minutes in morocco

Morocco. The name itself is enough to conjour up exotic imaginings of spices merchants, bolts of silk and herds of camels, medicine women and sorcerers peddling traditional medicines and cures, Berber nomads travelling through the sandy dunes, the majesty of the High Atlas, and of course, the bustling souqs selling everything from crocodile skins to richly-coloured carpets. There is much to live up to for a country with such a name.  But in my mind, Morocco more than meets that challenge.

From wonderful, colourful, chaotic Marrkesh to the sea-bashed fortress wall of Essaouira, the misty Tetouan nestled in the mountains to the expanse of the Hassan II Mosque of Casablanca and the blue-washed walls of Chefchaouen, Morocco is a captivating destination. Standing outside time, it is one of the rare places where you are able to flit between cultures and centuries; whilst exploring the souqs of Fez and Marrakesh, inevitably getting thoroughly lost in the process, brushing shoulders with Berber stall owners, you become a merchant trader, seeking out the best prices for whatever you wish to buy that day.  Only a train ride away, now you are a Roman citizen, walking the grand promenades of Volubilis or lazing in the shade of an olive tree and listening to the mating call of the stalks of Chellah. In downtown Casablanca you are transported back to the 21st century, window shopping and sipping Starbucks coffee. This is truly a timeless country, and given the ease of traveling by bus or train, and the endless choice of things to do and see,  Morocco is an ideal place to start a travelling life.

Despite being there close to the April 2011 terrorist attack on the Djemaa El Fnaa, Morocco remains settled in my day dreams. These are just a few places to give you some idea of all that this wonderful country has to offer:

 

MARRAKESH.
Stay. At Hotel Aday, just off the Djmaa El Fnaa but wonderfully placed for exploration. Quiet and clean, and definitely within a budget traveller’s range, the friendly staff will bustle you into any one of the rooms, and show you the rooftop balcony (where it is also possible to sleep for ever fewer pennies). Hot showers available for scrubbing off that layer of dust.
Explore. To say that getting lost in the souqs is the perfect way of spending a Moroccon day is all but needless, there it all is spread out in every direction from the main Djmaa El Fnaa, beckoning you deeper and deeper. And whilst this is fun for a couple of hours, it is possible to just have had enough of the heat and haggling, and when this is the case, retreat upstairs in one of the cafes for hot, sweet mint tea, and to watch the snake charmers, water sellers, acrobats, henna artists, astrologers, and musicians carry on the practices of their ancestors.  As night falls you’ll see the labrinthe of souqs light up, and the food stalls will appear as if from nowhere, wafting the clouds of aromatic foods across Marrakesh. And should you wish to join the fray for dinner, tagine or harrissa and sweet pastry accompaniments can be picked up from any number of stalls, all the more appreciated when washed down with a glass of fresh orange juince from Stall 42 (without a doubt, the sweetest!).  My best memories come from the hours I spent sitting with several of the stall owners, all in the name of research, drinking tea and trying my hand at hawking the solid perfume.
Explore. Koutoubia Mosque (the “booksellers” mosque), and it is hardly any wonder that the story-tellers were said to gather at this minaret, positioned just off the Djmaa el Fnaa, so peaceful enough to sit and relax but still close enough to be able to gaze down the promenade and just catch glimpes of the myriad of life going on at the end.
Explore. Jardin Marjorelle, whose poise and style no doubt reflects it’s ownership by the  Yves Saint-Laurent Foundation, and whose elegant oasis feeling sings through history from the work of painter Jacques Marjorelle, if you are looking for a place to sit amongst cascading flowers and beautiful palm trees, this is your place. With brightly coloured walls hung with bougainvillaea, find a place by one of the many water features or stroll easily through the little museum, and take this opportune break from life raging outside it’s high walls to let the adrenaline take a break.
Explore. The gates and ramparts of course exemplify the joy of an Old City, make it a mission to visit at least 5/10/15/all of the gates, some of which are admittedly less enthralling that others. Remember to note down the names for the appropriate photographs though, it is amazing how easily they will sip from your memory that will be bombarded by so many experiences from Morocco. Bab Agnauo in particular is worthy of a visit.
Be Brave. No words can be used to describe one’s first experience of a hammam. The closest I have come when explaining to people what exactly happens down there in the rooms of steam and mystery is that a visiting patron can expect to be steadily beaten and pummelled by an overweight lady alternatingly slathering your entire body in olive oil soap and then dousing you in water. For all that that sounds like it is likely to be verging on torture, and most certainly abuse, there is no question that a trip to the hammam will rid you of days of traveller’s grime, and leave you feeling a new person, albeit a far more tender one.

 

 

ESSAOUIRA.
Stay. Once you have managed to find yourself (somehow) at the sea’s edge, follow the escarpments around until you head down some steps, and on your right will be a little sign for a lovely hostel that makes for a pleasant stay! Definitely travel budget, and well placed for an early morning stroll along the ramparts, watching the swooping and calling seaguls and the dozing cats.
Explore. This chilled out, artsy seaside port makes for a haven from the chaos of Marrakesh. With it’s picturesque architecture and bohemian atmosphere, Essaouira is a lovely place to just wander the streets, perhaps haggling occasionally for a jacket or bag of tea, or sitting at watching the world go by. The charming and proud locals will jump over each other to invite you in, sit you down on a cusion, feed you more mint tea that one person can possibly healthily consume, and talk to you about their lives, your lives, politics, mountains, and any number of other topics.
Explore. Skala de la Ville will have you embracing your Shakespearean side and dragging up from the depths of your memory those one or two lines of Hamlet that you definitely somehow remember. At least, it will once you learn that the Essaouiran ramparts were used in Orson Well’s film adaptation of Othello. The brass canons prove an impressive site as they stand proudly guarding their city, and if you’re lucky, the guards might even forget to lock up the tower and you’ll have a quick chance to scamper up and take a look before the shuffling key-holder beckons you down again.
Be Brave. Fancy yourself a bit of a Lawrence? Take this opportunity to track down Maison du Chameau, choose yourself one of their white racing camels, and head off romantically into the sands. Well, perhaps not that romantically, after all being thrown around the top of a camel’s back it is not a gait one is used.

 

 

CASABLANCA.
In it’s past life a pirate lair, Casablanca is much changed in recent times. And whilst I would agree with the general view that this modern, moving city is perhaps not worth spending too long a time in, there are still some things that deserve a chance.
Explore. The white-washed buildings ubiquitous to colonial times make for a pretty backdrop for a stroll along the wide boulevards.
Explore. The Hassan II Mosque is a, enormous, beautiful example of the ornate architecture that accompanies the Islamic faith.  Remember to wear appropriate clothing, this is not a mosque you want to risk having to miss, especially given it’s place as the third-largest in the world and one of the only in Morocco that non-Muslims are allowed inside of. Booking into a guided tour is obligatory, but well worth putting up with the occasional brash American, or stroppy teenager, to have the knowledgeable guides show off their insights.
Explore. Quartier Harbous was built in solution to an ever-expanding population looking for somewhere to live. Above all this strikes you as a strange place, seemingly medina-esque, yet without the hustle and bustle that adds so much character to the likes of Fes and Marrakesh. However, it is an interesting place to see the marrying of Moroccan and French architecture.

 

 

CHEFCHAOUEN.
Stay.  is a great little place tucked in amongst several blue-washed buildings and market stalls. Will bundles of blankets ready to be grabbed, and a friendly cat who lives on the roof ready to jump into bed with you, settling down into one of their partitioned rooms on the roof, or sitting at one of the tables and chatting to the other guests, this backpacker’s retreat offers a perfect base camp for exploring the medina and surrounding areas.
Explore. Resting happily at the base of the Rif Mountains, this delightful little place is full of narrow , winding streets, Andalucian red roofs, and of course beautiful bright blue buildings that make even the most inept, incompetant photographer a professional. Battling the heavily-laden donkeys for walking space, and trying to resist buying even more brightly decorated pottery and rugs, wandering around Chefchaouen is bound to make for a wonderful day. By no means as crowded as the Morocco’s other medinas, the multidue of little plazas, cafes, and shops means there is much to do to pass the time.
Explore. Having had your fill of keeping the purse strings pulled tight for fear of having to buy another suitcase to get all your purchases home, why not just head up. Literally. With no need for a map or directions, just keep going uphill, and eventually you will reach the back of the medina.  Here, find a gate to go through, and then keep going up.  Once you’ve convinced yourself that you’re essentially scaling Everest, turn around and be ready to hold your breath (which isn’t as easy at it seems after a climb that will leave you needing to catch it!) as you look down upon the lovely little Chefchaouen, with the old fort standing clearly out against the blue, and the outlaying villages gathered around the river that winds it’s way past.

 

 

RABAT.
Stay. The only place in Morocco where it was tricky to find somewhere to stay one night (something to do with the immanent approach of Eid, understandably!), there are many little hostels tucked into the streets of the old town.
Explore.  Relaxed and clean, but just as cosmopolitan as the grittier Casablanca, this coastal city deserves to make the list. The tree-lined boulevards, charming Old City, and big colonial buildings is everything that the capital should be, and the hassle free atmosphere results in Rabat fast becoming a firm favourite of many visitors. Take a turn around the streets at soak up the feel for the place, pausing of course for a glass of mint tea that it would be a crime to go too long without.
Explore. Chellah is one of those sites that just begs the imagination to go wild. Crumbling ruins existing amidst overgrown emerald plants, ancient Roman Chellah is home to a colony of stalks that, come spring, sound out their mating dances across the valley. The oldest settlement on the Bou Begreg River, a visit here should not be missed.
Explore. Intended to be the tallest minaret in the Muslim world, sadly Le Tour Hassan didn’t quite achieve that claim, it’s grand architect Almohed sultan Yacob el-Mansour sadly dying before it was ever completed. Now standing at 44m, and surrounded by a number of columns that show it’s intended scale, the intricately carved minaret is till a hugely impressive site. See if you can coincide your visit with the opening times for the tomb, and take your chance to wander through the ornately decorated mausoleum of Mohamman V.
Explore. The Kasbah des Oudaias, seated proudly on it’s cliff-top perch, makes for another lovely day of exploring.  Wander up from the Tower, through the impressive and and dramatic Bab Oudaia into it’s tranquil and picturesque streets before heading down to the shore to chat to those gathered there and to look back up at the Kasbah with awe.

 

 

FES.
Stay. With it’s favourable locaiton, Funky Fes gives the budget backpacket everything they need. Clean and spacious rooms, and an opportunity to fill up on the free breakfast (absolutely necessary for a day’s exploration of the Old City), this little hostel operates with the traveller in mind, offering workshops and activities as well as great advice on where to go.
Explore. As the olderst of the imperial city, and the historic and cultural heart of Morocco, Fes is another one of the remarkable cities that Morocco has to offer. The many tiles that decorate walls, water fountains, even floors of much of Fes embrace the Islamic green, combined with the donkeys and mules that still make for the most effective mode of transport up and down and around and up the bewildering narrow streets, come together to present a wonderfully picturesque Old City. The bazaars, souqs, dye pits, medersas, and tanneries will leave you feeling thoroughly enthralled by this place, the largest living  Islamic medieval city in the world.

 

 

CASCADES DES OUZOUD.
Stay. If coming by public transport, you will be dropped off seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with just one sign pointing in vaguely the right direction. Do not lose hope. Many cars passing through will willingly stop to pick up a few extra passengers (only relieved you of a few dirham for the priviledge), so flag one down and hop in.  You’ll likely be dropped off at the top of the Cascades, so simply head downwards. Before long you’ll come across a friendly little restaurant about half way down, with marvellous views of the waterfalls. Ask here if you are able to rent one of the rooms the owner has to offer.
Explore. If you carry on down to the bottom of the steps before long you’ll just have to give in to temptation and throw yourself into one of the little pools formed at the bottom of the falls. The water makes for a bracing swim, but is just what is needed at the thought of scrambling back up all those steps. Watch out for the monkeys that line the paths, as well as making adorable pictures, the little things are just as likely to steal any food you might have on your person.
Explore.  Ouzoud is a beautiful place for walking. If hiking up to the top of the falls for the splendid view across the valley doesn’t quite capture your imagination, head instead the other way, and follow the well-worn sheep path along the river’s side, eventually it will take you to a fresh water spring, a swim in which is supposed to cure all manner of illnesses and afflictions.

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