My daughter Alex and I were mesmerized by pretty much everything in Morocco …. It is incredibly diverse in almost every sense of the word: geographically, ethnically, racially, linguistically and culturally… a real melting pot of languages, tribes, rich, poor, city slickers and country peasants.
It is a country in which you can easily see the ocean, snow-capped mountains, and the sand dunes of the Sahara all in one day. And you can hear Moroccan Arabic, Modern Standard (Classical) Arabic, French, Spanish, English, and three dialects of the Amazighi (Berber) language, in particular.
Marrakech and Fes in particular are known for their narrow maze of streets running through the Medina (the old fortified city) and busy souks, were beautiful.
Even if you’re not a shopper,you can’t pass up the colourful vision of overflowing stalls and animated vendors, where bartering is an art unto itself, but the hustle, bustle, hassle and bedlam soon wore very thin for me, and I was glad to escape to the slower pace of life in the countryside. Though not before whiling away an enjoyable few hours, bartering hard (including copious cups of mint tea, a gesture of hospitality,) for a gorgeous old carpet from the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara Desert.
Hamid, a young Moroccan Berber, was our driver, guide and interpreter for two weeks, allowing us to easily cover a vast portion of Morocco.
We almost froze high up in the Atlas Mountains…
Risked being blown into the ocean from the stone Medina wall aatseaside village…
Baked to a crisp in the Sahara desert..
Beat off a determined thief in a narrow alley of Marrakesh’s medina…
And became experts at charades to communicate when Hamid wasn’t with us.
We drummed in the desert with the Gnawa people, descendants of the slave trade…
Fed nuts to Barbary apes in the cedar forest…
And put sprigs of fresh mint up our nose to visit a Fez tannery that has been in operation since medieval times, with little change… the animal hides are stinky, and the pigeon poop they’re treated in doesn’t help.
We spent an entire morning grinding gears and wriggling up
6,000 metres on the Tizi N’tichka pass, where one false move would mean you’re a goner; 99 hair-pin bends in 30km according to Hamid!…
Mixed with humble country folk at their weekly market places; where farmers gathered from nearby villages and mountains to trade their vegetables, fruits, meats, live animals, spices and many other things … a weekly meeting with friends and families….
And visited with a Nomad woman and her young son, far into the desert and a long way from civilisation; – abandoned by her husband for a younger, more beautiful wife….
We enjoyed a half-day cooking class, purchasing the fresh ingredients from the market and then making a traditional tagine, a flavoursome stew slow cooked in a conical-shaped dish (also called a tagine), cleverly designed to seal in the spicy fragrances….
Got scrubbed clean (and to within an inch of our lives) at a Hammam, a public steam bath, where we were given a no-holds-barred scrubbing with black soap, which wiped away any trace of dirt or tan, before having a bucket of water thrown over us, and then sweating it all out in the sauna …
Found peace and relief from the heat in the beautiful botanical Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech…
And picnicked alongside country roads, often with local farmers, where we’d share some of our fresh bread in return for their freshly picked melons.
We marvelled at the magnificent Hassan 11 Mosque in Casablanca; the largest mosque in the world with seating for 100,000 worshipers; which took 6,000 traditional Moroccan artisans five years to build….
visited a film set, where epic films, such as The Jewel Of The Nile, Cleopatra and Lawrence Of Arabia were shot in its desert-like landscape; exploring the fortified city of Ait Benhaddou, an 11th century Unesco-protected Kasbah (which provided the backdrop for Russell Crowe’s swashbuckling Gladiator movie…. Where the locals still lived pretty much as they had several hundred years before, driving camels and charming snakes….
And we always stayed in Kasbahs or Riads, tradtional Moroccan houses set around a courtyard, near the souks in the middle of the medina in the cities, or enclosed by a walled garden in the country.
My favourite spot in Morocco?
Possibly the village of Chefchaouen, situated high up in the Rif Mountains, where children play on every street; the mountains, which you can see at the end of every cobbled street, are rugged and majestic; the locals are friendly, and all the buildings within the medina are painted a most brilliant sky blue. Oh …and it had the healthiest cat population of anywhere in Morocco.
Or the seaside village of Essaouira which felt like a breath of fresh air after the mayhem of Marrakech — a hippie town full of rumours that Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones had made this their home throughout the 70′s.
Or maybe it was the tiny Berber village of Imlil, precariously set high up in the Atlas Mountains; deliciously cool afterthe incredible heat of the Sahara.
Our accommodation here was a renovated castle, Kasbah duToubkal, with breathtaking 360 degree views of the surrounding peaks and valleys … where you can’t even have your driver drop you by the front door. Instead, staff loaded our baggage onto mules, and we trekked 30 minutes uphill, really appreciating the milk and dates that we were served on arrival, according to Berber tradition.
Or possibly even the magical sand dunes of the Sahara desert, unbearably hot during the day but a place that comes to life when the shadows begin to grow long and
Or possibly even the magical sand dunes of the Sahara desert, unbearably hot during the day but a place that comes to life when the shadows begin to grow long andthe sand turns golden.
After meeting our camel wrangler, Achmed, and the camels, lying with their knees tucked neatly under them, snorting as they were loaded with our supplies and water, we adjusted our cheches, turban-like headscarves that defend against the sun and sand, climbed aboard and headed off across the rolling dunes… laughing about our painful backsides after a few hours and thinking we’d forgotten to bring the frankincense and myrrh.
This really is something that needs to be experienced not written about, sitting around a small campfire, eating chicken tagine, singing and drumming with Achmed, sleeping under a zillion stars, waking before sunrise to find we were covered in sand from the storm that had blown in while we slept peacefully, climbing to the top of the highest dune … and then slowly ambling back to Merzouga, not far from the Algerian border. Bliss.