Morocco is just a little larger than California in area but its huge diversity in geography makes it difficult for a first time visitor like me to get a handle on its culture, the people, and just which parts to visit in a month. My husband and I met up in Casablanca marking the beginning of our journey where I quickly realised having him as my travelling companion again was a huge asset, not only because he was here over forty years ago, but because he speaks French, Morocco’s second language. However, handling my solo travel status to travelling with “hubby” as well as adjusting to the Moroccan culture has allowed little time for blogging.
It was thanks to our travel agent in Montreal who helped me with my flights to Bangkok and back with a planned detour to Morocco which “hubby” and I decided would be a great country to visit on our way home to Nova Scotia, that we found ourselves in the city of Casablanca. I booked us into a comfortable AirBnB where we caught up on our four months apart, and I tried to recoup from the little bit of jet lag I had acquired crossing the time zones from Thailand. We discovered there isn’t much to see in Casablanca other than the Hassan II Mosque which was built by the late king and is the largest in the Islamic world. It is also one of the few mosques which is open to non-Muslims. It has a gorgeous setting right on the Atlantic coast. It’s the largest and most modern city in Morocco so is of more interest to the world of commerce rather than tourism. Most people are intrigued with it because of the movie by the same name with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall which depicted the dark side of the city. The past is almost all gone except for Rick’s Bar opened up and run by an American for those romantics who want to perpetuate the myth since there never was a Rick’s Bar in Casablanca. It existed only on the Hollywood set where the film was made.
From Casablanca on the Atlantic coast, we took the train to the inland city of Fes, one of Morocco’s Royal cities. Fes is not only a spiritual and cultural centre for Morocco, but is also one of the world’s oldest inhabited medieval cities. It was made a UNESCO site in the mid ’90’s. Our arrival here was the real beginning of our Moroccan experience!
I used AirBnB once again so we stayed in a small riad which is a traditional Moroccan home with a central courtyard surrounded by the smaller rooms for guests and family. Dar Warda, the name of our house, was smack in the Medina or old part of Fes about a five minute walk from BabBou Jeloud, the main gate. The medina in Fes is a maze of 9000 narrow lanes going in all directions so we were grateful that our host met us at the gate to escort us to our place which we would never have found on our own! Before we could unpack and settle in, we were served mint tea the traditional greeting or mode for doing any kind of transaction in Morocco.
Although Fes is a beautiful city spread out over a large area surrounded by the Middle Atlas Mountains with a river meandering through it, we found it difficult to navigate. Although we were able to walk the old part of the city without the hindrance of cars, we had difficulty finding our way around the maze of alleys which did not go unnoticed by the numerous ‘fake’ guides who would appear miraculously to save us. We knew their game but hubby found it hard to simply ignore them so we found ourselves in situations where we were expected to pay even though we didn’t want their help. Being new at this game, as well as too kindhearted, we managed to get suckered in a couple of times. When we ventured too far away from the old town to the new town, we would have to rely on a taxi where here again we had to be very assertive and demand the price we learned was a fair one. Once you discover these scams and learn how to bargain then getting around becomes a lot easier. Taxis, tours, and just about everything sold in the Medina should be bargained, but not so in the new town where sophisticated shops and cafes are to be found. This premise holds true for most cities and towns frequented by tourists in Morocco.
Fes presented us with our first real taste of Moroccan food. Thanks to our host at DarWarda who recommended a restaurant near by, we ate most of our meals at Chez Rachid. This place was small and always full so we knew it had to be good and it was. I had my first tagine with lamb and a vegetarian couscous here, all served with the warm hospitality and service that Moroccans are famous for.
While in Fes, we made two daytrips to places nearby. The first was to the Royal city of Meknes and the ancient site of Volubilis, a Roman city which was once a trading centre for the province of Mauretania. Menkes was created over a thousand years ago by a Moroccan ruler who employed more than 3000 enslaved Christians to build its palaces, mosques, gardens and souks. It ended up as a sultan’s great dream never completed. Today it’s a bustling city of ruins and souks (markets) with its medina and new town. We took this trip with Johanna Reid, a fellow Canadian and aspiring travel writer, who has a successful blog named Travel Eaters. Her site will have many pictures of Morocco which, unfortunately, I still can’t incorporate into my blogs.
Our second day trip was up north to the town of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains. Although we had to take a very early bus ride of about eight hours there and back on the same day, it was well worth it. Chefchaouen has to be the prettiest town I have ever seen as most of its buildings are painted with a blue wash which is especially effective in the medina where everything including the houses and alleys are so close together. The pace here was noticeably quieter where the shop keepers were not so anxious to make a sale. I could actually look at some of the beautiful handmade woolen clothing and rugs for which the artisans are noted. The town is over 3,300 ft. above sea level so has a cooler climate although the day we were there was just a nice temperature with an incredibly blue sky. It has a beautiful waterfall where we sat and enjoyed a refreshing cold orange juice. If there had been time, I would have taken a path which led further up the mountain to get a better look over the whole city. However, we did manage to get a lovely view from the top of the old casbah (a walled village or large home) just at the entrance to the medina.
After five days in Fes, we took the train south to Marrakesh which is undoubtedly the most popular city to visit and on the list of every tourist. It sits on a fertile plain with a beautiful backdrop provided by the High Atlas Mountains which greeted us with their snow-capped peaks as we approached the train station. It is definitely a magical city with its pink coloured buildings, its many minarets, stately palm trees, lovely gardens, and labyrinth of narrow alleys, all overlooked by the peaks of the High Atlas. This is the old part of Marrakesh but there is also the Ville Nouvelle or new city with its wide boulevards and beautifully landscaped gardens.
For eight nights we made our resting spot in another typical Moroccan home on the perimeter of Marrakesh’s medina next to the mullah where the Jewish population once lived. After Morocco gained its independence from France, most Jews moved to Isreal. We found our place on AirBnB with hosts, Annie and Karim, who unfailingly helped us to adjust to life in the medina. We even had a delicious tagine and Moroccan salad prepared by Karim, on our last night there. Annie had her parents and sister visiting from Holland which created for us a large family. We also met two lovely young girls from Germany while there. With them we shared an Easter service at a vibrant Catholic church which managed to lift all our spirits to a new high with the exuberance of the mostly black choir from Senegal.
One of the sites which can’t be ignored by any visitor to Marrakesh is the huge square, the Jemima el- Fna or ‘Square of the Dead’ in English, where there is entertainment galore both day and night. Here you can wander around or simply sit at one of the many cafes and restaurants taking in the sights and sounds of the musicians, snake charmers, jugglars, or whatever other performer happens to be there. This place which is a meeting point for the main alleys leading into the souks is always abuzz with activity and hustlers so short visits were more than enough for me. My preference was to watch it all from a cafe rooftop with a mint tea or orange juice. I should mention that alcohol is forbidden by the Muslims so since Morocco is about 99 percent Muslim, there are few places that serve it. We did find a place called the Cozy Cafe where hubby could get a glass of wine.
Our location put us never very far from all the interesting places to see in the old part of the city. Very close by was the Palais Bahia once the home of a French governor. This was such a tranquil place in the midst of the medina with its traditional tiled mosaics and gardens offering a close up view of Moroccan life. Also nearby we had a much older palace, the Palais Bardia, built by one of Marrakesh’s greatest sultans and completed in 1602. Much of the original structure is gone except for some crumbling ramparts among the orange trees; however, there is a wonderful photography museum in one of the newer buildings which we were happy to find.
Marrakesh has numerous mosques with the most prominent being the Koutoubia which towers over the medina. It has beautiful gardens with lots of rose bushes but the mosque itself is not open to the public. We also visited the oldest and largest Mosque, the Ali Ben Yourself and its medersa or learning centre, displaying the small cells where students studied and lived. Built in the 1200’s and reconstructed in the 1900’s, we witnessed wonderful examples of mosaic and carved wood for which Morocco is famous. Again since it is a Muslim country, you won’t see any models or pictures of people in their artistic creations, just intricate and beautiful designs.
Tiring of the constant activity and clatter of the medina, we took a few trips to the new part of Marrakesh to shop and to visit the Jardin Marjorelle, a gift to the city from Yves St.Laurant, the famous designer. He and a business friend bought the property from an obscure French painter, Jacques Morelle, who could never keep this beautiful place maintained to what it is today. With its vivid, blue-painted mansion, colourful plants in brightly painted ceramic pots, every kind of cactus in the world, and proliferation of trees and birds, it’s a welcome oasis in the city. It also has an interesting Berber museum on the premises displaying pottery, clothing, and jewellery from the many craftsmen who represent the original inhabitants of the country.
Morocco is divided by the Atlas Mountains which run from the northeast to the southwest of the country separating it geographically as well as culturally. After leaving Marrakesh on the edge of the north face of the mountains, we had to cross over to the other side to get to the south and the Sahara desert. We had three ways to do this: by bus, Grand taxi, or rental car. We chose the bus and were fortunate to get front row seats. The views were jaw dropping spectacular but at times teeth clenching scary. However, the road is good and contrary to any of the reports we might have had on crazy driving, we had a modern up-to-date bus with a good driver. To see the snow capped Mountains as we passed through them is an unforgettable experience.
There is so much more to see and do in northern Morocco that I feel I have just scratched its surface. Perhaps I will have to come back? It’s a fairly easy country to visit once you master their culture and get used to it. The Moroccans willingly go out of their way to welcome tourists to ensure they have a good time. Some might say they are too eager, but you can easily adjust to it with a smile and a sense of humour. They are genuine people. I especially like the way they have managed to maintain their culture yet still live with the modern world. I have only met one solo traveller so far, my travel writer friend, Johanna Reid, who seemed to be making out very well on her own. It has always been and still is a destination point for mostly European travellers who now are coming with young families. The Moroccan mystic is still alive for many of us which I fervently hope will continue no matter what the future might bring.
I am posting some pictures on Facebook for anyone who wishes to see what I have been writing about. You can find me at facebook.com/people/Betty-Wright.