Our Favorite Excursions from Fez, Morocco

Chefchaouen – Morocco’s “Blue City”

Among our favorite stopovers in Morocco, this artsy, blue-washed mountain village of 45,000 is uniquely beautiful, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Rif Mountains. Chefchaouen medina is certainly one of the loveliest in all of Morocco, small and uncrowded, easy to explore. Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 and dominated the merchant route between Tétouan and Fez. The city prospered during the 15th and 17th when the Moriscos (i.e. Muslims converted to Christianity) and Jews arrived, after being expelled from Spain. Chefchaouen was later painted blue by Jewish refugees in the 1930’s fleeing Nazi oppression. In Judaism, blue represents the sky and heavens – the blue colors reminding all to live a life of spiritual awareness. It is also believed that blue acts as an effective mosquito repellent! Interestingly, the adjacent countryside is known for being an abundant source of cannabis, with hashish widely sold in Chefchaouen (!) Wool garments and woven blankets are the shopping opportunities here.

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Volubilis (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Approx. 33 km/20 mi from Meknes (between Rabat and Fez), the Roman ruins of Volubilis are considered the best-preserved site in Morocco. One of the most impressive features is its beautiful mosaics preserved on site. During the rule of King Juba II, from approximately 32 BC to 40 AD, Volubilis was the capital of the Mauritania kingdom and a major producer of olives and grain. Volubilis grew to become an important commercial center, as well as the seat of power for the Roman Empire in North America. After the Romans left the area in the third century, Volubilis continued to thrive as a trading center, until it met its end in an earthquake in the fourth century.

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Historic City of Meknes (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Of Morocco’s four imperial cities (Rabat, Fez, Meknes, and Marrakech), UNESCO World Heritage Site Meknes is certainly the smallest and much less visited vs. the others. The city reflects elements of Arab and European cultures integrated into its beautifully restored architecture. Founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids as a military settlement, Meknes became a capital under Sultan Moulay Ismaïl (1672-1727), the founder of the Alawite dynasty. The sultan turned it into an impressive city in Spanish-Moorish style, surrounded by high walls with great doors, where the harmonious blending of the Islamic and European styles of the 17th century Maghreb are still evident today.

 

Meknes was built under the rule of the Almoravid dynasty, which governed the area from 1053 to 1147. The city was constructed around the Nejjarine Mosque and was originally built as a place to warehouse weapons and food for the Almoravid army. Markets formed around the mosque and Meknes became a center for trading metal goods, wood products, and firearms. The original city of Meknes was not fortified. Because of its extreme vulnerability, the Almohad dynasty easily conquered and destroyed the city and went on to rule the area from 1147 to 1269.

 

The Almohad’s rebuilt Meknes to create the city that stands today. Their design called for a modern municipality, which included high walls and a plumbing system that delivered water to public fountains and baths. Subsequent rulers expanded the city from the 13th to the 18th centuries. The Marinid dynasty built libraries, hospitals, mosques, and madrasas. Under Moulay Ismaïl’s rule, city planners added gardens, stables, cisterns, and mausoleums. Meknes grew to be so large and powerful that it became the capital of Morocco during Moulay Ismaïl’s rule.

 

Many of Meknes’ historic buildings remain beautifully preserved today. Historical highlights of the city include the Medina of Meknes Mosque, Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl and nearly 30 fortress gates. Outside the historic center, Meknes thrives as a modern city and is home to nearly one million people.

Ruins of the Ancient Royal Stables in Meknes, Morocco.

 We found this recent article from The Economist published on June 11, 2016, to be quite interesting

 

The Pluses and Minuses of Monarchy: Morocco is doing well, but its king still needs to adapt

 

On the night of February 19th 2011, Abouamar Tafnout, an activist from Casablanca, suddenly grew nervous. He had just watched a documentary on the civil war in Algeria. We don’t want that, he thought. Thousands of Moroccans were preparing to hit the streets the next day to challenge King Mohammed VI and the ruling elite, known to locals by the nickname makhzen (“the storehouse”), which controls much of the economy. Mr Tafnout, just 20 years old at the time, had helped to organize the protests. “I was afraid—afraid for the country,” he says.

 

But most of Morocco’s protesters, like Mr Tafnout, did not want a messy revolution. Rather, they pushed for a more constrained monarchy. When the king increased wages and pensions, and promised to relinquish some power, many were satisfied. A revision to the constitution, strengthening parliament, was passed by referendum in July 2011. Elections were held that November. Some blood was shed, but Morocco’s version of the Arab spring went rather smoothly.

 

Five years on, Morocco is stable, relatively free and increasingly prosperous. Compare that with the rest of the region and it is little wonder that Moroccans are loth to upset the status quo. “Gradualism” is a popular word, even among those who would like to see their country become more like Spain, where the monarchy is largely ceremonial.The king still dominates the state, but he is popular. His granting of more rights to women and efforts to tackle poverty have gone down well. Critics say he is a cunning politician. Most Moroccans credit him for the country’s stability. And he has capitalised on the calm by positioning Morocco as a hub for European manufacturers. Tax breaks and good logistics lure business. Car production, led by Renault, a big French producer, has more than doubled since 2011. The aeronautics industry has also taken off.

 

Renault’s factory has a direct train line to the commercial port of Tanger-Med, 40km (25 miles) east of Tangier, which is expanding. By the time construction is completed, in 2018, it is expected to be the busiest port on the Mediterranean. Morocco is looking south, too. Casablanca Finance City, a public-private initiative, helps local and international firms that want to use the country as a base for their operations in Africa. It is building fancy new office space on the site of an old airport in the city.

 

As it upgrades its roads and infrastructure, Morocco is bound to experience catch-up growth—GDP grew 4.5% in 2015. But its government has also been clever. Tighter fiscal policy, including cuts to energy subsidies, has helped Morocco reduce its current-account and budget deficits. A drought may slow growth this year, but analysts are still bullish. “We think Morocco could record GDP growth of 5-6% over the next five to ten years,” writes Jason Tuvey of Capital Economics, a consultancy.

 

But not everything is rosy. The monarchy can certainly get things done: big projects, such as the largest solar plant in the world and 1,500km of high-speed rail lines are moving ahead; but the average Moroccan must deal with a stifling bureaucracy. “The further you get away from the king, the harder things become,” says Merouan Mekouar of York University in Canada. Members of the royal court use their proximity to advance their own projects and win contracts. Morocco ranks a woeful 88th in the world in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.

 

The problem is compounded by a lack of accountability. Take the high-speed rail lines, which should more than halve travel time between Morocco’s big cities. Some have questioned whether the billions of dollars might be better used to help the poor, given that Morocco is in the bottom third of the UN’s human development index. Others wonder if a slowdown in global maritime trade makes the Tanger-Med expansion unwise, or ask why an initiative to boost tourism, Plan Azur, has failed to produce many results. No one in the royal palace seems to be checking.

 

Don’t expect parliament to provide answers, either. Although the revised constitution gives the government more power over policy and appointments, the king is still firmly in charge. Moreover, “the regime has largely succeeded in taming opposition forces,” says Mohamed Daadaoui of Oklahoma City University. It has co-opted the Justice and Development Party (PJD), a mildly Islamist group that won the election in 2011. The PJD has not pushed for substantial democratic reforms. Yet it still faces a challenge from the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, which is even more supportive of the king, at parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

 

Journalists and activists criticise the monarchy, which puts them at risk. News outlets have been forced to close and journalists jailed in recent years. Reporters Without Borders, a pressure group, considers Morocco less free even than Algeria or Afghanistan. Consider the case of Ali Anouzla, a critic of the king, who has been accused of “inciting” terrorism. His alleged crime was to link to a video by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which he criticised.

 

In general, freedom of expression is curtailed by three red lines. Critical discussion of Islam, the monarchy or the disputed territory of Western Sahara is banned. Even so, protests are common in Morocco, over such things as employment and pay. But they are often broken up by police, who tend to use heavy-handed tactics. When protesters questioned the enormous royal budget in 2012 they were beaten.

 

Many Moroccans are ill-equipped to question their king. Almost a third of the population is illiterate. Others protest in a different way. About 1,500 Moroccans are thought to have joined Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds more are training in Libya, leading to fears that they may return to launch attacks in Morocco. Youth in rural areas, where poverty is widespread, are seen as particularly vulnerable to the terrorists’ message. So the king—who also holds the title, “commander of the faithful”—has created a new religious training institute in Rabat, the capital, to promote his moderate brand of Islam.

 

The threat of terrorism has also been used as an excuse to silence critics, while the turbulence of the region is cited to dim the ardour of reformists. But by comparing itself with the Arab world, Morocco is setting a low bar. Many of its citizens speak French and Spanish, and would rather look to Europe for inspiration.

 

The king has encouraged such thoughts on economic matters. But he is thwarting Morocco’s political progress. Little effort has been put into building the institutions, like an independent judiciary, that would be needed in a constitutional monarchy. Still, Moroccans are hopeful. “Sometime in the near future, Morocco will be a democratic state,” says Mr Tafnout. “The monarchy is smart enough to know that.”

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