Christmas Vacation

Even a sabbatical apparently includes vacations, because the last two weeks have seemed even more relaxed, with the visits of our two older sons, Will and Jackson, and Jackson’s fiancée Mackenzie.  We sang Christmas carols in our chilly rented place in the old city in Rabat, and took side trips to three or four interesting places.  And then with just Mackenzie and Jackson, we trekked 55 km from village to village in the High Atlas mountains with guides and mules.  We stayed in two Bedouin homes, and hiked for three days, though John missed the last day due to travelers’ intestinal distress and hypothermia.  In Africa.  For real. The combination of longer nights, altitude, and the weaker winter sun makes the mercury fall fast at sunset.

A wood stove helped a lot.

Here are some pictures from our Christmas Vacation….

First, we took a tour of the ancient Roman capital of the province we now call Morocco.  It’s called Volubilis, and housed several thousand people.  Besides a swanky quarter with mansions and heated floors with mosaics of gods, goddesses, and fantastic animals, there is also a temple ruin, a triumphal arch, public baths, an arcaded street, and slave quarters.

Volubilis: guide

The only inhabitants of Volubilis today are these storks.

Volubilis: storks

In Casablanca, the commercial and industrial capital of Morocco, this spectacular mosque was built in honor of King Hassan II.  It’s the third-largest in the world, and is cantilevered over the sea.  Between the giant square in the foreground and the interior prayer space, a hundred thousand people can pray at once, and on Fridays it’s the place to be.  It’s also one of the few mosques open to the non-Muslim public, so we were eager to see everything…

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

Our tour started with putting our shoes in shopping bags to carry along while we were in the carpeted prayer-areas.

The mezzanine level is reserved for women, like a ship’s bridge or balcony above the main floor.  The niche facing Mecca is beautiful, and the roof comes off like any modern, self-respecting football stadium’s.

Downstairs are rows and rows of fountains for washing hands, face, and feet before going upstairs to pray.

Our tour guide (below) told us about the chandeliers, the special

plaster that does not absorb humidity, the titanium metalwork that sea air doesn’t oxidize, and the day-and-night shifts of workers who spent six years getting the place ready for the king’s 60th birthday.

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

Here are the removable ceiling, the beautiful columns, and chandeliers.

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

Below is a picture of Will, John, and Lynnell on a patio above the town of Moulay Idriss.  It’s an almost sacred pilgrimage cite for Moroccans.  It’s Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, and Arlington Cemetery squeezed onto a single hilltop.  The tombs of the first and second Arab kings of Morocco are the green-roofed and white-domed buildings in the front of the steeply sloping town.

Will, Lynnell, & John in Moulay Idriss

Though we’ve had nothing less than the warmest of welcomes, tourists are always warned that pickpockets are out there, lurking.  Will demonstrated how to use a money belt to keep passport, wallet, and cell phone secure.  Actual money belts are more discreet, as are actual tourists.  Alert readers will notice that Will demonstrating large-size tourist security pouch useWill is actually substituting a collapsible camp sink for the money belt.  Jackson and Mackenzie brought it to us from the US because some other campers stole ours a week earlier! The campground consensus was that a couple of young Italian surfers had taken them.  In 33 years of camping together, we’ve never had so much as a plastic fork taken from us.

Will’s standing in the courtyard of our riyad on Christmas Day.  We made a feast, drank wine, sang Christmas Carols, and shivered after the weak winter sun set.

We stayed in this old-fashioned Arab house called a riyad in the old city of Rabat.  The old parts of cities in much of the Arab world are usually called “medina,” which just means “city,” and a riyad is simply a house built around a courtyard with enough of a garden to simulate the Paradise of Eden.   The brown door on the right in the picture below is ours.  Our hosts at this air bnb live on the second floor, which is warmer in winter.

Riad Dar Manar, Rabat

In Marrakech a couple days later, Mackenzie, Will, and Jackson tried turbans in the dyers’ market.


And then we were off on trail in the High Atlas Mountains, hiking a total of 55 kms over three days.  We got to stay in two Berber villages overnight, with tajine-cooked meals and lots of green tea!img_5436







High Atlas Trek series

Lynnell, Jackson, and Mackenzie at the snowy pass on day 3 of High Atlas Trek

On the third day, Lynnell, Jackson, and Mackenzie crossed over this snowy pass and then descended to the town of Imlil, where John was recovering,having been driven there by a merciful guide.  Then it was back to Marrakech for one more long ramble through the immense central plaza and the even more immense and wonderful tangle of shopping alleys.

Place Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Lynnell captured a sense of that “souk” or marketplace in this single shot: beef butchered within the last hour or two hanging beside ceramic couscous platters, hanging beside woven wool rugs from the Berber south.

Meat, ceramics, and cloths for sale in Marrakech

We leave you with this shot of two boys walking home from school, one with his arm protectively over the other’s shoulder.  When Moroccan kids walk together, they are mostly arm-in-arm, unless they’re chasing each other!

overhead Imlil boys and shadows

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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

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