Itinerary: Ten Days of Moroccan Sights and Tastes

Wednesday, December 31, 2008 | Morocco (map)

Group shot at Madrasa Bou 'Inania in Fes.
Jacqueline and I developed an ambitious plan for my mom and sister's ten-day Morocco visit. Such a packed itinerary was bound to hit some bumps in the road, as this one did. While we were lucky to enjoy unseasonably sunny weather in Fes, Maggie drank some bad orange juice in Marrakech that put her out of commission for several days.

All things told, the trip was a great success. Our itinerary—as it truly occurred—is posted below for the benefit of anyone else planning a trip to Morocco, or just curious to know where we visited, dined, and relaxed during this vacation.

Two Tales of a City: The Realities of Tourism in Fes

Sunday, December 28, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

In Place Seffarine, in the center of Fes's old city, smiths sell items of copper and brass to tourists.
It's amazing and tragic just how much tourism can alter a place. Some recent incidents have highlighted for me the extent to which tourism has tainted parts of Fes's old city.

Tales of East Fes:

On Monday, Jacqueline and I led my mom and sister to Fes's less-than-glamorous eastern Andalus quarter to show them the Sahrij madrasa. Soon after we crossed the Oued Boukhareb River, which bisects the city, I began guessing at streets, trying to weave together a route from the unfamiliar paths. I paused to ask a shopkeeper the way toward the madrasa, and set off down the street he indicated.

After a few steps, a middle aged woman, who had apparently heard the conversation, turned to me and offered to lead us there, which she did within a minute. At the madrasa's door, I offered her a five dirham piece. She immediately thrust her hands up beside her head in genuine, unyielding

Casablanca: Play It Again, Sam? No, Thanks

Monday, December 22, 2008 | Casablanca, Morocco (map)

The Hassan II Mosque is Casablanca's only real destination of note.
Casablanca's airport is the city's biggest draw, without which it's hard to find a compelling reason to visit the rather dingy, sprawling port. Lacking the charm of other Moroccan seaside towns, Casa (as it is known locally) seems content to focus on its role as the country's primary industrial and business center.

Even classic movie buffs who visit the real Casablanca are likely to be disappointed. While grimy in its own right, Casa doesn't measure up to the charmingly raucous outlaw town of the famous film. (The model for that port was actually Tangier, located several hundred miles north along the Atlantic coast.) Finally, the movie was filmed entirely in Hollywood, not Morocco. Although today, the staff of Casablanca's several Rick's Cafés and Rex Cafés are happy to let visitors believe otherwise.

Packing Guidelines for Morocco in Winter

Saturday, December 20, 2008 | Morocco (map)

My own standard equipment fits in my light hiker's pack. Best advice I have for visitors to Morocco in winter: dress warmly.
In advance of my mom and sister's trip to Morocco this week, Jacqueline and I prepared a series of packing guidelines and suggestions to help them decide what to bring. Our recommendations were based on our prior travel experience, as well as our time living here in Morocco. I'm posting the guidelines in hopes that they may prove useful for other visitors who have never traveled to Morocco, and/or who think the whole place is nothing but dry, hot desert. (Not the case!) Below are our general recommendations and suggested packing list.

We want you to bring what you need to be dry, warm, and comfortable during your trip in Morocco. Having lived here for the past few months, we know a thing or two about how to do that. So we have developed a few guidelines that we thought would be useful for you as you decide what to pack. First and foremost, there are four basic rules that you should not ignore:

Celebrating the Sacrifice, and its Contradictions

Sunday, December 14, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Fatima and her two sons hold up the sheep's hindquarters as Abdelrahim makes the first incisions.
On Tuesday morning, Ryan, Jacqueline and I walked to the home of our former landlords, Abdelrahim and Fatima, who joined their neighbor Younes's family in sacrificing a sheep in honor of 'Eid al-Adha (عيد الأضحى). We arrived to see the two families circled together around the flailing sheep, its throat slit just seconds earlier.

The disassembly began as soon as the sheep ceased twitching. With a large knife and much tugging and grunting, Abdelrahim and Younes removed the sheep's head, then set to work on the body.

Using a kebab skewer, Abdelrahim poked a hole in the skin of a hind leg, put his lips to the hole, and began blowing into it, inflating the sheep's body to loosen the hide from the insides. Next, he and his sons Ahmed and Othman strung the body from an awning, and began slowly cutting away at the hide. After a half hour of careful slicing, they had worked nearly all the skin loose.

A Hike in Sheep Country, As 'Eid Nears

Monday, December 8, 2008 | Azrou, Morocco (map)

A shepherd leads his flock past a small cemetery outside of Azrou's town center.
Yesterday Jacqueline and I traveled south to the little Berber town of Azrou, our base for a day hike in the Middle Atlas Mountains.

A few inches of snow had fallen in the mountains just days earlier, making the picturesque drive through the Atlas that much more scenic. We reached Azrou around mid-day, and immediately set off for hills which hug the town's southern and western outskirts. Packed lunch in tow, we located a muddy track leading off into the scrubby forest, and started walking.

The trail followed (and sometimes overlapped with) the course of a small stream meandering down from the hills above town. Along our hike, we stepped aside several times to allow teams of woodcutters and donkeys laden with branches to pass.

More than anything, my goal on our hike was to escape Fes, where the constant noise, hassling, and

Quince: A Culinary Love Story

Sunday, December 7, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Quince is an uninviting fruit—fuzzy on the outside and woody on the inside—until you cook it.
In late October, my mother e-mailed me with a link to a Baltimore Sun article about quince, which included a recipe for a North African quince tajine. "Thought of you when I saw this," she wrote. "Do you see quince in the market? Loveya, Mom."

Of course my first thought was, What on earth is a quince?

Ever interested to expand my repertoire of Moroccan recipes, I looked up "quince" in my Arabic dictionary, poked around online a bit, and kept my eyes open. Within a few days, I noticed it—tucked between the tangerines and tomatoes at a nearby produce stand—a lumpy yellowish-green fruit covered in a distinctly unappetizing fuzz. "Waash haadu as-sfarjel?" I inquired.

"Ayyeh," the fruit seller confirmed. Love at first sight it was not, but I had found my first quince.

* * *

The quinces I took home that day matched the descriptions I had read—a little bigger than an apple,