Category: Morocco

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #6: The Water

The first five tips (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5) had a lot to do with how to plan your trip (or not plan it). Now we’re getting into the more nitty-gritty on-the-ground stuff.

Drink the water.

I had written a righteous screed about how all guidebooks are just covering their asses when they tell you not to drink the water, and of course you can drink it, if normal middle-class people drink it too.

Then I went to Fes, Morocco, where everyone drinks tap water…and I got sick.

But even so, I believe that tap water is often not so horrible. If people who could afford to buy bottled water drink from the tap, you can certainly brush your teeth with it. You can even swig a bit in the night, when you realize you’ve run out of bottled water. You can have a little ice in your drink.

Peter drinking from the (very large, public) tap in Comitan de Dominguez, Mexico. Later we drank the water in Villahermosa too, sin problemas.

It’s with cumulative exposure that your system freaks out (or mine does; yours may be different–that’s my CYA). I didn’t get sick in Fes until about a week in. My threshold for Cairo tap water is about four days.

Contrary to logic, the worse the water is, the better off you are. If all the restaurants use bottled water, this means your ice is almost certainly made from purified water. Basically, there are very few situations in which you have to do that prissy “no ice, please” thing.

The reason I’m even being so macho about tap water is that plastic bottles are the world’s third-largest evil, after plastic bags and Halliburton, and I feel like a failure every time I buy bottled water. If you’re not feeling like risking it, I really recommend a Steripen. I just got one this summer–it’s fantastic. It has cut down on my water-risk-taking and makes me feel like a magician every time I use it. (But I recommend rechargeable batteries–it was due to battery fail that I was in the unfortunate Fes situation.)

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #5: Be inefficient

On to more practical matters. Though this still relates to trip-planning.

Take the train, especially if it’s slow.

I can’t tell you how many guidebooks I’ve read recently where they’ve said, basically, “Enh, there’s a train, but you’re better off on the bus/airplane.”

C’mon—how will you ever be better off squished in a bus barreling down a highway? On a bus or a plane, you’re just waiting till you get there—that’s 100 percent wasted time.

On a train, though, the adventure starts when you get on. Fine, maybe it gets a little boring in the last hour, but it’s still at least 70 percent quality time.

OK, so maybe don't take *this* train...

Moreover, the train makes the decision for you. Overwhelmed by all the wonders a country has to offer? It’s easy to narrow down your itinerary if you just go where the train goes. After three trips to Morocco traveling almost entirely by their excellent train system, I think I’m finally ready to rent a car or hop a bus to the farther-flung parts of the country. Peter and I still haven’t run out of entertainment on the Thai train line.

Yes, you’ll be missing some things—but that would happen no matter what. Why not enjoy what you can see by train, rather than showing up cranky and poorly rested to a bunch of other places?

...but definitely this one. (Photo by Peter.)

I could expand this tip to cover all kinds of odd transport: bikes, funiculars, pickup trucks with bench seats in the back. The weirder and more novel, the better. That way, the transit time becomes an adventure too.

In fact, maybe this tip should just be: Go the least efficient way. The slower you go, the more you see.

Morocco #5: Cookbooks

I try to collect a cookbook from wherever I go, sometimes in the local language, sometimes not. I prefer older and traditional, maybe with a picture of a granny on the cover. (My favorite so far: Cocinando con mi abuela, from Campeche, Mexico.)

For anyone who thinks in the same vein, may I recommend two books to seek out on your next Morocco trip.

The first is Fez: Traditional Moroccan Cooking, by M. Guinaudeau, illustrated by J.E. Laurent.

You can tell it’s traditional because it, er, advises you, the reader, to instruct your “negress” to do particular things in the kitchen. Aside from that awkward bit of language, it’s fantastically informative, even telling in impressive detail how to make a family-size bistilla.

The illustrations are quite nice, though more for atmosphere than for instruction.

(Er, sorry so blurry.)

I picked this version up at a shop in Marrakech that otherwise sold rather stylish little modern tchotchkes. Here’s a newer edition on Amazon, with an introduction by Claudia Roden. No idea if the dated language is changed.

The other book has no grandmas anywhere in it, I don’t think, but is solid nonetheless: The Clock Book, by Tara Stevens. (Here’s a link to it on

If you’ve been to Fez before, or heard about it from any traveler, you probably know about Cafe Clock, a great little hangout/cafe/cooking school/cultural zone in the Fez medina, started by British man a few years back. The food is a cool mix of traditional Moroccan stuff and more bistro-snacky things (a camel burger, for one). The cookbook covers all the menu items and a lot more. If you want to get a handle on Moroccan cuisine without going hardcore traditional and having to pretend like you didn’t just read the word “negress,” then I recommend this. I promptly cooked a number of salads and cookies out of here and liked them all.

When I was in Fez, I also took a cooking class there with the truly delightful Souad, and learned to cook up a mean lentil soup. And, utterly unrelated and entirely coincidentally, I met Tara in Casablanca, and it turned out she was the very woman a friend in Barcelona had been trying to introduce me to a couple of years back.

The world is small, as usual. And full of tasty things. Thanks to these books, I now have more tasty things at home with me.

Morocco #4: Fez, Then and Now

When I was a kid, my father and I would drive from New Mexico to Los Angeles to visit my grandmother. We’d leave before dawn, and drive straight through. When we got out of the car in L.A., the night air was warm and humid and smelled of orange blossoms.

My grandmother’s house always seemed exceedingly elegant–tall windows, plush carpeting, long drapes. In the dining room was a drawing in pastels of a medina gate, busy with be-fezzed pedestrians. I knew it was a place in Morocco, though my grandmother had never been there. My father told me she drew it from a postcard, in a class.

Decades later, my father and mother went to Morocco to live for a stretch. Due to the drawing? I don’t know.

When I was just in Fez in June, I passed by Bab Bou Jeloud, the main gate into the medina, quite a few times–the ATM there was the handiest one that accepted my card.

It was only on the fourth or fifth pass that I realized: That’s the gate! (And if you’re thinking that was a slow reaction, note that I’d even been to Fez before.)

Bab #1, 1950s
Bab #2, present day

The gate was renovated sometime in the last decade, which I assume is why the decoration around it is a bit different. Or Grandma Carol took some artistic license. Who can say? But the two minarets are still the same, and though the fezzes are gone and synthetic fabrics are in, not too much else has changed.

Except for the fact that the drawing hangs on my wall now. Alas, we have no orange blossoms here in Astoria, but occasionally when I travel, I still step into a hot, humid night and think, “L.A.–we’re here.”

Morocco #3: Casablanca

Poor unloved Casablanca–or “Caza,” as locals say it, with a nice buzzy z. Six million people strong, and typically dismissed by guidebooks and travelers as not scenic, too busy, too modern.

But especially in a still-very-traditional place like Morocco, it’s interesting to go to the modern place and see just what details are preserved. As I’ve written about Cancun, in a newish city, you can see what people value because it’s there by choice, not just hundreds of years of accreted habit.

So Casablanca has hammams. And it has a little medina. And it has a modern medina, the Quartier Habous, a winding-streets area built by the French. (This, I suppose, is a better reflection of what the French valued in Moroccan culture than what the Moroccans themselves do.) It has loads of cafes. It even has honest taxi drivers, a rare thing anywhere in this world.

And it has plenty of people dressed in djellabas, the long robes with hoods that both men and women wear (with differing levels of decoration). This shouldn’t be a big surprise, but when you see old men in djellabas shuffling along old medina alleyways, it can all seem a little…put on, you know? You get that creeping sense, maybe born of watching too many movies or something, that somehow a place is just an elaborate bit of stagecraft put on solely for your benefit.

But in Morocco, they’re not messing around. People really do wear traditional clothing because they like it–and have adapted it to modern needs. Women color-coordinate their babouches (leather slippers) with their djellaba trim and their headscarves, and they can ride a moped in a djellaba just fine.

What I saw the instant I got off the plane. And it just got better from there.

And when it rains, they can put up the hood. That’s what it’s for–it’s not just some vestigial bit of tradition.

Anyway, enough about fashion. Casablanca is fun, and you shouldn’t miss it, especially if you like Art Deco architecture. (And trams! They’re adding a tram line! Very exciting!) The whole French-built center is chock-full of old-fashioned bars and cafes with foggy mirrors and even foggier-looking old men. The tiny medina is still there, selling knock-off sneakers and vegetables. The sea is all around.

Other than that, there’s only one real thing to see. One of the things I like about Morocco, honestly, is that non-Muslims typically aren’t allowed in mosques. From a religious standpoint, that strikes me as slightly precious, but from a lazy tourist standpoint, it’s a huge relief–it knocks so much sightseeing right off my list! But there’s one mosque everyone’s welcome in, and that’s the Hassan II monster, right on the sea in Casablanca.

Photos can’t quite convey how large the thing is. Here’s one. Make sure you appreciate how tiny the people are. The whole mosque is like one of those sight-gag over-large chairs that make anyone who sits in them look like a kid.

Our guide said the mosque was built over six years by about 10,000 artisans working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even if I’m misremembering the numbers a bit (likely), is there any comparable building erected in the modern era? The level of craftwork is boggling, straight out of the middle ages.

Once you’re done being boggled by that, you can walk (slowly, if it’s a hot day) to Sqala for lunch. Or you can go to the mosque in the afternoon (2pm is the last tour of the day), and then wander over to Sqala and get an early start on dinner. Or you could go to Sqala for lunch, wander around the medina behind it, and come back for dinner. I’m putting so much thought into the timing of this because I would gladly eat there two, even three times in one day.

Sqala in itself is reason to go to Casablanca. You know how I was complaining about how all Moroccan restaurants have the same five things on the menu? At Sqala, all the treats are out: special juices (date, almond, orange-blossom water, for instance), all kinds of nifty salads, a million little sweets, and tagine combos I’ve never seen elsewhere.

We had a salad spread that included something conch-ish (abalone?) in a tomato sauce, green olives with chicken livers, an incredibly fluffy eggplant thing and something that was so tasty we ate it all, so it doesn’t show up in the photo and I can’t remember what it is. I’m crushed.

We also had a little stew with lamb, saffron, dill and what I thought were regular-but-exceptionally-good mushrooms but I now realize were so-called “desert truffles” (terfes). I had them in Syria a couple of years ago, and thought they were tasty but not tremendous. Here they were wonderfully firm and earthy, but also a bit light and springy. Maybe the Syrian ones weren’t so hot because they’d actually been imported all the way from Morocco that year, due to a bad crop in Syria.

I could go on. The setting here is beautiful, in a courtyard with fountains, under dappled shade. The place is filled with families, and the children are all well behaved. The prices are reasonable.

Another thing you could do to kill time between meals at Sqala is go see a film at the Rialto cinema, which has been beautifully restored. Just about everything is dubbed into French, but if something with enough explosions is playing, it shouldn’t matter. Or you could have a drink at the Hotel Transatlantique, where Edith Piaf once lived for a stretch. It’s not quite as down-at-the-heels as I’d like, but it’s hard to complain about any renovation in Casablanca, where the fabulous architecture is all in need of love and repair. Or you could just ride the tram to the end of the line and back–that’s what I intend to do next time I visit.

Recommended reading for your Casa visit: The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca, by Tahir Shah, and The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World, by Joseph Braude.