Morocco Travel Blog...an epilogue


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Africa » Morocco
May 3rd 2019
Published: December 22nd 2019
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Let us sit bent, but talk straight ~ Moroccan Proverb



HE SAID...
Morocco – what an incredible country. We spent a month travelling either side of the Atlas Mountains in the north western tip of Africa, and we loved every minute of it. Sometimes when a country touches you unexpectedly and gets under your skin, it is hard to encapsulate the reason (or reasons) why. I’m still not exactly sure. I didn’t know what to expect when we first touched down in Casablanca, and I didn’t want to leave when we left Marrakesh airport on our return journey home.

My only option, therefore, is to share the highlights of our Moroccan travels. Maybe through these I can start to understand why I loved this place so much.

The People
More than anything else, I loved the way in which we were made to feel welcome. Morocco has been described as a cold country with a hot sun, and it certainly was during our travels – when the sun was out we were generally warm, but when the sun disappeared, so did the heat. However, I would go one step further and describe Morocco as a cold country with a hot sun and a warm heart. The people were so incredibly friendly and accommodating. As travellers in Morocco we were always greeted with a smile, and despite the madness of some of the larger cities, people were so incredibly tolerant. I lost count of the number of times people would stop and apologise for bumping me when I was walking through a crowded medina – and by apologise I mean stopping, turning around, holding my arm and saying sorry, when in most cases the fault was probably mine. It’s something that rarely (if ever) happens in Australia.

One moment in particular will stay with me for a long time. We were travelling from Meknes to Fes on a very crowded public train, and I’d only just managed to get a seat. A young Moroccan couple with a two-month old baby were sitting opposite me, and the baby started to cry. After extensive efforts on both their parts, the little one finally fell asleep. A minute had barely passed before the young father looked up, caught my eye and handed the little bundle to me. His young wife smiled and nodded approvingly. Not only was I a complete stranger to them, I was a foreigner in their land, but they were willing to entrust me with their child, and they were eager to ask about my travels. They were both so happy when I told them I loved Morocco and that I especially loved the food.

The Food
And I really did LOVE the food. I loved the mint tea and Moroccan biscuits. I loved the many types of bread, all freshly baked each day. I loved the harissa, the olives and every other accompaniment that appeared on our tables. I loved the tagines, especially the lamb, goat, beef and seafood varieties. Barely a day went by that I didn’t have at least one tagine, and I never tired of them. What’s not to like about slow cooked meat and vegetables with fresh bread!

In terms of standout tagine experiences, I’ll never forget the chicken with red olives and preserved lemon in Casablanca (our first Moroccan tagine), the beef kefta in Moulay Idriss, the beef with zucchini, thyme and olives in Fes, the lamb with prunes in Chefchaouen, the Berber omelette in Aroumd, the deconstructed lamb with pears and walnuts in Essaouira, the fish (poisson) in Sidi Ifni and the sardine kefta in Marrakesh. I’ve heard a few people say they were ‘tagined-out’ by the end of their Moroccan travels, but I couldn’t get enough of these sensational traditional stews.

The Landscape
I absolutely loved the Moroccan landscape, and we experienced so many of its alluring features during our travels. For a start, there was the Atlas Mountains. I was mesmerised by this mountain range. It basically divides the country into north and south, and we traversed it many times. I loved the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas, the cool climes of the Middle Atlas and the barren moonscape of the Anti-Atlas. These mountains became my favourite landmarks and reference points. I always sought their peaks on any distant horizon, and I always tried to discern which of the three ranges I was closest to.

Which brings me to Aroumd. Words can barely describe the rugged beauty and serenity of this tiny Berber village in the High Atlas. Nestled under the snow-capped Jebel Toubcal (Northern Africa’s highest peak), Aroumd is far from the madding crowd. In fact, it is so far from the madding crowd that we had to trek up rocky mountain paths for an hour just to get there. The trek was picturesque, and we were greeted on arrival with brisk solitude and boundless tranquillity. I loved the isolation of this remote hilltop village. With vast mountains jutting into the sky around me, I settled at a table on a rooftop terrace and wrote with pen and paper. I will fondly remember Aroumd as one of the most fantastic and relaxing locations I’ve ever written in.

Another standout was the Saharan landscape. Its dry rocky plateaus and shifting sand dunes were so very different to the jagged crags and snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas, but both terrains shared a powerful solitude. Our journey into the heart of the desert involved a two-hour drive in a 4WD and a one-hour trek on the back of a dromedary, and I loved every fleeting second of this wondrous trip. And as I stood on the crest of a sand dune and stared out at the shimmering Algerian border, I was exhilarated by the vast expanse of silence that surrounded me. It was a truly incredible experience.

The Atlantic coast was another of my favourite Moroccan landscapes. I was mesmerised by the stark contrast of its dry sandy soil against the azure blue of the ocean. We spent many hours driving along undulating coastal plains that were largely uninhabited, where rolling waves broke relentlessly onto long empty beaches. I loved the isolation of this wild western coastline, but I also loved Essaouira, an old port city that attracts more than its fair share of tourists.

I didn’t find solitude in Essaouira, but I wasn’t looking. I absolutely loved its relaxed coastal lifestyle, and I could easily return to while away the hours sipping mint tea and browsing music shops while the churning Atlantic crashes into Essaouira’s old medina walls.

The Music
With the exception of the harsh and shrill horns played by Marrakesh’s brash snake charmers, I was enthralled by the music we experienced during our travels. I especially loved the music of Tinariwen, a group of Berber musicians who describe themselves as poet-guitarists and soul rebels from the Southern Sahara. I’ll always associate their blues-heavy electric guitars, African rhythms and hypnotic vocals with the desolate plains of the Sahara Desert. I loved the sensational drum beats in Jemma el-Fna (Marrakesh), the chilled music with soft Moroccan horns at Riad Helen (Marrakesh) and the gentle oud music that continually played through the audio system of our minibus.

The Downside
The only downside of the trip was the unfortunate (and possibly unforeseen) impact of unregulated and unbridled tourism, of which I was a guilty participant. With dwindling sources of income and no viable alternatives, some Moroccans have had to embrace tourism, regardless of its impact on their environment and their culture. Some are covering rocks with tonnes of blue and red paint to attract tourists to sleepy villages high in the Anti-Atlas, while others are building concrete monstrosities on beautiful beaches along the country’s vast western coastline. It’s the pervasive dilemma of global tourism: How can we experience cultures other than our own in a sustainable and ethical manner? Or to put it another way: How can we ensure that our presence (and that of others) is not undermining the integrity and essence of a country, a region or a village?

Précis
So why did I love Morocco so much? It really came down to a few simple things – great people, great food, great scenery and great music. And despite being extremely difficult to find, I also managed to sample some great red wine (produced in Meknes) and some locally-brewed beer. What more could you possibly want? 😊



SHE SAID...
The Trip
The main focus of this trip was Morocco. However, our travels started with a brief visit to London to see my sister and family. I absolutely love London and we enjoyed some family time as well as doing London-y food and art things before flying to Casablanca.

We don’t travel to merely experience the highlights of a country – we try to experience as many facets of a country as we can cram into a finite holiday period. Therefore we try and plan our trips to take in the cities, regional towns and rural villages; to stay in a range of accommodation from very local village homestays to flash boutique hotels; to catch as many forms of the local transport as possible; to eat at market stalls as well as upmarket white linen restaurants… and everything in between. And I can happily say that this was one of the few trips where we totally achieved our goals on all fronts.

We began our Moroccan travels in the north and gradually made our way south. The northern part of the trip exposed us to historically significant cities and villages that were noteworthy for religious, governance, and migration reasons; while the southern part of the trip revealed the unique geography and culture of Morocco.

We split our adventures into three separate trips which covered a vast portion of Morocco and immersed us in the vast diversity of its landscapes, people, culture and food.

The first trip started in Casablanca, and our adventures continued in the religious green town of Moulay Idriss, the roman ruins of Volubilis, the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen, the coastal white city of Tangier on the tip of Africa, and all the old imperial cities of Rabat, Meknes, Fes and Marrakesh. It was a fast-paced trip and went by in a flash. It would have been great if we’d had extra time in Rabat and Tangier, but overall, it was very enjoyable. My most favourite part of this trip was Chefchaouen. I loved its unique position on the slopes of the Rif Mountains, I loved its insanely picturesque blue streets in the medina, and I loved its delicious food.

Our second trip was a loop of the south that started and ended in Marrakesh. We hiked to the Berber village of Aroumd in the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains, then explored the abandoned kasbah village of Ait Benhaddou on an ancient caravan route, the date palm oasis outpost of Zagora, the big dunes and vastness of the Sahara Desert, the town of Taroudannt in the fertile Sous Valley, and the windswept port of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. This was a fabulous trip! It involved many long travel days, but gave us many uniquely Moroccan experiences. If I had to pick one aspect that I didn’t enjoy as much as the others, it was Taroudannt. It was a necessary stop on the long journey from the Sahara to the Atlantic coast, but it didn’t add a great deal to the trip. If I was forced to pick a favourite part, I’d say it was the experience of travelling to, and camping in the Sahara Desert, but really, almost everything on this leg was quite amazing!

The last part of our trip was again a loop that started and ended in Marrakesh. This relaxed trip covered a vast portion of the Anti-Atlas Mountains and a length of the southern Atlantic coast. We explored the fishing port of Sidi Ifni, the red granite mountain town of Tafraoute and the fishing village of Taghazout. It was another very enjoyable trip, with Sidi Ifni the only town I wouldn’t be in a hurry to return to.

Our accommodation was wide ranging and included a Sahara Desert camp, a mountain gite, regional guesthouses, an overnight sleeper train, a surf camp resort, traditional Moroccan riads and hotels. Our modes of transport included 4WD vehicles across the desert, an overnight sleeper train, minibuses, public buses, taxis, trains and a camel!

The Cities, Towns and Villages
Morocco had many exciting, vibrant and historic cities and towns. There were similarities among some, but they also had very distinct personalities. The cities were a great mix of traditional life (mostly in the medinas) and modern living (in the French quarters and newer suburbs).

The tiny villages and regional and rural towns were very traditional as expected. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that this was the real Morocco, but I definitely felt like I understood the country and its people better in these smaller places. And apart from the slight feeling of indifference we felt in Sidi Ifni, we were always welcomed and at ease in even the smallest of villages.

Of all the places we visited, Fes was probably the only place we got hassled and pestered to buy stuff. But even then, the touts and hasslers were quite tame compared to other places we’ve visited, and they certainly weren’t as bad as the media makes them out to be.

Morocco is being listed on many ‘must-travel’ lists, and the tourist numbers have increased dramatically in recent times. Apart from the medinas in Fes, Chefchaouen, Marrakesh and Essaouira, we didn’t feel swamped by tourism. But even in these cities, we found that we could turn a corner from the popular sites and be in very quiet local areas. Outside of these cities, we were often the only tourists around, especially in Berber mountain villages, on deserted Atlantic beaches and in the far-flung desert outposts.

The Architecture and Design
I love getting to know a country through its architecture and design. The unique mixture of Islamic and Moroccan architecture that we constantly encountered gave me a much better understanding of the history of the country, and it also gave me a retrospectively deeper understanding of the ‘Moorish’ architecture I love in southern Spain.

I loved the iconic Moroccan horseshoe arches (also called the Moorish arch, or keyhole arch) in so many buildings we visited. I was also blown away by the intricate craftsmanship involved in the zouak (painted wood ceilings), muqarnas (moulded plaster) and zellij (mosaic ceramic tiles). I have always loved beautiful tiles, but the mosaic tiles in Morocco are on a different level… and tiling is a skill in high demand!

I was quite surprised by the number of beautiful French Art Deco buildings that have survived in cities like Casablanca. And I enjoyed my introduction to the uniquely Moroccan Mauresque architecture which blends traditional Moroccan designs and symbols with European architectural forms.

In the south, I appreciated exploring the centuries old mud brick kasbahs and ksars. The fortification aspect was a key feature – built with high walls, few exterior windows and often within walled medinas or on hilltops to provide greater security from attacks. I was fascinated that these mud buildings have (with some restoration help) stood the test of time. The natural building materials as well as the building design helps to keep the building warm in winter and cool in summer.

We also enjoyed discovering the various designs and styles of the high walled medinas. They were fascinating ecosystems which incorporated highly commercial souqs, residential buildings (such as riads or dars), local mosques, schools, hammams (traditional bathhouses) and bakeries for each district within the medina. The streets were very narrow, as space within the walls was valuable (and the only modes of transport back then were donkeys and carts). Even now, they still have limited car access, but motorbikes and bicycles whiz by in an unnerving manner. They were the centre of ancient everyday life, and they still remain so in many cities.

The Weather
It wasn’t an easy task to pick a good time to visit Morocco that suited its multiple climate zones across the Sahara Desert, the Riff Mountains, the Atlas Mountains and the coastlines of the Atlantic Ocean. The weather varied wildly according to the season and areas we were planning to explore. For the best experience at most of the destinations we wanted to visit, we narrowed it down to April (not too cold in the north and not too hot in the south and the desert).

Apart from our first couple of sunshiny days in Casablanca, we weren’t lucky with the weather on the northern part of our trip – it was unseasonably rainy and cold. But we persevered and were thankful we had brought some warm clothes for the mountains.

The southern parts of the trip had a few rainy days, but mostly offered those clear blue sky days that I absolutely love when we travel. By the time we ended our trip in Marrakesh in late April, summer had definitely set in, with the temperature determinedly climbing.

If I had a magic wand, the only things I would change about our trip was the rain in the early part of trip, and Andrew and I getting sick with a cough and cold for over a week each. Both these things are part and parcel of travel, and not really worth dwelling on.

Morocco is constantly referred to as a cold country with a hot sun, and this turned out to be more than just one of those sayings! It was a very accurate climate warning that I should have heeded with more care!

The Landscapes
It felt like each new day brought us a new impossibly photogenic landscape, in new colours and with new textures. We were presented with extraordinary diversity – from epic snow-capped Atlas Mountains, to soft red earth valleys, to hard brown rock-strewn plains, to sweeping Sahara desert sands, to low-lying granite and sandstone Anti-Atlas massifs, to windy coastlines and sandy beaches.

Even though we knew we were facing long travel days criss-crossing the country, I had truly underestimated the distances we were going to be covering on the trip. Thankfully Morocco is starting to invest heavily in its roads and railways – so the majority of our journeys were very comfortable.

The People and the Culture
The Moroccan culture is vast – there are many languages, millennia of history and countless narratives. With civilisations such as the Romans and Arabs stomping their feet through this land, followed by the Spanish and French, the original Berber culture has been variously influenced, most noticeably in the cities. When we ventured inland, ancient Moroccan Berber language, traditions and customs still held full sway (most likely due to isolated populations living in mountainous landscapes). There seems to be a movement to preserve the Berber culture and have its languages more widely used (over French and Arabic).

Everyone we met – from hotel staff to guesthouse owners to minibus drivers – seemed genuinely happy to have us there, and proudly shared their country with us. The nature of being a tourist means that we mainly associate with locals in the tourist and services industries, and we have to make an effort to connect with anyone outside these. And without fail, everyone we met outside these industries were extremely welcoming of us too. They had great attitudes and offered us warm hospitality.

It took a bit of getting used to the fact that there were very few women working in the service industries and in public life in general. The first time we walked into a cafe, I was a bit taken aback that I was the only female there, but it was never an issue and we were always made to feel very welcome.

The local djellabas (traditional long hooded robes) were a new and curious item of clothing for us when we first arrived in Morocco. They were usually in dark colours and looked like Harry Potter-esque wizarding robes to me, but some cities had creamy coloured versions that looked scarily like KKK robes when the pointy hood was worn! We were so taken with them that Andrew bought one, and loved wearing it during winter weather at home.

The Animals
Beasts of burden like donkeys, mules (burros) and horses are still widely used in Morocco. They are mostly used in the regional and rural areas, but also exist in great numbers in the cities for use in the narrow streets of the medinas where vehicles can’t fit. Camels (dromedaries, not Bactrian camels) are very much used for transport in hot dry lands, but also utilised for meat, milk and skin (for textiles and leather).

I gained a huge insight into donkeys and camels on this trip. There were a large number of healthy looking animals who were clearly well looked after, but there were also countless donkeys and mules in poor condition who were being worked to death. I really struggled with this.

Being a Muslim country, there were very few dogs around (they believe dogs are unclean creatures), but a few towns and cities had lots of cats – Chefchaouen and Essaouira being the notable two. While the cats weren’t always in good condition, they were mostly well fed. I judge a country by how they treat their animals, and the friendly cats were a good sign. 😊

The Food and Drink
Let me be honest, carbs take centre stage in the Moroccan diet. Everything comes with bread, and Khalid (our group leader) joked that even bread comes with a side order of bread! Starting with breakfast, there were so many variations of bread, pancakes, pastries and cakes to try! Lunch and dinner involved more bread, and possibly couscous.

After trying all the Moroccan breads and carb offerings (and there were many!), I decided that my most favourite was msemen (flaky Moroccan flatbread). I loved having this with fresh butter and dark Moroccan honey.

The other two favourite food groups in Morocco are sugar and meat! Vegetarians/vegans and those on a sugar-free diet would struggle in Morocco. By the end of our travels I was so so so looking forward to having lighter and fresher meals. Having said that, the food was excellent, and we only had a handful of meals that weren’t great.

Before our trip, I kept reading that many people got tired of tagines and couscous… but that never happened to us! All the tagines were similar in nature (in that it’s a stewed meal), but every single tagine we had was different in flavour. My favourites were the chicken tagines with preserved lemon and olives, and the variety of seafood tagines. Andrew’s most favourite was the kefta tagine (meatballs in a tomato sauce with eggs poached on top). My overall favourite Moroccan dish was the fluffy Berber omelette! Berber omelettes are cooked in a tajine, which makes the egg fluffy on top and crispy on the bottom. They came with a variety of toppings, depending on the region of the country.

When researching this trip, I came across two food items I thought I would love… but in reality, I didn’t (despite multiple tries). The first was amlou (an oily spread made with ground almonds, argan oil and honey). I really should have loved this, but it had a somewhat sap-like aftertaste and gummy texture. I also thought I’d love briouats (variously shaped fried or baked savoury filo pastry parcels stuffed with chicken, beef or seafood). We tried them a few times, and always found them to be weirdly tasteless.

I loved the avocado smoothies. They were usually blended with milk or orange juice, and I often chose the orange juice option which was slightly sweeter and quite delicious. The smoothies also had additions of almonds or dates, depending on the region.

We were also completely in love with the taste and cultural significance of the aromatic mint tea. It was served as a welcome drink, an appetiser in restaurants, a healing drink for dodgy stomachs or a cooling tisane for overheated bodies… but most of all it was a sign of friendship. To take mint tea together in Moroccan culture is akin to breaking bread together in others.

If you read any of our blogs from this trip, you’d know we had mint tea at every opportunity. We ordered it with most meals, and also had it in-between meals with those heavenly Moroccan biscuits and pastries filled with almond paste and orange blossom. I’m fairly sure I drank more than my body weight in mint tea over those few weeks!

The proof they say, is in the pudding… and the fact that I came back home four kilos heavier tells the story of how delicious the food was (and how carb and sugar heavy the meals really were!). It was the most weight I’d ever gained on a holiday!

My Final thoughts
It didn’t take me long to fall deeply in love with Morocco. On our first day in Casablanca, the sun was setting over the sea, turning the sky purple and pink as we walked along the seafront promenade. The energy of the city buzzed around us – locals jogging, children cycling, families buying ice cream, teens playing basketball. It was at this very moment that I realised I was falling in love with Casablanca, and over the days, that feeling translated into a love for the whole country.

Morocco was an absolute feast for the senses, and every single one our senses was bombarded from the moment we landed in Casablanca to our last day in Marrakesh four weeks later.

My richest experiences in a country, as always, are the vivid sensory ones…
• the lyrical call to prayer from minarets
• the guttural Arabic and graceful Berber spoken in the markets
• the sinuous Berber and joyous Gnaoua music played for us
• the coarse scrub of olive soap in a hamman
• the eye-wateringly sharp stench from the pits in the leather tanneries
• the confronting view of butchered carcases hanging on colossal hooks
• the doleful eyes of a camel as it blinked away sandy winds
• the squelch of Sahara sand underfoot
• the silence of the vast sand dunes
• the tranquillity of a riad’s internal courtyard
• the hulk of jagged mountains
• the rugged valleys tamed with lines of olive trees
• the fluttering pink of almond blossom against dirty brown earth
• the spikey argan trees heavy with bright green fruit
• the grit of thick sea winds
• the warmth of turreted mud fortresses lining the sun-baked roads
• the smooth resilience of old city mud walls
• the lost-ness in twisting alleyways of ancient medinas
• the precision of colourful geometric tiles
• the smell of baking bread hanging heavy in the morning air
• the gurgling of mint tea being poured from height into delicate painted glasses
• the scent of orange blossom and rose water wafting out of bakery windows
• the sizzle of meat skewers in street stalls
• the drool-inducing aroma of spices from steaming tajines... I could seriously go on and on...

We went to Morocco with the simple wish of eating tajines and drinking mint tea in bustling ancient medinas… but we came back home filled with beautiful memories of so many unique experiences that we hadn’t anticipated. It really was an extraordinary, once in a lifetime trip!

We will hold these beautiful memories close to our hearts for a long time.

Bsslama people, and may all your travel experiences be extraordinary! 😊



Flying ships on this trip...
Virgin Airlines (Hobart – Melbourne) ;
Qatar Airways (Melbourne – Doha – London);
Air Maroc (London – Casablanca);
Qatar Airways (Marrakesh – Doha – Sydney);
Virgin Airlines (Sydney – Hobart).

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22nd December 2019

Bravo
Thank you again for the armchair travels. Much enjoyed indeed.
22nd December 2019

Re: Bravo
Thank you again Chris. We have appreciated you following our trip, and your comments. :)
31st December 2019

What a trip!
Thanks for taking us along on your Morocco travels! It brought back nice memories of our trip, and it was fun to read about places we didn't go to. Great blog as usual :)
1st January 2020

Re: What a trip!
Thanks for reading and commenting Lori, especially as this was a long trip! It was the first time in all our travels that we managed to experience every single of the highlights mentioned in the front part of the Lonely Planet Guide (by total coincidence through). It was one of our best trips yet, and we have such great memories of it :)
2nd January 2020

Travel for the soul
Sounds like you had a terrific trip. Thanks for taking us along.
5th January 2020

Re: Travel for the soul
We had a seriously fabulous trip! Thanks for reading and commenting :)
5th January 2020

Summary of travel
We have just returned from our Intrepid trip in Morocco and we agree with so many of your reflections. The biggest difference being that our guide was quite young and green. Regardless of this, we were honoured to personally experience the geography, food and hospitality we had read about. Where are to next?
6th January 2020

Re: Summary of travel
Hi Brodie. I'm sorry to hear about your guide, but glad that you had a lovely trip regardless. It really was such a diverse travel experience :)
5th January 2020

Beautiful country
A great posting with beautiful pictures. Do you remember the old parts of Maiduguri looks like some of this?
6th January 2020

Re: Beautiful country
Thanks Usman! Yes it had been a while since I'd seen whole villages of mud brick buildings, and I'd forgotten how cool and comfortable the interior of those buildings are. :)

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