Well, I finally did it. I made it to my sixth continent – Africa! Though it wasn’t the safari I’ve long been dreaming of (short on funds and time for that one this time around), it was still an African adventure as I explored my way around Morocco.
Arriving in Casablanca, I headed straight for Marrakech where it quickly became apparent that this way to be quite the adventure as it took 35 minutes and 4 locals to help find my accommodation in the medina! And Marrakech’s medina, old city, is a bit different from other cities as cars are permitted on some of the streets. But it’s not the cars to look out for, it’s the motorbikes! They do not stop for anything nor anyone!
You cannot say that you’ve had the Moroccan experience until you’ve visited the souks – marketplace. You can explore the souks with a guide or you can enter the maze to explore and barter on your own. I opted for going solo. Locals said I was strong for doing so while my friends said crazy. I think a little bit of both is necessary. When exploring on your own in the old city, you need to be prepared to get lost as it will happen. With the streets so narrow and winding, you easily lose all sense of direction. And let me tell you, I got spectacularly lost! I spent a good 1.5 hours walking around a part of Marrakech that I’m sure no other tourist has ever set foot in! It was truly interesting to see the more genuine way of life for the locals, but after a while, I was more focused on trying to find a street I recognized so I could make my way back to the city center. The curious thing is that in the tourist areas, locals will try to stop and talk to you or point you in the direction of the main square (even if you are not heading that way), but in the local part of town, I was undisturbed the entire time.
The highlights for me were Medersa Ben Youssef, where Moroccan architecture and design is in its full glory and the Jardin Marjorelle, in the new part of town, where you will not find a better museum, though it is small, dedicated to the Berber culture/heritage of Morocco. And you cannot leave Marrakech without braving the crowds of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square. I walked through the square early in the morning (9 am is early in Morocco), to get a sense of the size. All was quiet with only the orange juice vendors calling out for your custom. But the square is completely transformed as dusk descends. The crowds, food stalls, dancers, storytellers, vendors, and snake charmers all combine to make the square a pulsing heartbeat.
To take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, I did a small tour to the Atlas Mountains. If it wasn’t winter, I’d certainly spend more time on the many trails if there wasn’t so much snow. A beautiful area and an amazing introduction to the landscape of Morocco. Though I knew Morocco was not all desert, I was not expecting all the flora and green! Morocco is beautiful!
And who could go to Morocco and not visit the Sahara Desert? Well, not me. The orange sea of sand dunes as the sun set seemed never ending. Sunset, from a top a dune, is just a beautiful moment. And as night fell, the number of stars up above – what a sight! In the early morning, the stillness of the desert air as you took in sunrise was serene with the color leaving the sand to put on a show in the sky.
The remainder of my trip was based out of Fes, where the streets are much calmer than in Marrakech and the people are just the nicest and most genuine people you will ever meet. If you want to impress your hosts, learn a few words in Arabic (I left with a vocabulary of 8 sayings in Arabic), but you can get by nicely with French. A day trip out to the city of Chefchaouen, where the buildings are bathed in blue, took me through the agricultural heartland of Morocco as well as the Rif Mountains. What an area of the greenest wheat fields you will ever see! And Chefchaouen is a city best wandered around with no map. To just amble about seeing where the streets lead you without knowing what you’ll find is a very relaxing day out. A main highlight of the entire trip, for me, was exploring the Roman ruins at Volubilis. Not a large site, but large enough that I could explore every facet of the ruins, from the Triumphal Arch to the basilica and the many mosaics, without overlooking anything.
Staying in the medina in both cities, mornings always started off with the first call to prayer where the overlapping calls from each mosque created an oddly beautiful song. To me, this was Morocco, and something I miss dearly.