When most travelers discuss the premier time to visit a destination, the commentary usually revolves around the best weather or lack of crowds. Paris in the spring. New England in the fall, the Taj Mahal just after the monsoons stop and before the heat returns. Rome in any time except the draining heat of summer. Dreams of uncrowded beaches and palm trees blowing in a warm breeze fill our thoughts. Uncrowded museums and easy tickets to cultural attractions rank high for some.
Unfortunately everyone generally agrees on the same timing and the term “season” was invented. In popular places the best time of year may not be synonymous with the best time to visit. Some savvy travelers have mastered the so-called shoulder seasons. They hope to avoid spending all their time in line while not giving up the ability to sit in that outdoor café along the picturesque boulevard without wearing a winter overcoat. Others may purposely visit off season, just to feel they are experiencing the area by themselves.
We have recently begun to look at the proper time to visit in a different way. What time period would have been the most interesting for you to visit the place of your dreams? For most destinations there is an era that most interests you. Perhaps it was the curiosity generator that originally drew your interest to that place of your dreams. Which era of Paris most interests you? Napoleon’s Paris of the late 1700’s or Hemingway’s Paris of the 1920’s? Maybe sharing coffee in Montmartre with Picasso or Monet? The ornate palaces and gardens of Versailles or perfect people watching in a neon lit cafe on the Boulevard Montparnasse?
We have found that it doesn’t matter what “season” it actually is outside if you use your imagination and spend part of your vacation “time travelling”. You can see Rome from the eyes of a gladiator or an emperor by visiting the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Maybe take a little “Roman Holiday” and share a gelato on the Spanish Steps, channeling a little of Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck. Put on a skinny tie and hang out on the Via Veneto waiting for Sophia Loren or Federico Fellini to arrive in an Italian sports car. An afternoon with Michelangelo studying which colors look best together in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
The best destinations always have a musical, culinary or literary history that can be discovered no matter what the weather is like. Great cities usually contain architecture that represents many different periods of time. These things are there always and can be experienced no matter how many tourists crowd the beaches or well-known museums. There are many ways to visit Mexico. You can experience it through the eyes of the Mayans by visiting the ruins at Palenque. You can follow Steinbeck to Baja California and the Sea of Cortez. You can choose which Mole suits your taste in the tiniest cafes of Pueblo. None of these rely on perfect timing of reservations at that popular beach resort in Cancun. Time travel is possible in any time of year and no matter how many people crowd a city. That’s because time travel resides in your imagination, which is the always your best guide through any destination.
We thought of time travel when we were planning our 6 week trip to Morocco. We tried to pick destinations that best captured different eras of Morocco’s history. After our time in Casablanca, Marrakech and Essaouira we moved on to our final three stops….
Fes does not seem like a destination in the hills. You get some sense of the change of terrain as the train starts inward from the coast at Rabat. By the time you pass Meknes you know you are going uphill, but not quickly. You really don’t get the sense of its location until you walk through the so-called Blue Gate (Bab Boujloud) that is the beginning of the Medina. This is the end of car traffic and from here the maze of streets, alleys and tiny squares quickly transports you 1000 years back in time. It takes little imagination to conjure being an early foreign visitor encountering the exoticness of Fes that has changed little since the Middle Ages.
After the brief level ground in the gate area you start downhill into the center of the medina, almost as though you are being propelled by a magical force towards an ancient mystery. Visitors probably pick either the wide street (Rue Talaa Kebira) or the narrow street (Rue Talaa Sghira). If you go left to the wide street (which is really narrow also) you are almost immediately grabbed by the smell of grilling, heavily spiced meat. A group of cats waits impatiently outside of a poultry dealer on one side. A camel head is proudly displayed in a shop on another side to show the freshness of the recently butchered meat on display.
A little farther down the hill is the Megana, the ancient water clock. It no longer functions but is interesting to ponder before you enter the ancient school of Medersa Bou Inania. The craftsmanship of the tiles and woodwork of the courtyard are amazing. Picturing students studying the Koran in the quiet courtyard just steps from the commotion of the busy alleys outside is easy. Don’t forget to stop for a mint tea at the Café Clock before following a heavy laden donkey farther down the hill through the maze of every type of shop imaginable.
At the bottom of the hill past the Henna Souk we take time to admire the Nejjarine Fondouk and Fountain. The Fondouk is a meticulously restored building where wealthy merchants stored wares they brought to the medina to sell. The rooftop provides airy relief from the busy courtyard outside the beautiful building and allows nice views of the hills that surround the ancient area of the city. No visions here of modern Morocco, with the exception of thousands of satellite dishes.
Nearby we visit the leather tanneries that have been in operation for a thousand years. You view them from high above and hold a mint leaf to your nose to protect from the strong smells. After viewing the souk where they construct elaborate wedding decorations normally only seen in a grand Bollywood epic, we begin our ascent back up the hill to the gate where we began our journey back in time several hours before. The hill is steep and necessitates many stops in the tiny artisan markets along shop filled passage. Passing back through the Blue Gate we are returned to the modern city of Fes.
Chefchaouen is not a place we knew much about before arriving. The city is popular with photographers who come to see a town that is almost entirely painted a lovely shade of blue. We rented a tiny old house in the medina. It was unheated with the exception of a leaky ancient gas stove. The night air was oddly frigid during our stay. We tucked into our beds at night under many layers of blankets and were grateful for hot showers in the morning.
Chefchaouen is located high in the Rif Mountains of Northern Morocco. The Rif Mountains are famous for its production of hashish. The blue buildings and smell of hashish made us think of backpacker havens of the late 1960’s. Visions of wide eyed young people following early Lonely Planet guides and travelling to exotic locations in search of spiritual meanings, cheap food and easily accessible highs filled our thoughts.
Chefchaouen was, by far, our favorite city we visited in Morocco. So much so that I hate to mention it to anyone in hopes that it never gets ruined. It is everything that the young hippies must have wished for. 3 course dinners for 5 dollars. Friendly children that greet everyone with a hearty “Hola” showing their Spanish roots. Happy people who dress as they did many years ago. While we didn’t partake, the smell of hashish was prevalent everywhere and we were offered some often. The old part of town is located at the base of steep, rocky mountains that rise out of green valleys with crystal streams. Women do their wash in chilly rivers. At times the blue of the city walls mix with the crystal blue sky perfectly and give an effect where you feel you could be walking in the clouds themselves.
We walked to the Spanish Mosque at the top of a nearby mountain to watch sunset one evening. The sky began to glow as the sun set over a distant mountain range. Brilliant colors of red, purple, yellow and orange contrasted against the sky blue of the city below. The sunset seemed to last forever as the lights came on in the city below. The sunset call to prayer began at one tiny mosque. It echoed off the surrounding mountains of the area as other mosques began their amplified calls also. The cacophony of sound reverberated around the valley below until it began to sound like harmonic bees buzzing aggressively. Truly one of the amazing sites I’ve seen in years of travel. The smell of hashish in the air was great, but I thought it was unnecessary on this night.
It was easy to imagine ourselves as young travelers in the 1960’s as we descended the mountain in the gathering darkness of a perfect night in the mountains of a spiritual land far away.
Intrigue, exoticness, and conspiracy around every corner. A city with a location at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea so valuable that nearly every major world power sought to control it at one time or another. So important that for many years it was deemed an international city and enjoyed a reputation as a place where nearly everything was possible and all was available for a price. An ancient walled city that rises abruptly from the blue sea, whitewashed so it stands out so brightly it is easily visible from the Spanish coast in the distance.
In addition to the ancient medina, a modern city has grown along the beaches that stretch along the warm coast. We arrived and found our modern, high-rise apartment with views to the ocean from the 6th floor windows. We liked the city right away. We were greeted by warm weather and after a couple of cold weeks in the mountains and we looked forward to ending our long journey on a high note.
As an international city and, for many, the entryway to Africa, Tangier has attracted a unique crowd of adventurers who have sought both the exoticness and the freedom the location provided. In the 1950’s a group of authors grouped here to take advantage of the cost of living, lack of drug enforcement and creative atmosphere. Following in the 1960’s the city became a sunny, laid back, party stop for the jet set of the movie and music industries.
We enjoyed visiting the cafes that became so well known for their famous clientele. The Cafe de Paris was a favorite. Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams held court here. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and almost all the Beat writers made visits. They lived in the cheap hotels nearby and drank in the bars that catered to sailors and international clients. The cafe oozed history and every visit was enjoyable.
Many visits to the tiny square in the medina called Petit Socco were filled with tea or coffee enjoyed with the perfect street side table to watch the citizenry pass by. Café Tingis and the Café Central were favorites in the afternoon after long walks through the steep hills of the medina. Not far away was the venerable Hotel Continental which still clings to it perch above the harbor and while long past its glory days was worth a visit to view a grand dame of Tangier lore.
We had drinks at the classic Caid’s Bar located in the Hotel Minzah. A real life Rick’s Café of Casablanca fame, the hotel was once the host to anyone who was famous in Tangier. Views across the pool to the port were excellent and it took little imagination to see visions of past glories.
The Rolling Stones made the Café Baba famous when they visited. Located midway up the hill, the café looks like it hasn’t changed since they left. The smell of hashish met us as the door. Mint Teas were perfect pick-me-ups for the mixed crowd of mostly local youth. A real favorite and well worth a few visits. The nearby Kasbah museum was as interesting for its architecture as for the items contained inside.
We enjoyed our time travel six week journey throughout Morocco. It was challenging and quite different from how we have travelled for the last couple of years. The people were friendly and the food was good. We probably didn’t pick the best season to go. But as we hoped, if we chose the right era to view each destination in, we had an excellent time in a unique place that we had only seen in our imagination.