Morocco-Comme ci comme ca

Published: April 22nd 2014
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I tried hard to truly like it, to fall head over heels for its seductive offerings of bustling medinas, evocative kasbahs, soaring mountains, Saharan landscape and bustling people. I wanted to be blown away by it but it never quite got there for me; like a B list celebrity clambering out of a taxi without underwear and legs akimbo she tried hard to flash me her wares, but ultimately it lacked the appeal to hold my attention for too long. Admittedly I was negative to begin with, as I joined the hordes of people queuing up on the Easyjet and Ryanair style budget airline I realised what a mass tourism destination I was heading to, I have flown on many planes where I have been the only non native travelling, but scanning around these queues I thought I'd mistakenly wandered into the line to get my benefits. And upon arrival I discovered to my dismay that belly dancing was actually Turkish and the place was full of French people...this was going to be a long trip. Once again casting off my backpacker ways I had done a deal with the devil and booked a 10day organised tour with On The Go Tours that would take me through all the main sights in Morocco.


The tour began and ended in Marrakech, a busy and hurried city with 2 million people that radiates heat but in contradiction is framed by hushed and motionless snow peaked mountains. Morocco became a French protectorate between 1912 and 1956, a relatively short time but the vast majority of Moroccans flip between speaking Arabic and French with consummate ease and made me wish I'd listened more in GSCE French. But I remembered the words 'piscine' and 'oeuf' for 'swimming pool' and 'eggs' as they were funny to say so I was sure I'd be ok. The French influence is still strong and seen in the buildings, food, cafe culture and hordes of Europeans swarming through Marrakech, it wasn't quite what I expected from an Arabic country with 99%!S(MISSING)unni Muslims and a city that has 5000 mosques alone. The heartbeat of this and many Moroccan cities lie in the medina, a walled city within a city established in 1062AD that is surrounded by high ramparts and entered though large gates, all set off in a bright pink colour for a real 'menacing' look. The medina has all the authentic attributes associated with Morocco, fortified kasbahs(houses), riads(courtyards), ornate palaces, Mellahs(Jewish quarter), hammams(public baths) and souqs(alleys) stuffed with stalls. These souqs were one of the highlights of Morocco, covered alleys laid out in apparent haphazard fashion which made for a labyrinth like experience-only without David Bowie and his dodgy 80s clothing. The narrow, crowded souqs contain 5000 stalls that sold everything anyone could desire and contained some serious bargains if you haggled hard enough, diving into one of these and getting bewilderingly lost before popping out in some new equally mind boggling alley was a great experience and highly recommended.

The myriad of souqs jutted off at all angles starting from the main square 'Djemaa el Fna' which was named a UNESCO masterpiece of heritage and was just as enthralling to wander open mouthed. A huge square that has essentially doubled as an open air theatre for the last 1000 years and seems to contain an inordinate amount of people filled with snake charmers, monkeys, food stalls, musicians, dancers, henna tattooists, drink stalls, herbal remedies, screeching motorbikes, horses drawn carriages, donkey carts, potion sellers and story tellers, to name but a few. Whether weaving your way through the masses or watching from up high in a rooftop French cafe sipping mint tea it made for compulsive viewing, especially at night. The 77m high minaret and mosque stands in the centre and with the rule that no building in the city can be taller it serves as a great point of reference for dazed tourist staggering out of souqs souvenirs in hand. The smells from the food stalls were evocative and as ever better than anything the tourist restaurants could offer, tagines, cous cous, kebab, meat skewers, fruit, sweet pastries, mint tea and coffee were the regular fare. The rest of the city seemed fairly featureless so head for the medina and get lost, literally.


Next was a brief stop in Casablanca, the economic hub of Morocco and place of big business. Although most people know it mainly for the Humphrey Bogart film and the fact the film beats the city tells you all you need to know(in it's defence it is a good film). It sits on the Atlantic Coast and seems more European and cosmopolitan than Arabic with its colonial buildings, seaside restaurants and touists. It does however have one big draw card, the Hassan II mosque. Built as recently as 1993 it is the 3rd largest mosque in the world (behind Mecca and another I can't be bothered to look up on Wikipedia). It is intricately carved with granite and wood features and has a 210m high minaret that can fit 25,000 inside to pray and a further 80,000 in the courtyard during Ramadan, to give some sense of scope it could hold Notre Dame or St Peters church within the prayer hall. You can also visit the hammams or stare out at the Atlantic through the huge glassed doors, or you can do as I did and follow Liverpool by text message and try not to scream or curse while praying to the deity to help you, they eventually won so I'm starting to come around to the whole religious belief thing, 'here's looking at you Allah'.


At least Casablanca has a mosque and a films named after it, the capital Rabat had even less. It was a cosmopolitan, dull sort of place full of houses and businesses. It did house one of the Kings 37 palaces (he must lose his keys loads) but you couldn't go in or get too near. We visited another Hassan mosque and mausoleum but it's minaret was a miserly 44m and was half decimated due to an earthquake. Rabat did have a nice ocean side kasbah but not a lot else to offer. Still, it beat Meknes I suppose, a place so unremarkable I made no notes and can't remember anything to say about it, I think I had an orange there, then we left. Next were the Roman remains at Volubillis and I'm trying not to compare too much but they couldn't compete with the Jerash remains in Jordan. The site is only half excavated and so needs a fair bit of imagination to piece together, it originally dates back to the 3rd century BC but most of the remains date from AD40. At one time the site housed 20,000 people and there are still remains of the houses, baths, basilica, marble arch and mosaics, although a lot of these have had a recent facelift to make them respectable.


Next was the place named after the hat(it may have been the other way around), and it's major attraction is the fabulous medina that beats even Marrakech-although it lacks the central square. Fes-el Bali medina is the oldest and largest medieval city in the world with a wonderful 9400 alleys to wander, 50% of which are dead ends which all adds to the fun. Fez houses a remarkable 84,000 stalls and 20,000 of these are in the souqs alone and the same narrow lanes and covered bazaars abound. Despite being bigger it is more orderly as the souqs are organised into sections, so the locals know which alley sells the meat, or metal works or clothing etc, it has one lane called 'slipper alley' that has so many shoes it is like an Imelda Marcos wet dream(for the uninitiated she liked shoes, a lot). Perhaps the most famous is the Chaouwara tanneries that contain the dye pits, a place that still seems stuck in medieval times as bare footed men wash animal skins in vats filled with river water, vegetable dye and cow urine etc, the smell alone is something to live long in the memory but makes for fascinating viewing from roof top shops if you can stand the stench. The medina also has Kairaouine university which is the oldest in the world as it was formed around 800AD and an interesting Jewish quarter. The medina is known as 'old Fez' because they built a newer part, you know a place is old when the 'new' part is 700 years old, there are countries like Australia or the US that aren't even half as old as 'new Fez'. You can visit the kasbah above the city which is unremarkable but gives a great view over the entire area.

Atlas Mountains & Midelt.

Although slightly out of synch trip wise I am bulking together the Atlas Mountains-quite frankly because it's my blog and I can do what I like so get off my back(there are annoying kids behind me on the plane, forgive my mood). Morocco actually has 3 sets of mountains, the Anti Atlas, Mid Atlas and High Atlas, all formed around 60 million years ago when the huge tectonic plate smashed into Europe (it also formed the Alps at the same time, a fountain of knowledge me). Each range is slightly different and they varied between farmland, forests, lunar landscape, oasis and snow capped mountains. The High Atlas top out at 4167metres although the highest pass we made was 1900m, while the Mid Atlas are known as the 'Switzerland of Morocco', but this is false advertising on a massive scale as they have just decked out a couple of hotels to look like Swiss houses. The raised ridges have brought up with them ancient fossils that date back to 450million years old and these are hawked at every stall in sight. Sadly there was no T-Rex as all the fossils are sea creatures, but they serve as a reminder that inexplicably this area and the Sahara desert was once an ocean teeming with life, 'Geology rocks!' as Ross Geller would say. The mountains have also formed huge fissures which have natural oases growing through them. These oasis shatter the illusion somewhat as they are not quite the lone palm tree and life giving pool of water in the middle of the Sahara, nor is there a Gallagher brother in sight. Instead they are 250km long stretches of green containing 2 million palm trees, they do look wonderful though snaking through the gorges and traditional mud brick houses have been built alongside. Todra gorge is one of the more imposing of these and stands 1000feet high and because of this it is know as 'Morocco's Grand Canyon', but this is an example of the worst false advertising since the Mid Atlas were called Switzerland. You could drive near the top though and get good views down the canyon in parts. Dades Gorge was more impressive for me as you could actually walk through part of the way and houses and hotels have been built into the rock and in winter a fair amount of water flows through. I'm still not having it called the Grand Canyon though.

Throughout this area we passed through the more traditional villages and witnessed those families living in mud houses, defiantly sturdy structures made from a mixture of mud and straw that dry rock solid and keep rooms remarkably cool inside. The King decreed that each house should now have electricity so the houses are a mix of ancient traditional ways and modern technology, the mud and straw remain but living rooms now have televisions and telephones with answering machines, while those in the street chat easily on mobile phones. The people had the true weather beaten faces but hardy smiles that come with outside toil as they live off the land and rely heavily on cattle and crops, women carried back breaking amounts from fields, clothes were washed in rivers, rugs and clothing weaved by hand and dyed with vegetable product, while ingenuous methods were invented via underground aqueducts to elicit life preserving water. 28%!o(MISSING)f Moroccan households are classified as poor and there is a literacy rate of just 52%!,(MISSING) which predominantly exists outside of the busy rich cities. Finally we visited Ait Benhaddou, another UNESCO project due to the kasbah situated there. It was saved (and has also had a major bit of Botox)as an excellent example of life in the 11th century, that bygone era when caravans of camels would traverse the land carrying salt back to faraway places with evocative names such as Timbuktu. Nowadays it is more famous for Gladiator being filmed there, such is life.

Sahara desert

Morocco had one final card to play, the beginning of the mighty Sahara desert and we visited Erg Chebbi. This was the edge of the desert and we didn't venture deep inside yet it was still mightily impressive. Even at this early stage of the desert we passed dunes that were 100metres high and in the distance we could see some that stood 160metres, not resting on rock just sweeping ridges of windswept sand pockmarked with animal prints. The weather wasn't overly hot so I didn't go into full Lawrence mode but in the summer it apparently reaches 50C, thanks but no thanks. Sadly there were a couple of major drawbacks, my hatred of camels was still there as they are as comfortable as haemorrhoids, plus we seemed to share the same patch of sand as 38 other tour groups. There were groups on camels everywhere, 4x4vehicles flying past, quad bikes and motorbikes whipping around, it was hardly a quiet and thoughtful journey into the middle of nowhere, oh and the sunset was less than spectacular. But we did get those views of the night sky one can only see away from big cities, and it was interesting to see such large dunes on land that was once on the ocean floor, and I can say I have been to the Sahara and lived liked a traditional Berber nomad for a few hours. And that I hate camels.

And so that was Morocco, a country that admittedly grew on me over time but ultimately I'm not sure which side I come down on-'Comme ci comme ca' as the French would say with a Gallic shrug. I feel it lacked a true 'wow' feature such as Egypt's pyramids or Jordan's Petra but it can boast the diversity of coasts, mountains and desert in one country, while it's souqs, kasbahs, ramparts, hammams, palaces, riads, mud brick houses and Berber villages will live long in the memory. Perhaps it's best attribute lies in the people, those that operate in a serene and laid back manner that is the polar opposites to the in-your-face hassling Egyptian style. They still rely heavily on the 5 pillars of Islam but are evolving with the times led by a savvy King, he acted quickly to stave off the Arab Spring by altering his Parliament and retains both power and belief with a 91% approval rating as he tackles poverty, illiteracy and the 44% unemployment rate. He has brought in forward thinking laws that has made polygamy more difficult, arranged marriages less likely and underage marriages illegal, whilst allowing women to become a third of the workforce and members of parliament, although the lack of women on the streets and male dominated society still seems prevalent to my eyes. Not all is rosy as many see his movements as somewhat self serving, he appears to be positive towards democracy but apparently he places members of his inner circle at important positions in the government and retains power. If the people were unhappy I didn't see it, men in sharp suits sat in cafes sipping coffee disturbed only by the unmistakable call to prayer, while women went about running the house and boys played football anywhere they could to an extent I have never seen before, and the villages toiled on bent but not broken. Tourists looked on bemused and amused, the tourist dollar alive and well as they snapped up rugs, spices, jewellery, clothes, pottery, rose water, rocks, and all the kitsch they could carry. I didn't particularly enjoy my tour personally, too much time spent covering 1700km broken up by hours of shopping and not enough time spent with locals and I think that has clouded my overall opinion of the country. Perhaps it's time I dusted off the backpack after all, if nothing else you've given me that itch Morocco.

PS-A heartfelt thanks to any of the readers out there who nominated me for the TravelBlog Hall of Fame, I was honestly shocked but delighted to be inducted. I hope you continue to enjoy my random musings and bad photography.

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22nd April 2014

It's your wry musings...
that resulted in your HoF. We look forward to reading more from you. But stooping to an organized tour!?! My daughter wants to visit Morocco and I advised her to take an organized tour. Worst of all, we are taking one next week when we visit Peru and Bolivia...our first multi-day tour ever!
23rd April 2014

i loved your post Mike. it was worth reading. i never saw that amusing view of Marrakech. all those pic collections were self defining and wonderful. specially Oasis, Dades Gorge... thanks for sharing :)
24th April 2014

Glad to see you blogging again
We loved our time in Morocco and felt something you did not but that is ok. Each of us find interest in different places. Glad to have read your perspective and glad to see you blogging again. You have to go to these places to figure out which are your favorites and which ones are not. Happy travels.

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