Souks, Medinas, mint tea and the Sahara Desert.
Morocco is definitely one of those places responsible for sensory overload for tourists. It is worth numerous visits throughout your life as there is some much to see and the country is becoming a tourism hotspot. I was there in May 2018 for an 8-day trip and saw a great deal, but I could easily go back. I managed to see Casablanca, Fez, the Sahara Desert, places in-between cities, and Marrakesh. As I was told by a Moroccan on the plane to Morocco, Casablanca is not worth spending a lot of time, as it is a port city and not representative of real Morocco, so I will be focusing on other places.
Part of the fun I had in Morocco was traveling with a great group of people through G-Adventures, a Canadian travel & tour guide company. My group was the majority Canadian and also included two Australians and a Malaysian We all had such a great time with our guide Mustapha! I couldn’t have asked for a better group.
I highly recommend that you check out G-Adventures.
Fez was my first taste of real Morocco, especially because of its several centuries old medina (bazaar like market), ancient and French quarters, and beautiful display of culture. I don’t believe you can compare it to anywhere else in the world. There is so much to see and learn about this city, it can feel a bit overwhelming.
As you can see from the picture above, Fez is very compact. This is especially true in the medina of Fes el Bali. Founded in the 9th century, this place has some serious history, especially with the oldest and continually operating university in the world, University of Kaureein (Al Quaraouiyine). The market portion (souks) is home to an endless labyrinth of shops selling everything from leather goods, perfume, pottery, food stalls and restaurants. I highly recommend taking a guided tour of the market during the day. This will reduce your chances of getting lost.
My experience got me to see some stunning pottery, where artisans make mosaic tiles with their work up-side-down. Mad skills! I also got to wander around the market, smelling a variety of food, seeing the world famous leather pits (super smelly, take the mint leaves), and admiring what artisans can make out of pottery. Every meal I had in Morocco was really good. At a market restaurant, I tried a Bisteeya, which is a Moroccan chicken pie. It was half sweet and savoury, delicious! I highly recommend coming with a guided tour to try other dishes.
The Sahara Desert
One of the most exciting and epic adventures you can do in Morocco is ride a camel in the desert and spend the night in a tent camp, inspired by ancient Berber travellers. There are not many places in the world where you can do this. If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend doing this once. Fair warning, riding a camel is extremely uncomfortable, you don’t want to be out there for more than an hour per day.
My experience with G-Adventures was perfectly timed and very authentic. It was a 10-hour drive from Fez to the Sahara Desert, but we did stop several times along the way, making it bearable. Once we got to our camp site, we hiked up sand dunes. I recommend doing this at a run, rather than walking up, as that will prevent you from sliding down and having to use too much calf muscle to hoist yourself back up! Afterwards, we had a lovely meal of beef tagine with mint tea, wine and oranges for dessert.
Then the sand-storm hit. Our group and I stood outside for a bit waiting for it to get really bad. Then we went inside these beautiful carpeted tents where we talked and drank more wine before going to sleep. The next morning we woke up before dawn to see the sunrise while riding our camel back to the hotel, and then depart for our next adventure.
Places in Between
As I mentioned above with our journey to Fez, we stopped in several small towns to rest, have coffee, lunch and sight-see. On our journey from the Sahara Desert to Marrakech, we stopped along the way to some really cool places. For our two remaining nights on our way to the red city of Marrakech, we stopped and spent a night in both Todra Gorge and Aït Ben Haddou.
Todd Gorge is a known as a stone desert with massive cliff walls, farm lands, and green oasis of palm trees. We hiked around the area seeing the stunning variety in the landscape. I swear that the tall cliff wall was included in the third movie of the Indiana Jones series at the entrance of where Indiana and Marcus reclaim the Holy Grail and rescue Jones Senior.
We also stayed in one of the nicest hotels ever on this trip - it seemed like a secluded desert oasis with beautiful rooms, patios and views. I have included a pictures of the patio where we had a delicious Berber omelette for lunch.
Aït Ben Haddou
Aït Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage site primarily due to the ancient Kashbahs, which are multiple buildings behind a defensive wall. There is a picturesque road that we traveled through with at least 1000 Kashbahs. It was truly like no where I have ever been before.
Further into this place, we saw the movie studios that produced hit movies such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Normally the outside of a movie studio is not noteworthy, but this one with its massive movie credit sign with Arabic writing on it and with the background of a stone-like desert, I couldn’t help but take a few pictures and mention it here.
After Aït Ben Haddou, we made our way down the Atlas Mountains. We passed many small towns and some having their weekly market. Here Morocco looks and feels more like Africa. It contrasts nicely with Aït Ben Haddou that has a more Arabian feel and is the desert. Half a day’s drive later, the landscape and the culture changes completely.
Be sure to also stop into an Argan Oil co-operative. We visited a women’s only co-operative were they make amazing products from Argan oil, some edible and non-edible. Ladies - I recommend buying some Argan oil shampoo and conditioner.
Commonly referred to as the red city Marrakech is a world in its own. Noisy, jammed with a bizzilion scooters, cars, and people, this city really wakes you up. Marrakech is the most commonly visited Moroccan city by tourists, welcoming an estimated 2 million tourists in 2017.
I wish I had budgeted more time in this city, yet I still managed to see quiet a bit. Notably, we spent some time at the entrance of the Marrakech’s famous square and market place - Jemaa el-Fnaa and saw the ridiculously beautiful and seeping with history, Bahia Palace.
Jemaa el-Fnaa is an assault on the senses. It is loud, busy, smelly, and has so much going on all at once. Snake charmers and monkeys on a leash are all around, trying to get tourists to interact with their pets and make some money for the conversation and a picture. There are also rows and rows of food stalls, souks, and restaurants around the perimeter of the square. Most of the square is pedestrian friendly, although there are some sections where scooters go by and donkeys carrying high loads (that will not stop) randomly appear.
Fair warning, as soon as your guide leaves you to explore, you are fair game for vendors and others to come up to you and try to get you to buy something. As well, I recommend not taking a picture of the square from ground level. Anyone in your picture will demand money. Instead, go up to the restaurants that look down and take a picture from the balcony.
I was extremely tired the day I visited the square and market, having endured a long drive down the Atlas Mountains and fitting a cold, nearing the end of the trip. It might have seemed more exciting than overwhelming, had I been rested and healthy. Don’t think that this place is too much, just be mentally prepared.
Bahia Palace on the other hand, is completely different. Stunningly beautiful and filled with history from the court of Si Moussa and his son Bou Ahmed, along with the wives and women of the harem. The palace also served as the home of the Resident General during the French Protectorate era. With impressive examples of Moroccan decor, the Palace is like the Moroccan version of Versailles. It’s hard to not be completely captivated by the lush gardens, stucco, ornate ceilings, stained glass windows, and amazingly decorative tiles and fireplaces. There’s nothing more to say about the palace - just look at these pictures!