After nearly three weeks in the big cities of Morocco, Tom and I headed to the mountains.
Tom had visited the Ourika Valley in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains before, so we booked a room at in Tnine, the village he’d visited with a souk where the Berbers came by donkey. We planned to see that on Monday, the day of the week it happens. We arrived on Friday.
Our hosts in Morocco have been very hospitable, but Abdurrahman at the Secret Atlas is by far the most generous and friendly of them all. Using a translator on his phone because he speaks only Arabic, he served us delicious thyme tea on our arrival, told us about his family, and shared beautiful passages from the Koran that explained his exceptional hospitality. For 11€/night, we have a spacious bedroom, living room and kitchen. The extraordinary breakfasts Abdurrahman cooks for us each morning are a few euros more.
The apartment is elegantly spare and spotless, the bed excellent, and views spectacular.
We were a little surprised, however, to find that the Secret Atlas is in apartment building on the relatively busy street that connects the two parts of the village. On Airbnb, it’s listed as a “farm stay.”
On our first afternoon in Tnine, we explored the part of the village near the river. It was hot, the pollution from all the cars and motorcycles hung low, and other than offering a window into the lives of ordinary residents of the valley, there wasn’t much to see there.
The next morning, we discovered that other than a couple nice places for tea or a meal, the other end of the village had little to offer either.
We looked on the internet to see what else we could do. Everything looked like it would require another expensive taxi ride. The taxis to and from Marrakech are a bargain because they’re shared by up to seven people, but to call one to go from point A to point B requires paying the fee for the distance traveled to where you are and to where you’re going at the full rate.
But wait. It looked like at least one destination was close by, and it was something neither of us had ever seen: a saffron farm!
Le Jardin du Safran is an easy walk from the Secret Atlas. We’d passed by the dirt road that leads to it the day before.
What an enchanted place! We found the front gate open.
A sign told us we were free to wander around but not to pick the fruit or flowers. Pretty soon the farm manager found us and took us on a tour that lasted a couple hours.
Synchronistically, we’d arrived the day before the four best and busiest days of the year: the saffron harvest. Every year, from November 4 – 8, when the flowers of the crocus sativa bloom, dozens of local women are hired to do the delicate work of pulling the bright red pistils out of the flowers, nipping off the yellow end with their fingernails just so, to produce the tiny strands of highly aromatic spice so highly valued throughout the Mediterranean, and the world.
Instead of watching the women at work, we sat down on the stools around one of the round tables and learned how to pull the pistils out of the flowers ourselves! Then we saw the drying process and smelled the exquisitely freshly dried product.
The second part of the tour was a leisurely walk through the farm, where a wide array of other herbs are grown, and trees: olive, walnut, persimmon, pomegranate, date, apple, and argan for oil, all arranged around small square plots in which the crocus bulbs were planted. The day’s harvest was already picked, but a few flowers were left for the tourists.
There were also goats and donkeys.
Tomorrow we’ll visit another local farm, one that calls itself the bio-aromatique, organic-aromatic, farm. After today’s surprise, I can’t wait.
I guess it’s a farm stay after all!
For several days, Tom and I stayed in the Bird’s Nest, an upper room in Palais el Mokri, which is truly a palace, on a hilltop above the medina in Fès.
It was a little like staying at Miss Haversham’s place. Built in 1906 for the Pasha of Casablanca, his descendants are now restoring their magnificent inheritance, an enormous project, and renting out rooms on Airbnb. They’ll also cook for you, and bring very decent meals to your rooms.
The place is magnificent. Dilapidated, but magnificent – and worth every penny of the $23/night we spent to stay there!
Palais el Mokri is about a ten minute walk from the souks, museums, and restaurants of the medina, or old city, of Fès.
Here’s a peek into what we saw there:
By early September, it became clear that the papers necessary for me to acquire dual Austrian/American citizenship, and in turn an EU passport, were not going to arrive before our Schengen visas ran out. I’d diligently supplied the set of required documents to the Austrian consulate in Los Angeles but at each step the rules seemed to change, and there were more hoops to jump through. Our 90 out of every 180 days spent in the Schengen area would be up by mid-October.
The Schengen Area is a zone where 26 European countries abolished their internal borders. It covers most of the EU countries, except the UK, Ireland and the countries that are soon to be part of the EU: Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus. Although not members of the EU, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein are also part of the Schengen zone.
Our 180 days began when our visitor visas were stamped on our entry to France in May to explore the possibility of living there. Every time you go through passport control, your passport is scanned and a computer tells the border agent your Schengen status, so there’s no getting around obeying the rules.
We decided to apply for long term French visas, and we booked a trip to Morocco.
Casablanca is a noisy, dirty, sprawling, port city in the midst of major reconstruction. We rented an apartment between the port and the center city, a few blocks from the area along the ocean where many big hotels have been built and many more are coming. We could walk to the old medina where we enjoyed an outstanding meal at La Sqala, and sat at a lovely cafe on a small park.
Though it rained a little, we walked for hours, checking out Rick’s Cafe, an elegant reconstruction of the movie set, and Le Cuisto Traditionel, an excellent traditional/modern fusion restaurant in the downtown area. We also visited the Hassan II mosque, which was incredibly enormous and struck me as soulless.
Next, we took the train to Rabat/Salé. Rabat is the capital of Morocco and Salé is the huge mostly residential city across the river from it, Oakland to San Francisco.
Our Airbnb apartment was in a middle class neighborhood in walking distance from the old medina, the ocean, and the tram to Rabat.
Salé is clean, relaxed, and very friendly. The first afternoon we were there, we noticed some construction going on next door. From our fourth floor windows we could see a long tarp over the narrow street below.
That night – it was a Friday – a crowd gathered and a sound system was tested. It was a massive tent they’d set up. From 8 pm that night till long past midnight, our flat was filled with the voices of two men singing long, exquisitely beautiful prayers, interspersed with poetic speech. We fell eventually fell asleep, enchanted.
The next day was beautiful. We bought food at the neighborhood stalls and planned to stay at home, relaxing and cooking.
In the early afternoon, though, the tent filled up again, the sound system was turned up, and the celebration began. It was a wedding! The music was live and very loud. Western music would’ve been harder to take for such a long time, but still. In the late afternoon we took the tram into Rabat for a few hours. The routine noise of the busy city seemed wonderfully quiet to us.
When we came back and Tom peeked into the back of the tent.
The wedding went on till just before midnight. Clearly, everyone had a great time – even without alcohol!
Over the next days, we made friends with the cashier at the local grocery store, visited the old medina, and sat at a fish restaurant across from the ocean enjoying an enormous meal.
We also explored the beautiful city of Rabat, a stunning combination of ancient and modern. Such an adventure! And now we’re off to Fes.