Travelogue: Moroccan autumn
In October 2015 I spent 10 days in Morocco with a small group of photographers led by Lee Frost, the renowned English landscape photographer. Morocco is a photographer’s delight, a place of maze-like medinas (old towns) filled to the brim with artisans and craftspeople plying ancient trades: leather dying and tooling, metal-working, carpet weaving, bread making in communal ovens.
It is a country habituated to tourism of every kind, safe, quite open to Westerners toting gigantic cameras. Going with a photographer who has taken groups to the area for years, though, made a huge difference in terms of not having to worry about a thing— except to have my cameras loaded with the right kind of film. Meals, transportation, lodging: everything was already arranged, and the whole itinerary planned so that we would get to the right place in the right light.
So… yes, the right kind of film! When planning what to take on a trip like this, I took into account what cameras I would be shooting (a Lomography Sprocket Rocket for 35mm, several Holgas and a Fuji 645zi for medium format), I imagined I would encounter a wide array of light situations requiring a lot of choice in ISO (and then some!), and suspected that no matter how many rolls I took I would end up sorry I had not taken more (isn’t that always the case?!).
For the purposes of this article, I chose mostly images shot with the Fuji645zi except for a couple of places where I got better results with a Holga or the Sprocket Rocket.
First stop: Chef-Chaouen, Northern Morocco
Probably my most favorite place of the whole trip, we reached Chef-Chaouen in the Rif Mountains of northwestern Morocco after a long day of driving from the Casablanca airport. A wonder of intensely blue-rinsed walls, it is a lesser known tourist destination compared to other places in Morocco.
The roads in the old town are steep and clogged with donkeys delivering anything from pallets of Coke to propane canisters. We spent one full day and two evenings happily shooting Chaouen, as the locals call it.
On the way to Fès: Moulay Idriss and the Roman ruins of Volubilis
Morocco is a deceptively large country and getting from one city to the next could take all day. Fortunately, Lee and his assistant Carolyn Hunt, planned these long travel days so that we would have a good photographic stop or two along the way. Driving from Chef-Chaouen to the ancient city of Fès, we stopped for lunch and panoramic shots of Moulay Idriss and then proceeded a few miles further to the Roman ruins of Volubilis—the ruins themselves built on an even older Carthaginian outpost.
Second stop: Fès
The second largest city in Morocco, and its former capital, Fès is a UNESCO World heritage site by the Atlas mountains, with a sprawling, intricate medina where it is easy to get lost. We had a local guide whose help was invaluable, not only navigating the different souks (markets) but also talking to people and getting us into some tiny workshops to shoot the craftsmen.
I found the medina a hard place to photograph with my film cameras, because of brusque changes in the levels of light: sometimes you walk down skinny corridors of stone wall in semi-darkness, and then reach an area so open to the bright sun you feel momentarily blinded, and then move on to areas of stalls covered by a roof of long thin canes that filter much of the light and heat.
On the way to Rabat: Meknès
Meknès was a fabulous surprise. I had never heard of it and had no expectations when we stopped halfway on the drive from Fès to Rabat. The core of the old city is surrounded by lovely walls and the whole place feels expansive, with an open-air market abutting a very dark enclosed one. We skipped the covered one and meandered, instead, through the stalls and improvised stuff-on-a-tarp sites.
We also enjoyed a long stop in the Royal Stables and Granaries, a massive structure built in the 17th century to house twelve thousand horses. Even though it has been neglected by the years and damaged by a couple of earthquakes, it is a magnificent place to photograph.
Third stop: Rabat
The modern capital of Morocco, Rabat has a modern side of wide boulevards and impressive Art Deco buildings and a charming old side, the Kasbah de Udayas, looking onto the Atlantic Ocean and the mouth of the Bou Regreg river—across from which is the town of Saleh.
The old Kasbah (fort) is reminiscent of the blues and indigos of Chef Chaouen, but with a more residential feel to it, brightly colored flower pots contrasting magnificently with the walls. Between the Kasbah and the fishing-boat strewn marina around the river, it was hard not to shoot every single roll of color film in my bag! But I knew I had to leave plenty for Marrakesh.
On the way from Rabat to Marrakesh: the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca
No offense to the many fans of the eponymous classic film, in my experience Casablanca itself seemed more of a traffic nightmare than a mysterious or exotic destination. The humongous Hassan II mosque by the Atlantic Ocean is a must, though, for lovers of architectural photography.
Last stop: Marrakesh
You enter Marrakesh from the West, and you drive through a pleasant but nothing-to-write-home-about big city, until you see the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque— which flanks the area of the old medina and the lovely madness of Jamaa el Fana square.
One can probably spend a fortnight, or a lifetime shooting in the souks of Marrakesh and still not scratch the surface. At twilight, the thing to do is secure a spot on one of the rooftop terraces of the cafes and restaurants around the square, mount camera on tripod and shoot long exposures of the lit food stalls where all the locals area eating as throngs of people move around the snake charmers, the traditional water sellers, the musicians, the storytellers, the boxing matches, tarot readers, henna-tattooers, monkey peddlers (there was one monkey wearing a wee Messi soccer shirt, a sight to my Argentinean eyes).
We had another excellent private guide both days we spent shooting in the medina, who not only saved us from getting lost but also helped with haggling a few purchases, and even modeled when we needed the right subject at a place. That is Mohammed in his djellabah walking by a cat in the medina in the next picture.
I would go back to Morocco in a second, there was so much of the country left to explore. Most photo outfits offer “North Morocco” (which would include my trip) and “Southern Morocco” trips, these latter ones usually include a few days in the Sahara, with or without camels. As a photographer, this felt like the perfect kind of destination to go with an experienced outfit and a group of like-minded people who would not think I was taking too long photographing a place.
Last words of advice? Take double or triple the amount of film you think you’ll need, brush and rinse your teeth and toothbrush with mineral water every time, and enjoy the fabulous Moroccan food.
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