked along the beach promenade for a ways before grabbing a refreshment and walking back through the city.
We made it back to Tetouan and met back up with Caitlyn and Cath for some lunch. We went to a little greasy cafe/diner down the street from the apartment. The food was super cheap and delicious. All of this cost the equivalent of about €7 (or about $10):
That afternoon, Cath and Caitlyn showed us around Tetouan and the medina as we gathered ingredients for the dinner we were going to make that evening.
And by we I meant Caitlyn and Cath. Michael and I contributed by eating. That was about it. So while they cooked up a storm, Michael and I took some pictures around Caitlyn’s apartment. Hopefully she doesn’t mind me putting these up…
Her apartment was a gigantic 2 bedroom places with a full kitchen, dining area, living room, sitting room and balcony, located on second-to-highest floor of her building. The view absolutely incredible from up there. Here was the view from the balcony, looking out to the mountains and down over part of the city. It was taken on an earlier day, when the weather was a little clearer:
From inside the living room:
And our “guest” room:
And some views from the roof:
Looking back at Tetouan behind the apartment (the brown/tan building is an old church preserved from the protectorate):
And the setting sun signaled that it was dinner time…
Caitlyn and Cath made some delicious Moroccan dishes, the names of which I cannot begin to recall, starting with some kind of chicken roast topped with cooked apricots:
Served with a tomato-eggplant spread:
The next morning, Cath left to go back to her apartment in Rabbat, and Caitlyn rode the taxi into Tangier with us as we headed to the airport. Michael and I owe a huge thanks to both of them for everything they did for us while we were in Morocco. It was not like any other place either of us had ever been, so we were incredibly lucky that we had people who know what they were doing. Neither of us really knew what to expect from Morocco, but considering the things we saw and experienced over the 3 days we were there, it was pretty awesome. To sum up the trip: great food, great company, spectacular sites, and lots of rugs. When you get a chance, check out Caitlyn’s blog: http://hereacousthereacous.blogspot.com/. Thanks again!