Morocco will always be one of my favourite places that I have had the pleasure of visiting. I don’t know if it is because I went there with no expectations or that it was the first non-western country I visited and hearing the regular call to prayer (which I quickly grew accustomed to and enjoyed the familiarity of, well maybe not the one at dawn while I was sleeping) or that it is a land of diverse scenery or that it has mouth-watering food and a fascinating history or that the people are so friendly or that I shopped A LOT or that its imperfections give so much character to the place that creates an amazing energy. Maybe it is a combination of all of the above.
My friend Marina and I embarked on an eleven day tour with Geckos Adventures in April 2009 (read more here about my African adventures with Geckos, note I have not been paid by them), making a circuit that started in Casablanca, headed inland and ended in Marrakech. This was the first trip I took with Geckos and as some of you may know, not the last. What I love the most about the company is that they are very conscious about sustainable tourism and always employ locals. Our tour guide, Atika, was a wealth of knowledge about her country and was very patient with our barrage of questions about her life and religion.
I went to Casablanca filled with romantic notations of lost love between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, of exotic souks and warm weather. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Unfortunately the romance wasn’t there but the souk in the Old Medina was fascinating and had my head turning every five seconds (remember this was my first time in an Arabic country) at the stalls selling everything from live snails to colourful mosaic glass lamps. The weather also didn’t disappoint with the warm sun defrosting our European skin.
The city itself was a little disappointing, a little run down in most parts with the exception of the souk, the area that has been refurbished with wide palm-lined boulevards and Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in Morocco and the seventh largest in the world.
It is magnificent!
The intricate decorations inside combined with the marble floor and bathing area make for an impressive sight and definitely worth a visit.
Before I went to Morocco people had dismissed Casablanca and said it wasn’t worth a visit. For us it was the starting point of our tour and therefore not such a disappointment, however I’m not sure I would recommend going to Casablanca if you plan on visiting other parts of Morocco anyway.
We also managed to get sucked into a scam story so be careful. On our way to visit some friends of Marina’s and a reputable looking guy starting asking us if we needed directions, yes we stood out like a sore thumb as lost tourists. Of course he couldn’t just point us in the right direction, he insisted on showing us where to go so that he had more time to convince us of his sob story of his car breaking down, blah, blah, blah. Luckily this experience did not dampen our enthusiasm for what lay ahead.
The next stop was Meknes. We travelled over two hours by train to the once imperial city of Morocco. Sultan Moulay Ismail set out to build his very own version of Versailles by constructing walls, gates and a multitude of palaces and of course mosques. We visited many of these as well as the bustling market place where the locals were busy buying everything from produce for dinner to dried fruits.
We then headed to Fes, the place I was anticipating the most. Wandering the labyrinth of alleyways in the medina, avoiding donkeys coming from either direction, was like stepping back in time. The old market place was alive with every imaginable type of craftsman and stalls selling everything from ceramics to scarves to food to silverware to rugs.
A visit to the tannery is a must while in the medina. Even though it is a bit stinky it is fascinating to learn how they dye the leather shoes and bags using traditional methods. Fes also has a jewish quarter that has a long history and worth a visit.
Fes is a shopping haven for people like myself because you can not only buy goods that are not only cheaper than western prices (depending on how good your bargaining skills are, more on this later on) but many of the items cannot be found elsewhere which makes them even more special. Even if you are not a shopaholic like myself, spending hours wandering this living museum and preferably getting lost is well worth it.
Another excursion that we did while in Fes was visit a ceramics factory. We saw how the bowls and plates were made from scratch all the way to being hand painted. Of course there was a shop at the end. Whoa, shopping heaven! Yes that’s right, I not only love shopping for clothes and shoes. I bought as many beautifully decorated bowls and plates that I could possibly fit and carry in my backpack. I still use all of the pieces I bought in Fes and fondly think back to my Moroccan trip. Be warned, you will want to buy one of everything. I do believe that they offered delivery around the world, no, I did not opt for that.
It was also in Fes that we visited a mosque that used to be a Qur’anic school. It was here that I learnt so much about the Islamic religion and that like the core of most religions, being a Muslim is pretty much about being a good person.
It was then time to head to Midelt, a town in between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas mountain ranges. While driving through the Middle Atlas ranges we experienced ever changing scenery. There were snow capped mountains, which was totally unexpected to an oasis in the middle of the desert, no it wasn’t a mirage, and arrived at our hotel that essentially felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, set amongst gorges.
We went for a gentle hike through the rugged gorges, investigating abandoned traditional mud houses and seeing others with satellite dishes on their roofs. We also enjoyed the coolness of the shadows of the towering gorge above us while being mesmerised by the river cutting its way through the dry desert.
In this area the people are mainly Berber and we were privileged to be presented with traditional Berber music and dancing and food at our hotel that night. More about the food to come!
The Sahara Desert
Next stop was the Sahara Desert. Oh my goodness, I couldn’t believe I was actually in the Sahara. Once our guide had dressed each of the females in our head scarves we headed off into the desert on camels to a Bedouin camp.
The desert is an absolutely magical place, if you ever get the chance to visit any desert I would highly recommend it. Believe me, it is far more than just a shitload of sand. It is ever changing and mysterious. The winds constantly rearrange the sand dunes into different shapes, some soft and smooth and others with a very sharp curving crest.
After taking a million photos as the sun set, and possibly getting a few grains of sand in my camera lens grrrrrr, we ate a traditional Bedouin dinner all cooked on an open fire and then sat around and listened to some traditional music played on drums.
An early night was had by all as we were planning an early rise to climb the tallest sand dune in the area to watch the sunrise. After all snuggling in together in our tent and covering ourselves with the same blankets that were underneath the camel saddles (yes they were hairy and smelly!) we drifted off to sleep. Unfortunately it seemed like a short sleep as we got woken in the middle of the night to climb the sand dune. Luckily it was well worth it. Seeing the sun rise from the top of a sand dune in the middle of the desert is like no other experience. Even though there are other people around you, there is an incredible sense of stillness and peacefulness.
After a painful ride, well for the guys anyway so they said, back through the waking desert to our waiting cars we headed to Todra Gorge. On our journey we were presented with lush green valleys below us lined with palm trees and farms growing a variety of fruits and oil-producing plants and trees. We stopped at one of the oases and walked through community gardens where all members take responsibility for the farming and share the profits, love this idea! While there, we met a spritely one hundred and twenty year old man! He was full of smiles and jokes, not that I understood them.
Todra Gorge is in the High Atlas Mountains and is a canyon carved out by the Todgha and Dades Rivers. At Todra Gorge it narrows to as little as ten metres and is overlooked by the sheer cliff faces either side where you have to crane your neck in order to see the top. The glacial stream is as clear as any water I have ever seen but of course freezing cold.
On our way to Ait Benhaddou, a medieval brick town, we travelled along the road of “1000 kasbahs” (fortress or citadel). Like a mirage rising out of the desert magnificent mud brick fortresses now abandoned appeared from nowhere.
Ait Benhaddou is overlooked by a fortress that provides excellent views of the old town. On our way up to the top we were fortunate to stop at a local’s house for tea and a tour of the compound. The lady was incredibly hospitable and happy for us to learn about her lifestyle.
It was then on to the pièce de résistance, Marrakech. Once we passed the highest point on the road to Marrakech the landscape became more lush and fertile, though in saying this they grow so many fruits and useful plants throughout the country, no matter how harsh the land may seem.
Our fabulous guide had organised for us to stay at a traditional riad in Marrakech, a Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard.
It was astounding!
From the outside there was a wooden door on a rather non-descript building but once you stepped through those doors, walked down a dark narrow hallway and into the courtyard we were surrounded by a beautiful tiled courtyard that was walled in by three storeys of rooms. It was a fitting end to an exquisite trip.
That night we visited the craziness that is the old medina or souk, Jemaa el Fna. The energetic atmosphere of the hawkers trying to make a final sale for the day, the fire eaters and snake charmers trying to impress tourists (don’t take photos without paying or they will get very peeved) and the aromas of the delicious night markets beginning to fill the air was exhilarating. Like many of the medinas we visited it was very easy to get lost but this was half the fun.
A shopping adventure
When I was in Fes visiting the tanneries I had spotted a bright pink leather overnight bag that took my fancy. I didn’t buy it because it was still early days of the tour and I already had a backpack and a day pack to carry around. Throughout the trip I kept thinking about it and started looking for something similar along the way to no avail. My friend had assured me we would find one in Marrakech. So off we traipsed up and down the narrow alley ways getting distracted by other shiny exciting items for sale, in search of the bright pink leather bag.
I should mention that by this point in the trip my friend Marina, whom I was travelling with and who is French, and I had by osmosis created a bit of a routine when bargaining in the medinas. She would soften them up by speaking French (they speak both French and Arabic in Morocco) and then I would go in for the hard sell and then we would repeat until we got the price we were happy with.
So once we stumbled upon a guy selling bags, bags and more bags we braced ourselves for the long haul of bargaining that lay ahead. At first glance it seemed that they had every colour imaginable except pink. They had the exact design I had seen in Fes but no pink. Of course the guy told us this was no problem, he would get a pink one from his cousin’s, neighbour’s, sister’s shop, or something like that. We waited for ages making idle chit chat sure that no-one would return with what I wanted. Miraculously a bright pink leather bag appeared. Let the bargaining games begin!
Even though the medina is the main attraction for tourists, Marrakech has so much more to offer. A walk through the old town, a visit to Koutoubua Mosque, the Majorelle Gardens or the adjacent Museum of Islamic Art, a visit to a traditional chemist are just a few recommendations to enjoy.
If you like massages I would highly recommend you visit a hammam and get the full package. Now before going to Morocco I had had many a massage and have always been a big fan of them. My hammam experience started out very relaxing in the communal area relaxing by the pool and in the steam room that was a natural source of energy. When I got called for the massage part I wasn’t quite expecting to be told to strip completely naked, stand at one end of a small room while my masseuse stood at the other end and sprayed me with what felt like a fire hose. She then escorted me to another room, still starkers, and gave me a full body massage, including the front. It was actually really nice, maybe with the exception of the fire hose part, and certainly helped me get over any inhibitions I may have had about public nudity. I would highly recommend it but do be prepared to leave any shyness in the change room.
…and the food!
Ok before I wrap this up I cannot end a post about Morocco without talking about the food. Amazing! I lost count of how many tangines I ate over eleven days, named after the earthenware pots they are cooked in. They are essentially a stew slowly cooked, traditionally over hot coals. The most common types are lamb or chicken with vegetables or just vegetables.
Meat and vegetable skewers are also a regular on restaurant menus. They grow a lot of spices in Morocco so these are added to most dishes. When you go to a restaurant you will normally be given a bowl of olives, sometimes free and sometimes not, as they are grown throughout the country. Couscous and chickpea dishes were also offered on most menus and at street stalls I encountered. On the coast there are of course more seafood dishes available. Wherever you are in the country you are sure to find delicious food.
I must confess I did visit McDonalds when in Marrakech. Now before you judge me let me explain. To start with, I am not a fan of McDonalds in any country but we couldn’t resist because throughout our trip we kept seeing huge billboards advertising the McArabia. The name was so cool that we wanted to find out what was in it. So we dragged our guide to McDonalds and all tried the McArabia. It was a burger patty in a kind pita bread with a yoghurt type of sauce. To be honest it was ok.
Anyway, whether you are interested in trying new food, bargaining in medinas for cute little silver teapots and beautiful scarves, delving into a country filled with a fascinating history, visiting The Sahara or just seeing a variety of landscapes within one country, I would definitely recommend Morocco.
As I said in the beginning of this post, it will always be one of my favourite places I’ve visited for so many reasons.
Have you visited Morocco? What did you think? Where are your favourite places you’ve visited? Let us know by leaving a comment above.
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