October 2014 - A quick trip to the souq - Northern Morocco

Ancient medinas and colourful souqs , sweeping sands of the Sahara desert and high peaks of the Atlas mountains, Morocco is a diverse and beautiful country. We went there by accident.

Having frantically tried to organise a trip to Iran for this autumn and failing to organise it in time, Morocco felt like an interesting yet exotic alternative. With only 15 days we decided to concentrate just on the North of Morocco and avoid the most touristed areas.

Rather than flying into the commercial hub of Casablanca or the tourist centre of Marrakesh, the idea of crossing the famous Straits of Gibraltar and entering that historic den of intrigue and piracy that is Tanger seemed far more appealing. 

Grand Socco, Tanger

We liked Tangier. A few days were spent getting to know the labyrinths of the C15th medina and learning about the new city. According to the locals, Tanger has changed a lot in the last few years and the new development in the marina looks impressive but it hasn’t lost its good vibe.

Medina, old and new
Tanger Medina

 

This great city has it all – an interesting mix of traditional and modern architecture, eccentric foreigners, artists, and a rapidly growing music scene. A superb introduction to North Africa!

 

The next step was to catch a train to Meknes, one of the four imperial cities yet overshadowed by its neighbour Fez.

Bab Mansour, Meknes

Meknes isn’t on the tourist trail and is very relaxed and easy going. We also knew that an old and beautiful craft of silver damascene is a speciality of Meknes. A good reason to go!

We stayed in a homely riad in the heart of the medina, getting lost every day trying to navigate our way through little windy lanes. The Medina in Meknes is both residential and commercial and full of life. In the evenings the residents gathered to the main square for a bit of entertainment and promenading. We would also come to the square every evening, drink mint tea and watch promenading families, snake charmers and endless hawkers.

Damascene craftsman, Meknes

After couple of days we found what we came for – a small courtyard tucked in a back-water of the medina, with workshops making beautiful silver damascene jewellery and other decorative items.

In 500BC Syrian Jews had brought this craft to Toledo, Spain. Some 1000 years later when the Jews were exiled from Spain, some of the damascene craftsmen settled in Meknes. Since that time this particular technique is found nowhere else.

The shapes are made from different iron alloys. A fine pattern of cuts is made on the surface with a special knife. The craftsmen will then gently hammer a fine silver thread into the cuts to make gorgeous and intricate patterns.

After this the object is fired, darkening the background iron and “welding” the silver thread into the grooves before it is polished to display the contrast between the blackened iron and bright silver. Each artisan proudly maintains his own patterns passed down within the family.  We couldn’t leave without picking out some fabulous damascene earrings and other pieces to bring back.

Chefchaouen blue medina

Then, onto the bus again for a journey, via Fez, up to the Rif mountains to visit Chefchaouen, a glorious little blue-painted town nestling in the hills.  This town has Andalucian and Jewish influences and the old town is simply beautiful.

Chefchaouen in the clouds

A wonderful peaceful place to walk, eat (fantastic fish, cheese and fruit – not at the same time!) and relax.  However, we were working!  This area of the Rif is famous for goat’s cheese, Berber wool and hashish; however we forewent the latter and instead found several weavers turning the local rich wool into warm and beautiful blankets – we just had to bring some of these back.

Katia with a Berber blanket weaver

All to quickly, we returned to Tanger for our last taste of chicken, olive and lemon tagine (as well as the lovely Meknes wine). We tracked down a dealer in the finest beni ourain rugs and were smitten – one of the most opulent floor-coverings there is, but not cheap! – so we’ll just have to return to Morocco again and scour the Atlas mountains to find the weavers and source them directly.

 

A surprising and quite wonderful trip filled with exotic, friendly people; astounding sights. tastes and smells and huge swathes of fascinating history in a country where arts and crafts still flourish when one steps off the high street.

We can’t wait to explore Morocco further.