MOROCCO THROUGH THE EYES OF MELISSA
MOROCCO THROUGH THE EYES OF MELISSA
Images & Text by Melissa Kruse
Okay, so I have to start with total transparency: Morocco is one of my favourite places I’ve ever been to. Take that and whatever biases might lend themselves into consideration as you read on. I can’t say I recall how I ever decided to go to Morocco. My boyfriend and I were talking about doing a trip together and I honestly think he just looked at me and said, “Morocco?” and I replied, “Sure, that sounds cool.” The more we read and google-image-searched the country, the more we became fascinated with its people, food, aesthetic and overall dynamic culture. So Morocco it was, soon thereafter.
First stop: Fez. Well Casablanca, technically. But we were so eager to get out of life in the metropolis and dive deep into the heart of Morocco that we skipped straight from our plane’s touchdown to the first train east; a beautiful, incredibly groggy, initial glimpse of the North African terrain. Upon arrival, we taxied directly to our riad, resting on the outer edge of Old Fez. We never actually made it to New Fez, there was just so much to experience inside the walls of the Medina. We were greeted with Mint Tea, the “whiskey” of Morocco, and given a thorough tour of our magical home-base. The textile junkie that I am, I didn’t waste a minute getting out the door and jumping right into the organized chaos & winding alleyways of Fes el Bali, the souks of the Medina. I was instantly immersed in the smell of cactus pear and fresh baked bread stacked carefully on carts rolling by while calls of warning were shouted at me from every direction - phrases I never fully understood, but quickly learned meant, “Get out of the way. NOW!” Why? Most often a donkey was rapidly approaching.
Walking a bit further, we were ushered into a cavernous rug shop where our now second round of mint tea was instantly offered. Thus ensued an hour long performance of rugs being vigorously thrown at our feet one after the other. There was an endless quantity of rugs. The next thing I knew I was in a price negotiation battle more intense than anything I’d ever experienced at the Brooklyn farmers market, for something I didn’t even want. I was so confused as numbers were shouted at me from every direction (yes, again) and a never ending stream of rugs were stacked at my feet. Somehow I managed to escape without falling prey to their ruthless sales tactics. I’ve heard I was lucky.
Out we went, back into the foreign oasis of sunbeams streaming through makeshift wooden coverings above the souk’s alleyways. With no destination in mind, we eagerly got lost amidst craftsmen’s workshops, open-air markets filled with locally hand-painted ceramics, fresh (and not so fresh) fish, and donkeys. So many donkeys.
The intricacy of the detailing everywhere from the wall & archway carvings through to the tile work is so inspiring.
Just a glimpse from the outside.
An insider's view into the process of leather working, from dyeing & drying to stretching & stitching.
The blue gate entryway into the city’s oldest neighborhood, thought to be the largest intact surviving medina in the world.
On to Chefchaouen, the blue city on a mountainside that I had Pinterest-stalked more than any other travel destination. Our bus dropped us about ¾ of the way up the mountain. From there we walked four or so more “blocks” up (which felt like forever when we had all our luggage and, well, we were walking up a mountain), after which point we gave up and hailed a taxi driven by a couple of young, sea-blue eyed, big grinning locals who exchanged side-glancing chuckles after everything they said - both suspicious and amusing.
We stayed with a local. Well, really he was a French expat, Eric, now planted in this quaint Moroccan community - something out of a storybook. But seemingly, mostly everyone here was a transplant from somewhere, being that Chefchaouen was originally built as a fortress city in the Rif Mountains. Sharing the home of a local during our visit, we had an insider’s view of what’s behind the walls, windows and doors of never-ending blue-ness - like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It was more blue Dr. Seuss-esque walls, windows and doorways--mixed with a few twists on traditional Moroccan decor.
Entering the narrow walkways of the central Medina, we were surrounded by a serene cityscape of blue.
Perhaps my favourite stop was Ensemble Artisinal, an indoor bazaar-like conglomeration of shoe makers, loom weavers, and tradesmen of all varieties. By the time we got there, the shops had mostly closed, but we decided to wander their walkways regardless. That’s where we met a gentle leather worker who created his collection of wallets & purses in a small fluorescent-bulb lit shop. Watching him customize a wallet, he selected from cow, horse, and snakeskin explaining the strengths & weaknesses of each hide while relaxing with his locally-grown herbal supplement. Had we been staying past the next morning we could have commissioned him to make a custom design or, better yet, sit next to him in his workshop while making pieces of our own under his supervision. I did manage, however, to buy some blue powder before continuing to our next destination - the sort that locals mix with either water or white paint to create varying opacities of the blue that blankets the town. I still wish I would have bought more.
Ras el-Maa Riverside Walk
Because we stayed higher up the mountain it was natural to sometimes cut across to the river on our way down.
Plaza Uta el-Hammam
It’s the hub of the town, with restaurants and craftsmen and shops.
If you go to the Plaza, you go to the Kasbah… an other-worldly fortress of bygone years.
Our second day in town, we wandered our way up the long incline to a petit Mosque that looked as though it was perfectly placed on a cliff with views overlooking all of Chefchaouen.
By day I wandered the quaint maze-like walkways of the Medina. Now-familiar sights were all around - sleeping cats, mint tea constantly on offer, ‘Hand of Fatima’ door knockers, and my newest obsession: incredibly beautiful and remarkably durable Moroccan wool mattresses sunbathing in the alleyways. But it was the street art that stole the show. A growing international haven for art lovers, the town’s annual summer Artist Festival ensures the murals gracing the walls are constantly revolving, as if the streets are of themselves an art gallery for all.
Shopping was a truly enjoyable experience--arguably my favourite in Morocco. While the chaos and high-pressure environments of the souks in Chefchaouen & Fez were a fun cultural immersion, the ‘no-pressure’ browsing environment in Assilah mirrored the generally relaxed vibe of the locals. While selections were smaller than neighboring cities, shop-owners would rarely approach at first, giving me time to thoroughly browse their endless treasures: antique brass & copper trays of all sizes, rugs, pillows (both modern designs and vintage Berber tribe pieces), and handwoven cotton blankets among them. It was the most curated collection of goods I’d seen in Morocco, giving the impression that stereotypical “tourist” chotchkies were fewer and farther in between. I stopped in a local art gallery, Menassilah (a namesake that I affectionately referred to as “Mona Lisa”). Spending close to an hour exchanging quiet smiles while browsing the artist’s unique techniques as he went between creating new pieces and explaining others to me in his simple English, I ultimately purchased a painting of two tourists as perceived by the Assilah native - a beautiful reminder that we were the aliens in this foreign land.
Within hours of our arrival, we were already making friends with the locals. The small community that it is, it didn’t take long for faces to become familiar and acknowledging smiles to become the currency of choice. After days filled with perusing artisan shops and local farmers markets, early evenings were spent lounging on the southwestern bastion with local boys acrobatically diving into the ocean below just in time for predictably epic sunsets over the Atlantic.
All in all, traveling through Morocco was an incredible experience - one that I would do again in a heartbeat. And while I would be tempted to revisit a few of my now-favourite spots, I’m fully aware that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Planned stops for my next visit: Marrakesh, Sidi Ifni (and/or Essaouira), and, of course, The Sahara Desert. With plenty of opportunities to engage with locals and experience all of it’s rich culture from within, Morocco is hands down one of my favourite destinations to date.
Melissa Kruse's background in fine art and psychology fuels her passion to document the unique beauty she sees in cultures across the globe. With an affinity for exploring off the beaten track, she's quick to befriend locals and immerse herself in daily life wherever her adventures take her. Her documentary-meets-editorial aesthetic is defined by a penchant for details while telling stories in an intimate and natural way.