The bus from Chefchaouen to Casablanca left at an ungodly hour, which I didn't appreciate especially having slept poorly, largely fretting about the tour start. The ride was ok, despite the potholed roads and the bus driver not appearing too clear on which side of the road one supposedly drives on in Morocco. He did at least sort of squish over slightly closer to the median when he was driving on the wrong side and there was oncoming traffic.
There wasn't too much to see out the window – I guess busses don't generally go through the nice parts of towns, but the area around Meknes seemed particularly unwelcoming, with a pall of smoke/fog/smog hanging thickly over everything. Still, on the drive there was a broad river at one point, a few areas of green where people were growing food, and the trip was uneventful.
Finding a taxi that was prepared to take us to the tour starting-point hotel was surprisingly difficult, especially since most had never heard of it or the street – I guess I had figured that the number of tours leaving from it would make it a popular destination from the train station.
After check-in I wandered off to post the stuff I wanted to send back when I was still in Spain, an operation that apparently required three helpers, the head of which of course wanted a tip :).
That night we met our tour leader, Brahim, and the group – a few expat Kiwis, four Brits, and three Aussies. They seemed a great bunch.
A group of us headed out to find dinner and after a lot of wandering around not really deciding on anywhere, we ended up at a modern place that made an incredibly tasty lemon chicken tagine which I can't replicate – really juicy and flavorful.
On the way home we separated to stop off and get things from shops, and Melissa and I came across a Prickly Pear vendor. These are the fruit of those flat-circular-leaved cactuses we saw in Granada, and all over Morocco, and it turns out they're absolutely delicious.
The vendor had a cart full of them, and though they weren't cheap by Moroccan standards he was selling a few. In the photo you can see he's wearing thick gloves to handle the prickles, and he uses his big knife to make slices in at the top and bottom of the fruit, and then cuts most of the way around the skin to peel the fruit, which he then proffers for you to take and eat.
They taste kinda like generic tasty tropical fruit. I have no idea how you tell if they're ripe, he seemed to be picking greenish-yellow and orange-red fruit equally!
Getting back to the hotel was a mission – we decided to take a taxi as we had ended up some way from base, but even with the little map on the back of the hotel card, most taxi drivers shrugged their shoulders and drove off, and the one that ended up going for it had to drive around to find some people and ask them! Given that it was just off a major road this was all pretty surprising – but I guess the low literacy means they probably don't know everywhere by name.
That minaret is 210m tall – the tallest in the world. It's certainly striking seeing this building on the edge of the Atlantic (over which the building extends – apparently there's a big glass-floored room you can see the sea under, but we didn't get to go in there).
It is very large inside, but although it's mostly one big open space, only the centremost part of it is a high-ceiling open hall, so it feels more broken-up. Of course, it could take a huge number of people for prayer, but it isn't quite ready to go into use as the main prayer site for such numbers yet – one wonders if it really will, given that most people have a local mosque they visit (an important practicality since it is common to visit several times a day).
Some have criticised the cost of building this place, still not quite completely finished, which was certainly substantial – apparently 10,000 people have worked on it. One of the members of our tour abstained from visiting, seeing it as a poor use of the country's financial resources (much of the cost was funded by private “donations”, but it's a state project) in such a poor country with so little money to spend on things like education and healthcare, but then it is hard to find a country that doesn't like a few monuments of its own… and at least mosques are still heavily used.
You can certainly see how much work was involved, with a lot of detail in the finishing. It was interesting to compare it to the ancient work in the Alhambra – it was very “busy” decoratively, but then maybe the Alhambra looked more like this before the paint faded and the ceilings had to be rebuilt. I did like the exterior of this mosque though, the whiteish stone of the walls and archways and the broad stone (marble?) steps were elegant. I think that the Alhambra artists were just a little better at the interior detail quality though.
With Islam banning depictions of people, animals, and Allah in artworks, Islamic art is generally focussed on intricate geometric patterns, inlaid or grilled, orthree-dimensional patterned objects.
Before you pray in a mosque you need to be “ritually” clean, ie. washed for ritual purposes, which involves going down to the fountain room immediately below and washing each significant bit three times. The guide was very proud of the advances in that room in this mosque – apparently the walls of the columns are coated in a special limestone-like substance that absorbs the humidity, keeping it pleasant inside.
That's kinda fine, but her claim that this happened due to a “chemical reaction” with the water, and yet that the coating would function indefinitely, defies physics (well, if not, I'm getting those guys in to build me a magic free-energy water hydrolysis plant), so I think it would be better to say that it was a nice clean facility.
There's a big Turkish bath space further down too, with a very broad pool for people to soak in – one day. For now the tourists just look at it.
We stood around relaxing by the sea for a little, then haggled our way back to base in taxis – a lot easier than getting there, despite the thousands on the streets we had great difficulty getting them going the way we wanted – and grabbed our stuff to hit the road.
Our tour group shortly left Casablanca for Rabat.