We had arrived! We were finally living this trip that had been a dream for me and Suzanne for years! We were soon to be immersed in such an explosion of sights, sounds and smells that we were perpetually overwhelmed. The blues were bluer, the oranges were sweeter, the spices were more fragrant, and the grittiness was, well, grittier! The extremes were exaggerated in every way, creating a constant seductive assault to the senses.
We started our journey in Casablanca, a city on the Atlantic, made famous to Americans by the film of the same name. We arrived in the early evening, exhausted but elated to be in Morocco, to be in Africa. We were greeted by Adnan, our driver, and Mohammed, our guide for the trip. Our first exposure to the intricate artistry of the mosaic work, the plaster work and wood-carving that is the defining look of Moroccan architecture, was at our beautiful hotel where we enjoyed a lovely dinner and a much-needed nights sleep. Looking out our hotel window at the ocean the next morning, I was struck by the knowledge that I was viewing the Atlantic from the opposite side of my world.
We toured Hassan II Mosque before leaving Casablanca. It is the largest mosque in Africa, housing 25,000 and another 80,000 outside. We were enamored by the beautiful mosaic work , the plaster carving and ornate woodwork. There is so much beautiful craftsmanship everywhere in Morocco. Tile and mosaic workers, potters, silver and copper smiths, leather workers, weavers and more all still practice their craft just as they have for centuries, except they all now have cellphones!
We traveled from Casablanca to the capital of Rabat and got our first glimpses of Moroccan countryside and villages. We saw many houses and dwellings on the trip that looked like shells, or under construction but you could see they were occupied. Mohammed said families live there and add to the house when they can. It is much more evident in these areas that Morocco remains a very poor country dependent on agriculture as its primary industry. We saw huge greenhouses growing bananas in this area. The fruits and vegetables we ate were beautiful. Oranges were everywhere and were without a doubt, to quote my dad, “the best I ever tasted”, and the olives, also being harvested, were perfectly brined and uniquely seasoned at each place where they were served. All of the food we ate was so delicious and locally sourced.
As the capital, Rabat is a more modern and prosperous city. All of the cities, as in this country, also have large poor housing areas of rundown apartments. We visited the tomb of Mohammed V and the beautiful incomplete Hassan Tower.
We enjoyed our first trek into a medina or the old walled part of the city. Most villages or cities have a medina. They are all unique but they have many of the same qualities. Most medinas have a kasbah inside which was the dwelling of the ruling family. In order to be sustainable, the medinas must contain a community water source, a community oven, a community hammam or bath, usually located next to the ovens to heat the water, a school and a mosque. All of these features are still very much a part of the daily life of Moroccans.
People live inside the medinas and you see lots of ancient doors leading into a mysterious dark looking dwelling. There are also riads( BnB’s) and lovely homes and restaurants behind beautiful doors. All of the riads where we stayed were really beautiful. They all boast the intricate architectural detail and mosaic work that is pure Moroccan. The specific thing that defines a riad is a central atrium open all the way to the roof that can be opened in the summer for cooling. They also have a beautiful rooftop deck that is the perfect place for an afternoon tea with great views.
From Rabat we traveled to Tangier with a stop along the way in the lovely seaside village of Asilah where Suzanne enjoyed her first fresh sardines and I enjoyed the beginnings of what would become a vicious 12 hour stomach bug that she, unfortunately, contracted 24 hours later. Travel is not for the weak people!
On to Tangier where we stayed for 2 nights in a beautiful seaside hotel. Fortunately I was sufficiently recovered the next day to enjoy a day tour led by a local expert, the wonderful Ashfar. Located across the Strait of Gibraltar from Europe, Tangier is considered to be the gateway to Africa. There was a time when Tangier was a haven for expats, artists and poets of the Beat Generation. Today it is a prosperous city with a new port that retains a large European flare and population. The coastline is beautiful and reminiscent of northern California . We visited the Cave of Hercules where goods were traded in ancient times. The cave features a natural opening to the sea that is shaped like a map of Africa.
Back in the city we toured the 15th century medina within its ancient walls. It is a huge labyrinth of alleyways containing a variety of shops, residences and riads. The medina in Tangier is large and colorful and fun to wander. Each medina is a unique maze of winding streets and alleys, of tiny shops containing the most beautiful items for sale, of sad-faced donkeys loaded up with goods, of motorcyclists dodging everything and everyone, of cats roaming everywhere, of spices piled high like sharpened pencils, of artfully arranged fruit and vegetable stands, of meat stalls where the head of the animal hangs to advertise the kind of meat sold, of beautiful doors and ancient buildings, of stooped hijab covered heads and Djellaba( robe) clad old men slowly making their way, and of flea market type stalls selling junk, used electronics etc.
The next day was a day of travel as we left Tangier toward Chefchaouen, the blue city. By this time we had spent a great deal of time with Mohammed( our guide) and Adnan( our driver) and really, the only way to put it is to say that we were in love with both of them! They had been kind and helpful every turn of the way. They had seen me at my worst ( I’m talking puking in the car, puking in the restaurant, I could go on) and had tended to our every need. They were engaging and fun to talk with. If we mentioned a desire for something, they arranged to make it happen and, the icing on the cake, they were adorable. Needless to say, we wanted to bring them home with us. Adnan said he would have to bring his wife and mother and Mohammed said perhaps if he found an American wife he could come! Our day guides in the cities were also wonderful.We wanted to just adopt them all!
Along the way we stopped for a brief tour of Tetouan called the white city. It is located at the foot of the Rif Mountains and has a rich Spanish heritage. Continuing our journey we stopped at a roadside eatery where the meat we chose was grilled in front of us. After driving the twists and turns and the lush landscape of the Rif Mts with its many olive and orange groves we arrived in the blue city and, after a long and winding trek we arrived at our riad midafternoon. We stayed in Riad Zaitouna right in the medina. It was a lovely small riad with a delicious breakfast on the rooftop and a great view of the town below. We also found another young man to adopt, Mahmoun, who was so helpful and sweet.
Suzanne was feeling the after effects of that nasty stomach bug and so I decided to wander through the incredible medina of Chefchaouen alone. This medina was a visual feast at every turn and was definitely our favorite! Everything was washed in shades of blue bringing a sense of sky and sea to the community. The brilliant colors of all the goods for sale against all the blue are truly breathtaking. At times in the midst of all that color I felt as though I was in a beautiful aquarium full of tropical creatures.
We had a free day to wander in the medina the next day and we really enjoyed a slower-paced day. The medina was relatively small so it was easy to navigate. The vendors, of course, tried to lure us in to buy their wares but they were friendly and easy-going. We got henna tattoos, we sat in the square and people-watched and drank mint tea, we shopped and we ate some delicious food. We visited the beautiful red kasbah turned gardens and museum, such a contrast of quiet earth-toned tranquility in the middle of brilliant chaotic Chefchaouen. We met wonderful people. It was a great day!
The next day we headed toward Fez through the Atlas Mountains. Along the way we stopped and toured the Roman ruins of Volubilis , a beautifully reconstructed site where you could really feel the ghosts of those ancient inhabitants. We stopped in the cedar forests outside Azrou to feed the local monkeys ( which we later learned was not good for them).
We arrived in Fez late evening and settled into our riad, Riad El Yacout, the most beautiful of all the riads where we stayed. Their claim to fame is that U2 filmed a video there. We had a delicious dinner and were rested for our day of exploring Fez. We had a delightful guide for the day, Hajar. She was very knowledgeable about the city. The medina is one of the oldest in Morocco dating almost 1000 years. It remains home to 70,000 people and is the largest car-free urban area in the world. Donkeys carry goods through the many winding alleys leading to a wide variety of food stalls and shops and artisan regions including copper and silversmiths, the ceramics and mosaic cooperative and the famous tanneries. After a long day of exploring, our driver, guides and riad staff surprised Suzanne with a birthday cake and celebration. They were so excited to surprise her and we were very touched by their thoughtfulness, another example of the level of care and pampering we received. I had announced Suzanne’s birthday in the car that morning and we sang happy birthday and then, unbeknownst to us, they plotted and planned the rest of the day to get a birthday cake made and delivered to the riad to surprise her!
The next day we continued driving through the Atlas Mountains as we headed to the desert. We were fascinated by the many nomad dwellings and nomads we saw wandering the barren landscape with their flocks of sheep. Mohammed, himself a Berber from a family of nomads, was able to answer many of our questions about their way of life. Basically they go wherever there are grasses for the sheep to graze on and move on with their sparse possessions as needed. Many of them aren’t educated, though some of the children go to school if they are near a village. For the most part they live as they have for centuries with a few 21st century upgrades. We were curious about the dwellings which from the outside just look like a pile of garbage so Mohammed spoke to a nomad( they do have cell phones, a 21st century necessity) and we stopped and had tea with a family. We were very honored to have been invited in to see their home and way of life firsthand. The mother of the family was lying on the floor by the fire with a sick child so we had no contact with her. The man of the house served tea, bread and olive oil. The only furniture was a low table in the center of the room. The interior has wooden supports that are then layered with plastic sheeting and bags, which sounds crazy but it felt very sturdy. It was heated by a wood stove and very warm. There was a solar panel on the roof that provided electricity for a light bulb, a computer screen and cellphone charger. We didn’t see any books or toys, there were a few bags hanging from the rafters, there were stacks of rugs and blankets, and a small shelf of kitchen supplies. The children were outside playing, and happy to accept some coins and oranges. Of course my western sensibility focused on lack of water, plumbing or bathroom but for them they had all they needed or wanted, a warm home, food and clothing and family. There is a definite lesson on gratitude here!
We continued to Midelt where we spent the night before continuing our trek to the desert. We had a lovely day of riding and gazing at ancient villages and ever harshening landscape punctuated by beautiful valley oases. We stopped at a mineral processing plant and saw some incredible fossils and minerals. We had a delicious berber pizza( a sort of calzone) for lunch and just enjoyed a chill day with the guys before arriving to the excitement of the desert!
The definite highlight of our trip was a night spent in a desert camp. We started by getting up on a camel which is rather daunting as they are large and they stand first on their back legs. After we both got up there we kind of wanted to stay and ride into the desert. However the day was late and we had already arranged to ride into the desert in a 4-wheel drive vehicle so we took that roller coaster ride instead! The camp was quite comfortable,the tents even had a bathroom. There was no heat though so it was quite cold if you had to get out of bed in the middle of the night!
I have had a rather difficult time finding the words to describe the sensations of the desert, it has taken time to put words to such an experience.The beauty of those red sand dunes rolling on forever in all directions, as the sunset bathed them in every shade of orange imaginable, was breathtaking! The weighty feel of that red sand sifting through my fingers, felt as though all the sands of time exist here and hold answers, if we can only voice the questions. Looking up at the magnificent night sky, so full of stars with the milky way scattered like spilled glitter, I felt like I’d fallen into space. Ok, that was a pretty good description. In fewer words “It was mind-boggling”!
After a beautiful sunrise and delicious breakfast, we left the desert behind and started our journey through the High Atlas Mountains, a very twisting path up and down, so shout out to Adnan, our very skilled driver. The driving in the countryside is pretty straightforward, except that the roads are often narrow and winding and there is also a lot of road construction, which you just drive through and around. Driving in the cities seems to be a whole different game. Lanes are just a suggestion, if there is a small space go ahead and wedge in there. Motorcycles, bikes, carts, donkeys have no rules. Amazingly,it all seems to work. Of course Adnan made it look easy!
As we travelled we drove past barren red clay hills and rocky cliffs spilling down into a small river valley and oasis. Clay villages look like sand castles hanging off the cliff and almost disappearing into the landscape. We drove through the beautiful Todra Gorge, these beautiful red cliffs rising up on both sides, and made our way to Ourzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco, where we spent the night and toured the film studio before continuing on to Marrakech the next day.
One of the highlights of the trip was a stop in Telouet for a delicious tagine lunch of lamb, figs, and eggs and a tour of the ancient abandoned Kasbah. The beautiful rooms are a masterpiece made more enjoyable by the look of abandoned grandeur and the fact that we were completely alone in the place!
We arrived in Marrakech in the early evening and were greeted with tea and sweets in our beautiful Riad Jonan where we enjoyed a delicious, again, tagine dinner. We ate lots of tagines, the original slow-cookers, but they were very different depending on the ingredients and there were lots of choices. Some tagines contain couscous, some are vegetarian,some have multiple meats, they all are slow cooked, best over fire, all are rich with the beautiful aromatic spices that are an integral part of Morocco, and all are delicious. We also ate a lot of kebobs or skewers. We ate really good, different breads, we had incredible fruits and vegetables and olives that I have really missed. We drank a lot of tea, and though we sometimes had to go looking( thank you, Adnan and Mohammed), you all know that we had our share of wine!
The next day was spent touring Marrakech with another entertaining and knowledgable guide, Rachid. We saw the Minaret and heard the call to prayer from its loudspeakers and toured the beautiful Bahia Palace. After a great lunch and a cold beer at the Sky Bar with Rachid, we continued on to a favorite of the trip, the beautiful Jardin Majorelle, a villa bought by Yves St Laurent with beautiful gardens open to the public. We ended the day with a trek through the medina. The ancient walled city of Marrakech has been around since the 11th century. It is every medina we visited on steroids, with incredible sights and sounds in every direction. We were so exhausted after a lot of walking and happy to return to our riad for dinner and sleep!
Paul Bowles said,”There are certain places on the surface of the earth that possess more magic than others and one of those places is Marrakech”. We continued to enjoy the magic of Marrakech the next day by having lunch with Adnan and his lovely family. We had a dish called lamb tangia which is different from a tagine in that the food is put in a clay jar, covered and placed directly in coals and slow-cooked. We stopped at the community oven to pick it up on our way to Adnan’s home. The meal was served in a traditional way on a communal plate where you scoop up a bite with bread. It was delicious! His family was delightful and even though his wife and mother didn’t speak english, we had no problem communicating and we felt honored to spend some time with them.
In the afternoon we indulged in a hammam or turkish bath and massage. The bath part was a little awkward( let’s just say, a tiny paper thong was provided for your modesty, there was dousing, there was slathering, there was scrubbing). Except for the time you were left alone to bake in whatever you had been slathered in, the actual bathing, etc. was so quick it felt like going through a car wash and we were certainly clean and smooth afterward. We left the hammam and walked to the Jamaa el Fna square and found the Sky bar again for a beer and a beautiful sunset. The square transforms into a fair-like area every evening with game booths, musicians and food stalls of every description. It was somewhat overwhelming, but very interesting and Suzanne finally got snails!
The next day was our last in Morocco and we left Marrakech in the morning heading back to Casablanca to the beginning. I think Suzanne and I both were feeling a bit melancholic and the drive was quiet and pensive. We arrived at lunchtime, and the guys were determined to fulfill Suzanne’s wish to eat grilled sardines. so of course we went to the waterfront. It was a working fishing dock, authentic but a bit too gritty and smelly for my tastes. Suzanne got her grilled sardines though! We needed another suitcase to carry all our purchases so we ended up in the largest mall in Africa, not exactly on our list, but except for the walking it was pretty interesting, and always fun when those guys are so determined to please. Adnan and I even went into a bookstore to try to purchase Sorcerer’s Stone in Arabic, but they only had a french copy( sorry Kelly). After finding a bargain suitcase we headed to the hotel where we had begun the journey and had a relaxing final evening in Morocco before heading back across the pond in the morning.
There is indeed a magic to all of Morocco. By far the most beautiful aspect of Morocco is her people. They are kind and helpful, they are engaging and curious and accepting. We truly love our guide, Mohammed, our kind teacher and resident philosopher and our gentle driver, Adnan, who was constantly tending to our needs and safety. We will always consider them family.
Most Moroccans are Muslim, but there are large populations of Jewish and Christian people. Morocco has always had a philosophy of tolerance and has offered asylum to religious refugees for centuries. All of the mosques have 3 balls on top representing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The medinas always felt like a muslim community in the very best sense, with the sounds of the Arabic languages and dress surrounding us. The frequent chant of the “call to prayer” or “adhan” rings out 5 times a day through the cities and the villages all over the country , all over the muslim world. The soothing cadence provided a calming backdrop to the sounds and scenes around me and offered up a gentle reminder to lift my face in gratitude to the beauty and diversity on this planet. My way of life is different in many ways from that of most Moroccans, but I am reminded that it is our common needs and wants that bond us as humans. We only need to embrace the difference to become the same.
I will be forever beautifully haunted by memories of Morocco. It is like falling into a crayon box, it’s like walking through a fog of spices and grilling meats with a little sewer to keep it real, it’s like falling into a place where nothing exists but sand and sky. It will become a quiet hum in the background of my life. I can close my eyes, lift my face and recall the sensations of Morocco. I can see the colors and smell the tagine, the call to prayer becomes my background music, and mostly, the kindness, the love, the acceptance and the beauty of the people lifts me up and soothes my soul.
Lift your face to embrace the diversity all around you!