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Sun Trails - Items filtered by date: November 2015

Morocco's Crafts

tanneries fesThere is a man carving patterns on marble plaques on the main streets of Fes. Another carves little wooden spoons out of his small shop in Essaouira. A small group of women weaves carpets out of a small cooperative in Chefchaouen.

Wherever you go in Morocco, you will find people engaging in age- old artisanal traditions. Each one has a history behind it that many visitors never fully grasp. Below we have labeled a few places where you can get a closer look at the practice behind crafts you will see spilling from shops all over Morocco.
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FES TANNERIES

Located in the heart of Fes, past streets lined with overflowing shops, and through the winding maze-like alleys that make up the innermost part of the medina, the Chouara tannery has sat nestled for nearly a thousand years. The Chouara tannery is not only the oldest tannery in Morocco, it is the oldest tannery in the world.

Generations of tanners have come and gone, passing on this ancient practice through the years. Young men are born into this line of work. Fathers have passed on these practices to their sons one generation after the another.

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Aesthetically, the site is as impressive as it is historical. The Chouara tannery is famous for the photographs taken of its massive vats of dyes lined up row after row. Seen as a collection of various shades of whites, browns, oranges and reds, the scene carries a harsh beauty that will remain with you long after you leave Fes.

The smell will hit you before you catch sight of the tannery itself. The process of tanning leather, when you get down to it, is a dirty and overwhelmingly pungent process. Leather hides are soaked in large vats containing pigeon dropping, limestone, and water to soften them before they are then moved to vats where they soak in natural dyes. Its no surprise that tour guides will give you sprigs of mint to mask the odor.

But the smell, however unpleasant, is part of the reason why the experience is so remarkable. Raw authenticity defines the tanneries. You can see it on the unflustered faces of the workers who easily run between the vats, working the leather with their feet and sifting through these vats, the liquid up to their thighs. The reality is not adjusted for visiting eyes. Unlike the streets lined with brightly colored shops all dressed up for tourists, this process is unpolished and very real. 

Experience the authenticity of the Chouara tanneries. As tanned leather is Morocco’s largest artisanal export, it is possible visit multiple tanneries in Marrakech or Fes. But between the aesthetic of the scene to the historical richness of the scene, visiting the Chouara Tannery is an unparalleled experience. You have to see it to believe it.

TETOUAN ARTISAN SCHOOL

Many of Morocco’s artisanal practices are in danger of dying out, which is why the Royal Artisan School in Tetouan, a small city in Northern Morocco, teaches students specific artisanal skills. Students learn practices such as mosaic work, plaster carving, ornamental woodwork, weaving, and much more.

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Students between 8 and 17 years of age spend four years studying their trades before graduating and going on to continue their traditional crafts.

A tour through the school will allow you to walk through classrooms where students work on various types of artisanal work. You will see students embroidering with their teachers, laying mosaic tiles under close direction, observing the carving techniques of experts in the artisan trade. Each classroom offers a unique look behind the surface of each of the products you see on the street.

The school itself was built in the traditional riad style, with classrooms surrounding a large garden that makes up the school’s inner courtyard. In addition to the gardens and classrooms, the tour will lead you through the school’s beautiful showroom, where you can observe the crafts in their final state.

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Though factories have taken over the production of so many of the products we find in stores today, at the Royal Artisan School you can see that the Moroccan style of handmade craftsmanship has not died out.

WOOL DYING IN MARRAKECH

If you walk through Marrakech’s souks, you will find a variety of brightly colored fabrics and scarves. This is not unusual. The same can be said in many countries all over the world. However, in Marrakech you can go beyond the simple purchase of a scarf and see aspects of the creation process.

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While there are many artisanal practices that you can observe in Morocco, in Marrakech it is worthwhile to stop in the dyeing district to take a look at how dyers take wool and cactus silk and turn it into these brightly colored fabrics you see lining the streets. Tucked into a small clearing between tightly packed buildings, the wool dyeing district is bursting with color.

As you enter the wool dyeing district, you will begin to see bundles of string hang from bamboo poles overhead. At the center, steam pours out into the street from dark rooms where men submerge skeins of string into large vats of boiling dye. These black rooms stand in stark contrast against brightly lit shops overflowing with every imaginable color of scarf.

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Take a tour of the district and the men will show you the different powdered dyes set out in bowls on the street and lead you to the terraces where you can look out over the wool hanging to dry in the sun. Even if you merely stop by on your way through the souks, the aesthetic beauty of the area makes the detour is well worth your time. Once you observe the dyeing process, you will see Marrakech’s shops, its rugs and scarves, in a whole new light.

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Wherever you find yourself in Morocco, you will run into traditional artisanal practices. From people weaving baskets in overflowing shops to old men braiding long strings to use for embroidery, these practices offer a look into both historical cultural crafts and modern day life in Morocco that you will not find on tours of monuments and palaces. Stop in to see a few of these practices while on a custom tour of Morocco and the items you bring home will become something more than your average souvenirs.

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Gems of Morocco's North

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A custom tour of Morocco reveals a country of many faces. A trip to the south will show you the life of the desert, Berber history and a culture that has thrived in a beautiful, but harsh landscape. A trip to the Imperial cities will give you a taste of city life in Morocco, old and new, traditional and colonially influenced. Northern Morocco offers something entirely different. 

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Asilah

Along the Atlantic coast, nestled between Tangiers and Rabat, sits a small beach town. Asilah boasts a quaint medina made up of white-washed walls marked only by the colorful murals left over from the city’s annual arts festival. Wander through the town’s winding streets and catch glimpses of beautiful coastline or stumble upon artists' stalls filled with drawings, paintings and sculptures.

Asilah was built as a port city for the Spanish colonial government in present day Northern Morocco. In Asilah, this Spanish heritage can still be felt as people in the streets speak to each other in Spanish, restaurants serve dishes like Paella, and old Spanish buildings still stand. One of these buildings, an old white church, standing tall over the surrounding city, welcomes visitors through its doors. Allow one of the nuns to lead you around the interior of the space, explaining the history of the place and the current function of the church within modern day Morocco.

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Beyond the walls of the medina and the sprawling streets of the new city, visitors may take a nice hike out to Paradise beach. The walk takes you along a few miles of rocky coastline that offers spectacular views. Walk along small cliffs and find sheep and goats grazing in patches of green grass and watch fishermen casting long lines out into the sea along rocky shoreline. The walk is well worth the extra effort.

Once at Paradise beach, soft sands welcome visitors to stay awhile to enjoy the view of sunlight against the water, creating a beautiful sparkling coastline. Nestled among small cliffs and large hills, the beach seems in a world of its own. Explore its nearby caves, enjoy tea at a small beach stand or go for a dip in the ocean and discover what secrets lie waiting in Asilah.

Chefchaouen

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Chefchaouen has become an iconic destination in Morocco, as people head out in search of its picturesque medina awash in shades of blue. It is hard to ignore the beauty of this little city, settled in a distant corner of the Rif Mountains. A little cooler, and a lot greener than people typically picture Morocco being, Chefchaouen offers something different.

It is easy to feel relaxed in this city, which has been painted blue since the 15th century when Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled here. The color of the city, combined with the quiet atmosphere and cool mountain air creates a feeling of calm that can be difficult to find during travels abroad.

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Chefchaouen’s incredibly unique medina captures the hearts of travelers. Climb up stairways and pass through narrow alleys. Find a quiet stream, sit in the main square and drink a tea, visit the Kasbah, or simply allow yourself to get lost as you look through shops, visit the local markets and seek out tucked away cafes. No matter what you find, a visit to “the blue city” is truly unforgettable.

But Chefchaouen has more to offer than a beautiful medina and peaceful atmosphere. The city’s location within the Rif mountains makes it the perfect place to hike. Walk just a short thirty minutes up to the Spanish mosque for a beautiful view over the city and watch the sunset over the mountains. Or try a longer climb to one of the nearby peaks for even more breathtaking views.

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If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can take a short cab ride deeper into the mountains and take one of the more intensive hikes to Akchour falls or the Bridge of God. Family members of all ages will find something to impress and amaze. On these walks you will find green forest, stunning vistas, and destinations that will fulfill your wildest dreams. Look out for monkeys in trees and little lizards scurrying over rocks.

The waterfalls themselves are absolutely breath-taking. Take a dip in the cold, clear water and stand right beneath the falls, in an experience that will leave you feeling both incredibly small and completely awestruck. You do not want to miss out on these amazing treks through the mountains and you certainly should not pass up the opportunity to explore Chefchaouen, and all that this iconic mountain town encompasses.

Moulay Idriss

Just a few short hours from Fez, this small town sits spread over two hills and surrounded by vast expanses of picaresque green farmland. Mousey Idriss, named for the man who brought Islam to Morocco, has become an important pilgrimage site for Moroccan muslims.

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During the festival honoring Moulay Idriss, religious pilgrims fill the tiny town to visit his tomb. Though non-Muslims cannot enter the burial site, they can peak in to see the beautiful structure. Just outside, in the main square, you will find little stalls selling religious souvenirs to people who travel from all across Morocco to be here.

During the rest of the year, this tiny town lights up as a quaint and quiet spot to experience the simplicity of life in Morocco. Spend evenings in the square eating delicious spiced kefta, or ground beef, the region is known for. Watch children play games while parents sit chatting and get a sense for what life in Morocco looks like outside of the tourist hubs.

The medina of Moulay Idriss has a sort of quiet beauty. The walls have been painted by the local children, different colors for different neighborhoods. Surrounded by pale blues, greens, and yellows, you will fall in love with the simplicity of life here.

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From Moulay Idriss, you can walk along a nearby mountain ridge to Volubilis, a partially excavated Roman city from 3 B.C. Here you can take a step back in history, standing beneath traditional Roman columns and taking a close look at beautiful mosaic floor patterns original to the ancient city. The beauty of the space is to be able to walk among the ruins, touch the stones, and pass through crumbling structures.

The area surrounding Moulay Idriss is truly enchanting. For the best views of the city, climb to the top of one of its hills to the panoramic terrace, and look out over the town. Watching the sun descend over Moulay Idriss , it’s hard to imagine yourself anywhere else in the world.

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A look at the North of Morocco will give you a taste of Spanish heritage, lush green landscapes and amazing little towns that will make you wish you could stay indefinitely. Diverse and beautiful, calm and quaint, there is so much to explore beyond the immediate reach of Marrakech. If you are taking a private tour of Morocco, make sure to include these on your itinerary.

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