Coupons, cupons, coupon, discounts, online, rebates, tax coupons, turbotax, taxbrain Coupons, cupons, coupon, discounts, online, rebates, tax coupons, turbotax, taxbrain Coupons, cupons, coupon, discounts, online, rebates, tax coupons, turbotax, taxbrainMatisse, France, Travel, Creativity, Adventure, Expatriates, Dreams, Reinvention

Matisse, France, Travel, Creativity, Adventure, Expatriates, Dreams, Reinvention


Henri Matisse spent two long stints in Morocco in 1912 and 1913, and the resulting paintings are some of the most sumptuous of his career. When we finally got there and saw the rich colors, beautiful mosaic tiles, and exotic architecture, we could understand where he got his inspiration.

Matisse stayed in Tangier most of the time, but Benachir Akli, owner of Casablanca’s Olive Branch Tours, told us that today’s Tangier isn’t the same as it was back then. He suggested that if we really wanted a taste of the true Morocco—the Morocco that Matisse experienced—we should first visit several other cities before wrapping up in Tangier.

This, then, is how our week turned out: First night Casablanca; first full day, Casablanca and Rabat, ending up in Fes. Three nights in Fes, from where we would make day trips to Meknes and the Roman ruins of Volubilis. Leave Fes for Tangier, with stops at Chefchaouen and Tetouan. Three nights in Tangier. Then back to Casablanca, catching late-night plane back to France.

One of the great things about Olive Branch—aside from the fact that they watched over us like family—is that they’re flexible. As we traveled, we realized we needed more time in some places and less in others. Immediately, Olive Branch’s Adel Mzil made it happen.

Olive Branch Tours
O.B.T. Morocco
35, rue Eloraibi Jilali
2000 Casablanca, Morocco
Tel: (212 +22) 26 14 16
Fax: (212 +22) 26 09 76

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Of course, the first thing any Westerner thinks about Casablanca is Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at Rick’s Café in Casablanca. “All the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” says Bogey, “and she has to drop into mine.”

What little we saw of Casablanca—a big, sprawling city on the sea—seemed less about intrigue than commerce. “There’s the second American embassy,” said our jokester/driver, Aziz. He was pointing at a very busy McDonald’s.

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Our first and last nights in Morocco were spent at Le Royal d’Anfa, a modern, ultra streamlined, five-star hotel catering to international business travelers. In the lobby stands a huge bronze statue of what appears to be an ancient Moroccan prince on horseback. Everything around him is pure 21st century, however, from the wood-paneled conference rooms, to the spacious, well-appointed suites, to the indoor pool, to the choice of five different restaurants, cafes, and bars. Even though we arrived late, we repaired to the Piano Bar and celebrated our Moroccan visit with coupes de champagne.

Le Royal d’Anfa*****
171, Boulevard d’Anfa
Casablanca, Maroc
Tel: +212 (0) 22 95 42 00
Fax: +212 (0) 22 36 63 21

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On Location

If you see only one site in Casablanca, make it the incredible new Hassan II Mosque, the largest religious monument in the world after Mecca, and one of only two mosques in the entire country than non-Muslims are allowed to enter. Situated on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, it literally has the power to steal the sea’s thunder. It rises, in all its stunning white-marbled purity, to pierce the impossibly blue sky, and the minaret is decorated with mosaic tiles in a shade of seafoam green that takes your breath away. And that’s just the outside. You really must go.

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Rabat, the capital of Morocco, is the center of government, a statement that often implies a certain dull propriety. We didn’t find that to be the case in Rabat—thanks, perhaps, to our guide for the afternoon, Mr. Saadi Ahmed, who brought the sights to life with remarkable insight and personality.

Our first stop was the Royal Palace—one of four throughout the country. From the outside it looked new and sprawling (if a bit like a suburban mall). The tent-shaped roofs poking up from inside the walls were tiled in green, and Ahmed explained that green was the color of Islam because it was supposedly the color of the prophet Mohammed’s djellaba.

After the Palace, Ahmed directed us to Rabat’s most famous attraction, the Tour Hassan. Tour in French means “tower.” In 1195, the sultan Yacoub al-Mansour began work on a mosque intended to be the largest and highest in the Muslim world. The minaret was to climb more than 60 meters into the sky. Unfortunately, the sultan died four years later and construction was halted with the minaret at the 44-meter mark. Thanks to an earthquake in 1755, the unfinished mosque was all but destroyed. Today, all that’s left is the tower, part of a massive wall, and a vast pavilion of stunted stone columns that somehow carry a mystical power. Walking among them, we felt in touch not with a sultan’s grand design, but with the poignant fragility of one man’s reach for greatness.

At one edge of the field of columns is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, father of the present king. In a country where even the homes of common people may be richly decorated, the resting place of a ruler calls upon the best the culture has to offer. Incredible mosaics, handsome carved wood, filigreed gold and bronze—this mausoleum’s beauty speaks eloquently of the love the Moroccan people had for this king.

Ahmed finished our taste of Rabat with a walking tour of the Kasbah des Oudaias. Many people confuse kasbahs (or casbahs) with medinas, but here’s the difference: A kasbah is a military compound and a medina is a commercial area. Kasbahs are generally built on the highest ground in a city, and Rabat’s was no exception. Built on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, it offers visitors stunning views. Its maze of houses, in traditional blue and white for the union of sea and sky, has today become an engaging shopping area, with bookstores, cafes, and traditional Moroccan wares for sale.

Ahmed shoehorned all this sightseeing into a mere two hours that—thanks to his deep knowledge and sense of humor—passed all too quickly. But we had to leave for Fes…

English, French, and German Tour Guide
1, rue Hossain, First Floor
Rabat, Morocco
Mobile Tel: (212) 067 22 26 44

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Founded more than a thousand years ago, Fes is a religious and cultural center that our guidebook called “arguably the symbolic heart of Morocco.” Indeed, we did leave the coastal cities of Casablanca and Rabat and head deep into the interior of the country. As dusk gathered around us, we watched women leading donkeys laden with jugs of water, and shepherds guiding their flocks home for the night.

After about a three-hour drive, we arrived at a dense city of more than a million people nestled into a valley between the Rif and the Middle Atlas Mountains. Aziz dropped us off at our hotel, which was but our first experience of the exotica that is Fes.

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Thanks to Olive Branch Tours, we had a splendid room at the best place in town to stay—the Hotel Palais Jamai. Literally the former palace of a 19th-century “grand vizier to the sultan,” the Plais Jamai looks like the Arabia of the 1,001 Nights. The staff wear the tasseled cap named for Fes, short jackets, baggy Arab pants known as “serwal,” and pointed leather slippers. The hotel is run with impeccable taste and precision by a gentleman named Omar Azizi, the Director General, who himself came to welcome us.

Once in our room, we were delighted with the accommodations—big, beautiful closets, a spacious bathroom finished out in tile from the area, and a large veranda looking over the hotel’s pool and, beyond it, the famous Fes medina.

Tired from our day, we stayed in the hotel that evening. Many things were available to us, from simple massages to complete mood transplants at the hands of the capable staff at the hotel hammam. We opted for drinks at the delightful Al Mandar Jazz Bar, which featured a piano player/singer whom we thought—by the selections he was playing—might have grown up in New Orleans, but it turned out he was from the Middle East.

Later we had an early gourmet dinner at the Al Jounaina international restaurant, where we were waited upon by no fewer than four people. We were beginning to feel like grand viziers ourselves.

Over the next couple of days, our new guide, Omar Rahou—an engaging man in a Fes hat, a green djellaba, and white pointy-toed slippers—would use Fes as a center of operations to show us the true Morocco that Matisse had experienced a hundred years before. It was an exhilarating journey back in time—and every night, we were thrilled to return to the Palais Jamai to be pampered in state-of-the-art fashion.

Hotel Palais Jamai *****
Bab Guissa
30 000 Fes Maroc
Tel: 212 (0) 55 63 43 31
Fax: 212 (0) 55 63 50 96

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Cafes, Restaurants, and Bistros

After a long morning of wandering in the medina, the 1,200-year-old warren of small streets and alleyways that is home to half a million people, we were famished. Omar steered us into a place with the nondescript name of Restaurant la Medina, where we were more than pleasantly surprised by the fresh mezza of salads and the steaming tagines of beef and chicken.

Restaurant la Medina
13, Bis Derb
Le Hammam-Gerniz-fes-Medina
Tel: 212 55 63 58 57
Fax: 212 55 63 61 66

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Undoubtedly, the best dining experience of our entire Morocco trip was our second night in Fes, at La Maison Bleue. A former petit palace with floor-to-ceiling mosaics, elegantly carved cypress appointments, and classic plaster mouldings, the restaurant/riad (they have a few rooms to rent) conveys the mesmerizing totality of the Moroccan experience, which is based on a rich and beautiful interior life. A small group of musicians played and chanted until their songs blended with the surroundings. The food was more than worthy of its presentation, and we especially loved the dessert called Pastilla. If you’re going to Fes, don’t miss this restaurant.

Le Maison Bleue
2, place de l’Istiqlal-Batha
Fes 30 000 Morocco
Tel & Fax: 212 55 74 18 43

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Shopping in Morocco is a little like drinking—enjoy in moderation. If you have a guide, and you must have one if you expect to ever find your way out of the medina, at some point you’ll end up in a rug shop. Actually, that doesn’t do justice to the sumptuous Aux Merveilles du Tapis, which is more a palace than a shop. Housed in a former maison festooned in mosaic Moroccan splendor, Aux Merveilles is a beautiful oasis amid the sometimes squalid medina. It’s comforting to sit back like a pasha sipping hot mint tea while the salesman and his staff practice their ancient trade with bada-bing timing. What’s dangerous about it is how beautiful the rugs are, and how much you’ll yearn to own one. If you can resist, then you will have enjoyed one of civilization’s oldest floor shows for free.

Aux Merveilles du Tapis
22, Sebaa Louyet
Fes, Morocco
Tel: 212 55 63 87 35
Fax: 212 55 63 61 66

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For a good selection of antiques and jewelry, try Les Mysteres de Fes, a compact two-level shop that calls to mind Indiana Jones’ grandma’s attic. The curved swords (I’m sure that’s not what they’re called), the cloissone, the brooches, the rings, the Bedouin-looking chairs—each piece tells a story. This is a fine place to let your imagination run free.

Le Mysteres de Fes
53, Derb Bin
Lemssari Sidi Moussa, Fes (Medina) Maroc
Tel: 212 55 63 61 48
Fax: 212 55 74 06 99

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You won’t be in Morocco five minutes before you’re coveting mosaic tile. Omar took us to the factory outside Fes and showed us how they form the bricks from local clay, then bake them in furnaces heated white hot by crushed olive pits. The resulting mosaic tables are spectacular, but too cumbersome to carry (they’ll ship, if you wish). We bought a couple of elegant platters decorated with typical Moroccan designs, and a few small tiles to use as coasters. There’s a lot to choose from. It’s the Potter’s Souq near Bab el-Ftouh. Get a taxi to take you and wait, since you’ll have a hard time finding one back.

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A smaller, quieter city to the southwest of Fes, Meknes is the would-be Versailles of Morocco. Had Sultan Moulay Ismail (ruled 1672 to 1727) been entirely successful in his grandiose building plans, and had time been kinder to the projects he did complete, Meknes would be a world-class showplace. As it now stands, the most amazing site (and sight) is the sultan’s horse stables, which housed Moulay Ismail’s some 12,000 Arabians. It required six thousand people to take care of them. We’ve lived in towns with smaller populations than that.

Still, Meknes is situated in a beautiful, rolling plain dotted with olive trees and fruit orchards, and there are splendid reminders of Moulay Ismail’s reign. Omar had us step out of the car to photograph the ornate Bab Elmallah, one of the many gates that Moulay Ismail built in the 25 kilometers of walls around the city. We finished our tour at the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, an elegant and peaceful resting place for the sultan who made Meknes his capital.

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Cafes, Restaurants, and Bistros

We only had one meal in Meknes, but it was delicious. The day was hot, the sun glaring, and as soon as we entered the cool comfort of the Metropole Ismailia, we felt refreshed. After crisp salads, steaming tagines, and a split of wine, we were ready to move on to the ancient Roman city of Volubilis.

Metropole Ismailia
Bd. Yougoslavie, 4
Route de Tangier, Meknes
Tel & Fax: 212 55 51 35 11

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About 25 miles north-northwest from Meknes lie the surprisingly well preserved remains of Volubilis, one of the most far-flung settlements of the Roman Empire. Dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., the compound highlights are the beautiful mosaic floors whose colors are still vibrant; the Triumphal Arch, erected in 217 A.D. in honor of the Emperor Caracalla; the House of Orpheus, a mansion for a wealthy resident, with a system of water flowing through the house; and the still standing Capitol columns, used today as nesting places for storks.

Our guide Omar proved himself indispensable again and again, but never more so than when a Volubilis watchman began shouting at Beth, who was standing on a low wall to photograph one of the mosaics. Omar threatened to engage the man in fisticuffs, and Beth got her picture.

Rahou Omar
Official Guide Number 127
Hay Moffareh, Rue 3 Number 46, Apt. 8
Ain Haroun
Fes, Morocco
Tel: 212 (0) 55 64 54 62
Mobile: 212 (0) 61 67 28 59

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Fes to Tangier

The drive from Fes to Tangier leads through rolling orchard country into the Rif Mountains and back down to the sea. Along the way, we made two stops. Chefchaouen, located high in the mountains, is a laid-back town with stunning Spanish influences, thanks to Muslim refugees from Spain who, feeling homesick, recreated their whitewashed houses with sea-blue doors, balconies, and patios shaded by citrus trees.

We could’ve stayed there longer, but it’s a good thing we didn’t. Even in our short walk around town we bought three small rugs from two young men in the medina, one of whom was engaged to an American girl from Cleveland.

Our other stop was Tetouan, an old and storied city between the Rif Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Once the capital of the Spanish protectorate, Tetouan is still largely Spanish-speaking. It also has a history of piracy, and is said even now to be a haven for shady characters. Matisse once rode a donkey from Tangier to Tetouan and back, but today you could lose your ass trying that.

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Once the glamorous “Gateway to Africa,” Tangier is a city that has seen it all—drugs, spies, trafficking in human beings, and of course the run-of-the-mill prostitution and pick-pocketing. The city has an aura of cynical world-weariness to it, and you can more easily imagine Bogey running Rick’s Café in Tangier than in Casablanca.

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Once again, we couldn’t have done better than where Olive Branch put us—at the classic El Minzah Hotel. Built by a Scottish Lord in 1930, the place has that comfortable, raffish, Old-Money attitude about it—the kind of place (unlike most of France) where if you ordered a Martini, the bartender wouldn’t appear shaken.

The El Minzah is very centrally located—a couple of blocks from the medina—and our room, with its large whitewashed terrace, overlooked the same Tangier harbor that Matisse had painted a century before.

We began or ended most of our forays into the city at Caid’s Piano Bar, a comfortable watering hole that quickly felt like home. Finding local cafes generally populated by dark-eyed, glaring men (almost no women), we were also more comfortable taking our meals at the hotel. One night, we had dinner in the room. The other two nights, we made reservations at the intimate El Korsan, which features traditional Moroccan cuisine and nightly shows.

El Minzah Hotel*****
85, Rue de la Liberte
Tanger, Morocco
Tel: 212 39 93 58 85
Fax: 212 39 93 45 46

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On Location

The medina in Tangier is much more easily negotiated than the one in Fes. We had no trouble—in any definition of the word—walking around in the old commercial area by day. The medina leads gradually to the kasbah, which offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean. Wander the kasbah, and you may also find yourself in the very spot where Henri Matisse painted some of his most sumptuous Moroccan landscapes.

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For a Drink

We had heard that the Rolling Stones spend a lot of time in Tangier. Finally, through a grapevine too complicated to go into here, we found our way to a long corner room perched precariously on the edge of the descending medina. The Café Baba is the place, and for an extra treat, it looks down onto the upper terrace of Barbara Hutton’s old villa. If you go, tell Aoufi Aboelghani that you read about it here.

Café Baba
Sidi Hosni, Casbah, Tanger, Maroc

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If you’re bound for Morocco and don’t want to bother with driving, parking, etc., call Aziz. Not only will you travel in style, you’ll also travel with a delightful and knowledgeable companion.

Aziz Abou Ouafa
Transport Touristique Limousine Service
Hay Tissir 1, Rue 6 Number 2
Fax: 212 (0) 22 83 92 94
Mobile: 212 (0) 61 15 98 04

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Copyright © 2005 James Morgan & Beth Arnold. All rights reserved

Matisse, France, Travel,