SALAAM ALAYKUM MOROCCO: ONE WEEK IN THE ARAB WEST
Waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, exotic charm of the Sahara desert, high peaks of the Atlas Mountains, Arab culture, Berber traditions and magic of the ancient towns with the combination of the proximity to the European continent caused that Moroccan Kingdom has recently been experiencing a massive boost of tourism. Nicknamed Maghreb (“Arab west”), this African treasure had always been very high on my bucket list but this year I finally got to cross it off. And it was all I imagined and even more.
Before coming to Morocco I did some research on the internet and was surprised by the amount of not so positive articles and posts about this country. Lots of travellers were complaining about dirt, harassment and stray animals on the streets which significantly lowered my expectations. And yes, as much as I enjoyed the trip to Morocco, my enthusiasm doesn’t imply that everything there was perfect and ideal. When travelling to Morocco, keep in mind that you’re visiting a place that still has much developing to do and not all the corners might give you the picture-worthy view you saw on Instagram. For many of us, Morocco, as all the other countries in North Africa, is a place with completely different religion, culture and customs. So be respectful and remember that most of the people you encounter depend on tourism with their living. Try to see the country through the eyes of a local, enjoy all the unusual things and don’t jump into judgements after stumbling upon few dirty or smelly streets. We travel to see something different and the raw reality is not always sunshine and butterflies. At least that’s how I see it.
I visited Morocco with my friend and this trip definitely tested our patience and ability to take things as they come instead of getting frustrated by situations we cannot influence. We had our fair share of bad luck, mostly by our own fault, but managed to enjoy every minute of our vacation anyway. We arrived to Morocco one day later after our first plane wasn’t able to take off after „being hit by a bird“, we spent two nights on the floor of Brussels airport, we burnt iPhone, we overpaid taxi driver in a wrong currency, we were stopped by a police several times, we got speeding tickets despite not even speeding, we stupidly followed our GPS and ended up having to drive through the narrow streets of medina, we had problems with our bookings a check in, we got lost….but mainly we had lots of fun, we made great memories, we ate delicious food, we explored exotic places and we met friendly locals who welcomed us to their home.
VISIT MOROCCO IF YOU WANT TO:
Stroll through the ancient medinas
Arabic medina is a historic heart of each city in the country. They are typically walled areas in the city centre where you can find zigzag narrow streets, colourful buildings and traditional markets that will challenge all your senses. If you like to aimlessly wonder the streets and meet locals, then head to medina as this maze will instantly sweep you into Moroccan lifestyle. Don’t be surprised if you realize that you have been passing the same house over and over again (or does it just look similar?), medinas are the best opportunity to get lost and find what Morocco has to offer.
Drink Arabic tea
Maghrebi mint tea, a green tea prepared with spearmint leaves and sugar, is not only a hot beverage in Morocco; it is a way of socializing and a sign of hospitality. That amazing smell and taste of a mint tea will turn even a strong non tea drinker (me before) into a tea lover (me now). Surprisingly, drinking hot mint tea on a warm day can pleasantly cool you down, as weird as it sounds.
Ride a camel in Sahara desert
One of the most popular attractions for tourists coming into Morocco is riding a camel.
I had a chance to do it few years back during my trip to Egypt so I decided to skip it here but if you’re looking for an authentic desert experience, Morocco is one of the top places to be.
Besides camel trekking, the desert offers many other experiences such as sand boarding, star gazing and music performances. The variety of desert exhibitions is huge so be sure you chose the company wisely.
Drink the best orange juice of your life
I’m not even exaggerating; I truly think that Morocco is a home to one of the best orange juices. Oranges are one of the main agricultural products of the country and the juices are 100 % natural and very cheap. Drinking freshly squeezed juice at Jamal El Fna square in Marrakech is the ultimate Moroccan experience. Just thinking of them made my mouth water.
Eat moroccan style
I find Arabic cuisine super tasty as it is very aromatic but not too spicy. Moroccan cuisine consists of Arabic, Mediterranean and Berber influences, which make it unique. The typical dishes include lots of olives, vegetables, pickles, bread and all kinds of meat, mainly lamb, goat, chicken, beef, sea food.
Absolute must have is a Moroccan tagine – a meat stew slowly cooked in a ceramic pot. Another dish you should not miss is a traditional couscous. If you fancy something sweet, many stalls in the medina offer pastries and huge variety of cookies.
Admire its unique architecture
Morocco’s diverse history of being fought over by many countries is the main reason why the country has developed an original architectural style which reflects the country’s rich cultural heritage.
So when walking down the streets or visiting the typical buildings, keep your eyes open and take it all in. Among others, you can admire kesbahs (fortress), riads (palaces), madrasas (academic building), arches, mosques, fountains and much more.
Morocco’s main architectural features are so called zellijs – geometrically patterned mosaics, used to ornament walls and floors. If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up having way too many pictures of those in your phone or camera.
Sleep in magical riad
Travelling to Morocco is a wonderful opportunity to stay in one of the traditional palaces that will make you feel like in a One Thousand and One Nights fairy tale.
These houses are typical for having an inner courtyard or garden, often also a small pool or bath in the middle of the building and are decorated with beautiful tiles which create colourful mosaics.
Riad is a perfect place for enjoying some shade and afternoon tea before heading to the crazy medinas. Some of them are very reasonably priced so even budget travellers can treat themselves with some exotic luxury.
Shop at the markets
Markets, traditionally called souks, are a major feature of Moroccan life and remain one of the best attraction of every town. You can feel a little overwhelmed once you enter this lively labyrinth filled with artsy shops, eager sellers and restaurants of all kinds but it is an unforgettable experience. Let the narrow streets of souk guide you towards what you’re looking for, whether it’s artisan crafts, Berber rugs, argan oil, oriental spices, tourist souvenirs, authentic food or you just want to soak up some Moroccan culture.
Educate yourself about the Islamic culture and traditions
Morocco is an Arab Muslim country so in case you don’t come from such, it could be a great opportunity to learn more about this religion and customs that are connected to it.
For starters, Morocco is home to many beautiful mosques including the largest one in Africa situated in Casablanca. Other buildings that might be different from what we are used to are maktabs or medrasas, Islamic academic buildings with beautiful decorations.
Another ultimate cultural experience is a call to prayer that you can hear coming from minaret several times a day, which gives you a chance to observe local people flock to the mosque in their white prayer clothes.
Ride a train
Trains are the most common form of public transportation in Morocco. They are cheap, convenient and easy to use. For us Europeans, riding a train is probably nothing extraordinary but I’m sure there are people who have this means of transport on their bucket lists. Either way it should be on your Morocco list as the train system can offer interesting landscape scenes and is beneficial in case you are travelling on budget. If you also want to safe time you can choose of many overnight connections.
Go to the beach
Morocco stretches along not only one, but two huge coastlines. The first one belongs to Mediterranean Sea. The sea is warmer and the area became more popular for resort style vacations. It is an ideal destination for sunbathers and beach bums but you can still find several hidden gems there.
Coastline of the Atlantic Ocean offers a raw beauty of golden sand beaches and has become a surfer’s paradise. Some beaches might be a bit windy for swimming but provide perfect conditions for windsurfing and other water sports. Plus the sunsets here will make you want to pinch yourself.
Encounter with animals
Monkeys, camels, donkeys, cobras….those are just examples of animals that you might come to contact with, so if any of those are on your list, head to Morocco. Plus the country has a huge variety of wildlife including birds, mammals, livestock and aquatic creatures.
Visit the hammam
Turkish baths called hammam are steam rooms, where Moroccans traditionally go to cleanse themselves. It is a blissfully relaxing experience that has become very popular with tourists who want to pamper themselves after exhausting trips to the deserts. The options range from very basic to luxurious baths including massages and the ritual can vary from traditional to something similar to a western spa.
Hike in the mountains
Morocco is an extremely diverse country when it comes to landscapes and geography so beach and deserts aren’t where all the fun ends. The Atlas Mountains are a mountain range across a northern stretch of Africa extending across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia offering summits over 4000 metres high. The mountains separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert sand are mainly inhabited by Berber tribes.
So if you’re keen to hike and see some amazing views head to the Atlas. Some of the favourite hikes are located in Orika valley or around the town of Imlil, which is a base for trekking to the range’s highest peak, Jebel Toubkal.
Even though smoking hashish (form of marijuana) is strictly illegal in Morocco, it is a very popular activity for both locals and travellers. Morocco is said to produce nearly half of the world’s hashish, or as locals call it kif, and nearly all of Morocco’s cannabis production can be found in the Rif Mountains. The hashish industry therefore provides a much needed economic base for this region.Especially towns like Chefchaouen are a heaven for stoned backpackers.
I don’t mean to encourage anyone to do this but if you want to find yourself in one of the best places for smoking hashish or wish to go on a hash-making tour, Morocco is your place. You will probably be offered hashish several times just walking down the streets. Just keep in mind that despite seemingly very chill attitude, it is not a legal activity.
travelling to Morocco during the Holy month
My friend and I had managed to get pretty cheap flights with Ryanair (tip: try to go somewhere else then Marrakech) and soon enough we realized why they were so cheap. The date of our vacation was in June which is a month of Muslim holiday Ramadan, not a very popular time to travel to Muslim countries.
We were a bit worried because, well, we are not Muslims and we love food J but we didn’t let it discourage us. And neither should you, travelling to Morocco during Ramadan is absolutely worth it!
During this month, Muslims fast from all food and water from sunrise to sunset. In the evenings people break their fast with friends and family and wake up early before sunrise to eat a meal before beginning another day fasting. People are also meant to abstain from smoking cigarettes, having sex and gossping. Ramadan is a time to reflect on the blessings each person has been given and to understand the suffering of those who live without having their basic needs such as food and water.
The first question that came to our mind was: are we going to be able to get food and drinks during the day? And the answer is yes. Restaurants, cafes, and other eating establishments mostly remain open and very happy to see costumers, especially in tourist places such as Marrakech. In the less touristy areas and smaller towns, you may have more difficulty find places to eat, so keep that in mind and stock yourself for later.
Bottom line is – no one expects tourists to fast. Although it might be a good idea, out of respect to those fasting, not to walk around medina with a kebab in your hand, so eat inside of a restaurant and do not smoke in public. We drank in the public when we needed to, just didn’t make it too obvious. It could be a bit challenging sometimes but Moroccan economy is quite dependant on tourism so most of the times dining wasn’t an issue.
Of course, travelling to Morocco during Ramadan has its ups and downs. The biggest advantage is that you will see aspects of the culture that you would not experience at any other time of the year. At the end of the day, when it’s time to break the fast, you will hear cannons announcing that it’s time to eat and see the flood of the worshipping people. During the night time people are in the streets eating and socializing which is an exciting experience. Another benefit is sharing the country with fewer tourists as more people try to avoid coming to Morocco during Ramadan.
On the other hand you may find that some shops are not open, at least in the early hours of the morning and close up right before sunset as the shopkeepers leave home for the sunset meal (known as ftour – or breakfast; the breaking of the fast).
In the end I am happy we saw Morocco during the biggest Islamic event. I feel like it has made our experience even more authentic, mainly because we had an opportunity to attend the feast with the Moroccan family.
When choosing the stops on our road trip, we tried to mix cities and nature as well as tourist spots with a bit of hidden gems, and these are the top places we visited during our travels. It wasn’t possible to do it all in that amount of the time but I’ll surely be back for more treasures, for example Cheufchouchen.
1. Windy ESSAIOURA
Laidback Essaioura, formely called Mogador, is located on the Atlantic coast, just 4 hour long drive from lively Marrakech. The hustle and bustle is exchanged for the strong ocean breeze which makes it a perfect beach-sports paradise. Besides miles of golden sand, Essaioura is surrounded by a fort that protects the city from the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the port of Essaioura is flooded by picturesque blue boats. That’s where you can soak up the relaxed atmosphere of the city, enjoy lack of pushy tourists and listen to hearing of the seagulls. The medina in Essaioura might not be as crazy as in other cities but the blue-trimmed houses are still worth the visit.
2. MARRAKECH the pink city
Morocco’s most popular city earned its nickname, the pink city, for having pink walled buildings. The city is made up of two main parts, the new town, and the old town which is known as the medina and attracts tourist for authentic Moroccan vibe. It is hot, hectic, crowded maze of narrow streets and alley walks that you will love and hate at the same time. Marakkech accommodates the largest souk of the country. The city’s icons are Koutoubia Mosqe and famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square, which is one of the most fascinating people-watching places in the country. Also make sure to visit Ben Yousseff Madrasa, where you can admire the detailed decorations of Moroccan architecture.
3. OUZOUD waterfalls
Set on the edge of the Atlas Mountains, these stunning cascades of waterfalls attract people who want to escape the hustle and heat of Marrakech as well as to admire a natural beauty. The 110 m high waterfalls with a permanent rainbow create several ponds, perfect for cooling down. If you have time, rather than riding a boat, I suggest hiking a little further up to the Berber and Rasta villages that provide shade and delicious orange juices. This day trip is also a wonderful opportunity to make friends with the local monkeys who live in the nearby bushes and are very eager to sit on your shoulders if you give them peanuts in exchange.
4. Labyrinth FEZ
Fez is one of the Moroccan oldest and largest cities and although the political capital of Morocco was transferred to Rabat more than 100 years ago, Fez has kept its status as the country’s spiritual centre. No wonder it has been enjoying the tourist boom lately, Fez is a home to several top things, for instance the university in Fez is the oldest functioning university in the world and the city’s medina is believed to be the world’s largest urban pedestrian zone. It is a huge crazy labyrinth with narrow streets, where getting lost is part of the fun. The most famous sight (and smell) of the city are the fascinating leather tanneries where you can see the process of colouring the animal’s skin.
Over the years, Fez has earned quite a bad reputation for being unsafe. Although I don’t have any bad experience (knock knock), I had been warned several time, so just be careful and use even more of your common sense when wondering the maze (just like in any other place).
5. Tranquil OUALIDIA
Unlike the busy beach towns, charming Oualidia offers a perfect escape for everybody looking for quiet beach time. The town spreads around a turquoise lagoon framed with golden sands. There is not much more to do than relax, surf, swim and eat sea food which is exactly why Oualidia is a perfect getaway for all the Marrakshis and Casablancais.
6. Modern CASABLANCA
Casablanca is located in the central-western part of the country. It is not only the largest city of Morocco, but also belongs to economically and financially most important cities in the country as well as in the entire continent. No wonder that this city is offering a different experience than those more touristy places; it is more developed and gives you a chance to see the Moroccan life from modern perspective.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be very high on your list in case you’re visiting Morocco just for a short period of time but it is often first stop of international passengers so you might as well hang out before you leave to traditional places. For instance, Casablanca is home to the largest mosque in Africa, Hassan II Mosque, which is overlooking the Atlantic coast. Another popular destination is Corniche, a boardwalk lined with restaurants and nightclubs, where people go to relax and enjoy sea breeze.