Exploring Morocco

Stepping off the plane in Marrakech at 7pm we were greeted with warm desert air, a stark contrast to the much cooler London we had left behind merely 3 hours prior. We moved quickly through the immigration line without hassle (although security did look quite intently at our camera but decided it was fine and let us pass) and soon, we had picked up our bags and were heading into the city.

Having previously travelled in countries of a majority Muslim faith, such as Jordan and Egypt, we knew that the culture and laws would be different to our own back in the UK and were a bit unsure of what to expect (in some Islamic countries alcohol is illegal and woman must dress rather conservatively)… However we learnt quite quickly that Morocco had a very relaxed way of looking at their religion and the culture which is attached. This was quite apparent when we found out our hotel was situated a short stroll away from an extremely popular night club serving alcohol and had a large LED screen showing photos of woman wearing short dresses and off the shoulder numbers.

After dumping our bags at the hotel and switching on our air conditioner to a cool 15 degrees (celcius), we walked down the road to join our tour group at a nearby restaurant serving up local grub. The restaurant although a bit shabby and very basic had some of the best local shawarma (meat and onion on pita), kofta (minced meat in small cylindrical shapes) and olives we had in our whole trip. Our entire meal which was not only tasty but very filling cost us around 5EUR. Such a bargain! Once full on deliciousness and having made a small acquaintance with some of the other members of our tour, we excused ourselves for bed and made our escape back to the hotel to sit in the air conditioning and recoup for tomorrow’s adventures.



The following morning we made our way to a room of the hotel’s lobby for our breakfast which included an interesting array of extremely hard boiled eggs (be prepared for this in most Arabic/desert countries, its very difficult to get soft boiled eggs anywhere, they like to boil the shiz out of them), pita, honey, jam, ham, cheese and hummus. Pretty standard middle eastern style breakfast. It was then time to jump on the bus and head into Marrakesh’s center.

First stop was the Koutoubia Mosque. Its’ beautiful minaret housing four awesome copper spheres, which can be seen from different points all over the city as it is the tallest building in Marrakech and a great landmark for when you’re getting around.

Our guide then took us on a journey through the sights and sounds of the city’s medina. Medina in Arabic means city and in most Moroccan towns you will find a medina which is part of an older city settlement usually identifiable by a city wall and winding streets. Upon entering the medina you will instantly feel like you’ve gone down the ‘rabbit hole’, it’s quite literally a maze and feels like a whole other world. At the end of our trip we actually came back and stayed in one of the beautiful Marrakech riads (guest houses) which took us over an hour to locate within the medina. Upon arrival we were given a map of the medina and while the map was helpful (especially since we had no cellular data to google maps) we still found we were getting lost a lot. If it weren’t for our wonderful local guide on that first day we would have been lost within seconds.

Winding through the medina we visited a herbs and spices shop where jars of different coloured and textured substances lined the walls and here we were treated to a demonstration from one of the adorable shop girls about all the different herbs and how they could help us with anything from cracked lips to digestive issues. It is widely believed by locals that herbs and spices should not only flavour food but be used in a medicinal way…my favourites were the herbs for sleeping and massage, they smelt amazing.

Back in the Medina we made our way to the main square of Jamaa El-Fnaa which was a throng of hundreds, possibly even thousands of people going about their business. We were very wary about losing each other here as it was quite easy to be pulled away through the massive sea of people passing through stalls selling mostly fresh fruit and veg and moroccan street food. Just before the stalls a crowd gathered to watch snake charmers and monkey handlers perform and tempt tourists into getting their picture taken for a small fee. It was some kind of organised chaos.



Escaping the crowds we stopped for lunch at one of the local rooftop restaurants just off the square. There we enjoyed a view of the scene below while we ate a traditional Moroccan lamb and veg tagine (tagine is literally anything which is cooked in a special clay pot called, you guessed it…a tagine) and couscous of course. If done right it is sooo good! And that day in the square we found a good one.

After getting dirty and sweaty exploring the fast paced medina we had the rest of the afternoon to explore and after the morning we had, we wanted something a bit calmer, a more peaceful environment to unwind from the hectic city. This is why we made straight for Jardin Majorelle. The gardens of famed French painter Jacques Majorelle and previously owned and restored by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, the gardens took 40 years to create. The gardens are well worth the visit and cost of entry at 70Dhr (about $10AUD or $7USD) in my eyes is a bargain price. Even if you don’t like wandering through a garden paradise it was worth it just to sit in the cafe under their misting sprinkler for half an hour. The gardens themselves are spectacular with an array of various cactus species set next to various buildings and backdrops displaying the famous electric blue paint, which if you feel so inclined you can even buy a pot and take home a little piece of the garden for your own. But if you’ve had enough of walking which would be fair enough and we definitely got to that stage to, head back to your hotel as most have a communal swimming pool or air conditioned bar you can sit in to unwind.

The next few days where a blur of exotic countryside and winding roads as we journeyed to Fes via Casablanca and the third largest mosque in the world (it’s mosaics were amazing) then onto Rabbat with the bright blue Kasbah overlooking the atlantic ocean and the Volubilis ruins, where the Romans once set up a large town on the very edge of their empire.




When we finally arrived in Fes we were blown away by the size of the medina considered one of the largest pedestrian only city centres in the world. The city has a rich history in education, housing the world’s oldest continuous university, University of Al-Karaouine as well as trade and commerce with large local industries including handmade mosaic factories where you can watch the mosaics be made before you buy as well as beautiful weavers where clothes and wonderful rugs are spun. Fes is also home to one of the largest tanneries in Morocco, it is there that you can buy relatively cheap leather jackets for a fraction of what you would pay elsewhere in the world. Just be aware that this place is a functioning tannery which still uses ammonia to treat the animal hides. As a result of the tanning process a pretty awful smell hangs in the air (vegetarians and vegans beware) and upon entry to a tannery building you will be handed a bunch of mint which I suggest you stuff up your nose to mask the not very nice odor. Despite the smell it is actually quite interesting to see the traditional methods of treating animal hides to make the leather products we all use and worth the visit if you can stomach it.

The other must see in Fes is definitely the Palais Royal. With seven giant brass doors guarding the entrance to the palace of Morocco’s royal family it is a beauty you just can’t miss! Be sure to try and get there as early in the morning as possible as crowds do form quickly during the day and there may be a line to take the perfect door knocking shot.

The next leg on our journey was to the Merzouga desert camp which required us to go up and over the Atlas Mountains. Along the way we visited a small skiing village which resembled a chalet town in Austria and enjoyed a cup of coffee as we remarked at how strange this felt nestled away in Morocco. Past the alpine town we stopped to feed a gang of wild monkeys that had become so used to tourists stopping to feed them that they persistently followed you around even at times pulling on your clothes to indicate a “feed me!”. It was quite confronting as some of the larger monkeys appeared to become rather violent with some of the other smaller monkeys when it came to food.



After bidding farewell to our new monkey friends predators we were on the road again and after a few more hours the drifting sand dunes came into view. Our bus turned off the highway and slowly made its way towards our hotel pitstop where we would set off for our desert campsite in just a few hours…a desert oasis (complete with swimming pool!) amid towering dunes. Unfortunately for us we arrive during a moderate sandstorm, the pool wasn’t as satisfying as we’d hoped.

After we had freshened up from our long bus trip we made our way to the back of the hotel where aside from a small herd of camels there was only sand as far as the eye could see. It was here we met our respective camels (Grace named her’s Jamal the Great) and prepared for our epic ride across the Sahara, 1hr as the camel rides, so probably a 5 minute drive. As we got onto our camels the weather situation did not improve and in fact after about 10 minutes of riding we started to feel rather moist and it wasn’t from sweat. That’s right folks…it started raining! It rained on us as we rode camels through the Sahara, certainly a unique experience. Eventually however we arrived at our berber style accommodation, at which point the rain had all but vanished and it was here that our guide suggest that with sunset approaching we should climb to the top of a giant sand dune to view the “spectacular views’” of the dunes. This seemed like a great idea from the bottom of the dune under shelter from the sand storm. As it turns out, it wasn’t a very good idea at all… don’t know if you’ve ever climbed a sandune before but it’s bloody hard, especially when there is sand flying everywhere, invading every crevice of your body. When we did arrive at the top, the billowing wind made it impossible to see anything on the other side. We admitted defeat and tried not to fall down the face of the dune in an attempt to descend back to camp. That evening was spent playing drums and singing with the local Berbers, the clouds even parted long enough for us to get a glimpse of the stars flickering in the desert night.

The final segment of our time in Morocco was spent traveling back to Marrakech, we travelled back through the Atlas Mountains stopping in the Todra and Dades gorges for some epic pictures of the sandstone cliffs and switchback roads before we finally pulled into Marrakech, collapsing into the hotel pool and cracking open a much wanted beer.



Final thought:

We absolutely loved this adventure! Morocco is definitely a place we would love to revisit, even just to buy that amazing Moroccan rug we unfortunately couldn’t fit into our carry on baggage.

For us personally we decided to go with a tour group as we didn’t want the fuss of having to organise our own transport and accommodation. While it is a country where you could definitely travel solo, the tour just gave us the piece of mind we needed with amazing local guides, some of the best we have ever met! They knew everything you needed to know eg best restaurants and places to buy souvenirs and how much you should pay for the souvenirs to so you don’t get ripped off. While we only did a 10 day tour it gave us an incredible insight into Morocco and its rich history and culture, something just so different from any other place in the world.

There are a lot of travel companies around that do a similar trip to what we did including Topdeck, TravelTalk, Intrepid and Contiki just to name a few. Make sure you shop around and get the best deal though. A lot of these companies will give discounts to returning travellers (just fake it, say you traveled with them a few years ago they won’t question you) or if you live in London head over to the TNT travel expo which happens twice a year and you can get some amazing discounts!

What to pack:
Shirts, shorts, A lightweight sheer scarf, long sleeve shirt for girls, Comfy Stretch Floral Print Pants, a cardigan or jumper (the desert can get cold at night) and a good pair of Rayban Warefarer sunglasses to keep out the sun and the sand.

Tips:

– Learn some basic Arabic or french as these are the local languages and will help you out a lot!

– Have offline maps on your phone or a local SIM if you plan on finding your way through the medinas.

– Travel in groups or pairs, if you can, simply so that people are less likely to come up and try and harass you to buy things, safety in numbers people.

– Beer is relatively easy to get from larger hotels, it will be a bit more expensive then you are used to but be happy that it’s available in a Muslim country.

– Don’t panic when you hear the morning call to prayer, you’ll get used to the noise.

– As of the creation of this post Morocco does not require visas for British, Australia and New Zealand passport holders, however this is subject to change and you should always check on visa and passport restrictions before booking a holiday.

– Try to take multiple bank/travel cards as some ATMs may not accept certain cards, if you find an ATM does not work using one card try another and if still unsuccessful try another machine as they can be quite funny. We went through two machines before it gave us cash while our friend was able to get money out straight away.

– Always be careful of your belongings, especially in the medina where pickpockets are searching for easy targets.

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