(From the vault) There are many reasons why Morocco is a good destination. At the top of my list would be wandering around an ancient medina with its high walls, maze-like streets, and souks filled with fabulous goods. The cuisine is also very special—the best I’ve had since India.
The Imperial city of Fez has the largest medina in the world so that’s where my sister and I decided to start. From there we took the train to Marrakesh, bus to Essaouia, then south to Taroudant (with a quick stop in Agadir). We hired a car to take us over the Atlas Mountains back to Marrakesh and spent the last couple of days in Casablanca.
- Casablanca airport (with onward flight to Fez)
- Fez (largest medina in the world)
- Marrakesh (infamous Djemaa el Fna)
- Essaouia (fabulous beach resort with white walls and blue shutters)
- Agadir (not so fabulous beach resort)
- Taroudant (most authentic walled town)
- Casablanca (white washed colonial buildings)
It was far easier to travel in Morocco than anticipated. I had heard horror stories about the souks and the young boys who would pester us if we didn’t let them be our guide but it was all rather tame. We were there in February, however, not a big time for tourists, so it could be more challenging during the hotter months when you have to deal with the crowds.
Morocco is a Muslim country, relatively conservative, with most women covering their head and both men and women dressed in long coats (at least during the cooler weather). The Berbers were Morocco’s original inhabitants with the Arabs arriving at the end of the seventh century. The literacy rate is only 50% and there is high unemployment so many people struggle. If you know some French that is helpful and many vendors also speak some English.
The souks—markets– are a major feature of Moroccan life and among the country’s greatest attractions. If you are not intimidated by the vendors, wandering from shop to shop is a pleasant way to spend your days for you will come upon just about anything and everything. Fes and Marrakesh have mazes of souks clustered together around a particular product such as leather, carpets, Berber jewellery, antiques, and spices. Get a map but be prepared to get lost from time to time. It’s great fun.
Fez is an Imperial city and the most medieval city in the Arab world. The walls of the medina are tall and muddy-brown in colour. The streets are narrow and there are no cars, only bicycles and crazy young men driving scooters and donkeys pulling carts of produce.
We hired a guide for three hours to help us get our bearings and afterwards were quite comfortable finding our way around. The riad where we stayed was fabulous for the current owner, originally from France, spent two years renovating it. Much to our surprise and delight, he gave us the best rooms in the place–the King’s suite—that had beautiful tiles, carved doors, and Berber carpets. We had dinner at the riad each night for it was always a banquet of Moroccan specialties. The last night it was pigeon pie, a well known delicacy.
Marrakesh is another Imperial city with a walled medina and souks. Some of the streets inside the medina are wide enough for cars. The most famous feature of this medina is the huge square called Djemaa el Fna, which at night offers an assortment of entertainment, from musicians and magicians to dancing men dressed like fancy women. There are food stalls where you can join locals for a meal and once you’ve had your fill you can go watch a boxing match. You can even get your picture taken with a snake crawling on you but be prepared to pay the snake charmer just to take the snake off.
The souks are easier to navigate here than in Fez. The shopping is out of this world, especially if you like antique jewellery, which my sister does. I bought Moroccan slippers for everyone I know, in different colours, some with embroidery, others with beads.
If you are a gardener (and I am) be sure to visit Jardin Majorelle, a botanical garden with rare plants and walls that are a striking cobalt blue. Its origin is interesting.
Essaouira is an 18th century town and said to be Morocco’s most likeable resort. I would love to return when the weather is warm. The medina here has high white walls, the streets are narrow and for pedestrians only. The shutters, railings and doors of the houses are painted bright blue, as are the fishing boats that are tied up in the harbour outside the walls.
Essouira is known as a centre for painting and sculpture and the souks sell very affordable boxes and chess sets made of thuya wood, which is an aromatic mahogany, and great to bring to family at home.
We spent a couple of days in the resort town of Agadir, wandering around, watching television and ordering food from room service. Two days of that was all we needed and were relieved to move on. I saw a camel pulling a plow and goats sitting in a tree on the drive from Agadir to Taroudant —both firsts for me and much more interesting than TV!
Taroudant itself is a rather remote walled town in the Souss Valley with the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the background. We hired a driver with a horse and cart to take us around the town and out into the countryside and it was a grand tour
If you are a foodie, go to Morocco! Dinner usually starts with a soup, then two or three side salad of beets, zucchini, lima beans, chopped tomatoes, and so on. The main course—from chicken with apricots to meatballs topped with an egg—is often cooked slowly in a tajine, an earthenware container. The national dish is couscous. Mint tea, called Moroccan whiskey, is always available and served quite elaborately. Olives seemed to be served with everything and complementary nuts, dried fruit and oranges were offered wherever we stayed.
Hotels within the medina are usually hidden behind high walls and difficult to find because the taxi you are in will probably have to drop you off outside the medina. Don’t panic for a porter with a large luggage cart should be waiting by the taxi stand and can walk with you to your hotel for a negotiated price. You can also stay in a modern hotel outside the medina but we always preferred to stay at a riad within the walls.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2010