Somehow, Morocco has always seemed like an exotic and faraway place. It has more UNESCO world heritage sites than a country deserves to have. Besides amazing medieval cities, deserts, Islamic art and architecture, the food itself is reason enough to visit Morocco.
And yes, Morocco is far. With no direct flight from Malaysia to Morocco, economy class seats plus transit time does make the journey into a once-in-a-lifetime undertaking. Etihad airline offered the best deal at the lowest price with the shortest transit time.
Morocco is a French-speaking country. Very few people speak English. That, plus the volatile security situation in that part of world drove us to join a tour for the first time in over ten years. At least 15 days is needed to really appreciate the country. However, the ones offered from Malaysia are ten days maximum, inclusive of flight time. If you want to extend your stay, a hefty sum is levied just for deviating from the set itinerary. In the end, we decided to just be part of the flock of sheep on the tour.
It was advertised as a muslim tour. Since Morocco is a muslim country and all food is halal, why single it out as a muslim tour? Difference is allowances are made for prayers so activities and sights are arranged around prayer times. Non-muslims will have to bear in mind that there will be waiting around.
As this was a whirlwind tour, my experience is not as detailed as I would have liked. Many interesting places have been left out.
We seemed to visit palace after palace on the tour but then, the King does have palaces at all the major cities. Morocco takes its security seriously given its location and history. All over the country, uniformed men from different security details stood guard. We were continually reminded by the local guide not to take their photo.
The sights are interesting and so are the people. In this world of social media and selfie stick, the temptations are everywhere to take that shot – Berbers in their traditional attire in the Atlas mountains, tradesmen bent over their metal and mosaic craft, colourful market stalls piled high with spices, olives, fruits and bread.
But if you don’t want a Moroccan gesturing angrily at you, ask for permission first. Money does go a long way towards getting that approval.
The vendors at the souk in Djemma el Fna in Marrakech are very persistent. You are welcomed into the shop like royalty. Since price tags are unheard of, you have no choice but to ask the shopkeeper for the price. The minute you do, you are in for a spell, a long spell in the shop, to be broken only after you have made a purchase or make a sudden dash for freedom. The stress from the persistence of the shopkeepers got too much.
Morocco adopts a closed currency system. The Moroccan dirham is not traded outside of Morocco. Take Euro or US dollars with you to exchange in Morocco. At the end of your trip, change back your dirham at the money changer in Morocco before you leave.
Casablanca is the main gateway to Morocco. It is the biggest city and the commercial centre of Morocco. Banish all romantic thoughts of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The actual Casablanca is chaotic and has a run-down look about it. But if you insist on a sprinkling of star dust, there is a Rick’s Cafe, the brainchild of a former American diplomat which opened in 2004. The main sight in Casablanca is the huge Hassan II mosque. It is impressive but costs an expensive €12 to enter, unless you are a muslim going in to pray.
The Habbous district and the Mahkama du Pacha are good introduction to Moroccan architecture and art. The Place Mohamed V is the focal point for the locals. However, the square itself was nothing special, crowded with people and pigeons.
Rabat, Meknes and Volubilis
Rabat is the capital where foreign embassies are based. Perhaps that is why Rabat felt clean and orderly after the chaos of Casablanca. The Oudaya Kasbah on a hilltop is a charming attraction. All the buildings in the Kasbah are painted white and blue. After wandering around the alleyways, an Andalucian garden near the exit, which is a miniature of the Alhambra in Spanish Granada provides a tranquil rest from the heat.
Other places of note in Rabat include the Mausoleum of Mohammad V and Hassan Tower which are next to each other. The white marble Mausoleum is a beautiful example of modern Alaouite architecture. The other bonus of visiting the mausoleum is you are allowed to take photos of guards on horseback at the entrances. They are probably the only uniformed people you can take pictures with.
From Rabat, you will pass through Meknes on the way to Volubilis and Fes. It is famous for the Bab Mansour gate. The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is another attraction but it was closed when we were there. The medina has a lot of fresh fruit stalls. If you are squeamish, avoid the meat section. Goats and cows sans body abound.
After Meknes is Volubilis, the site of Roman ruins. It is quite well-preserved and fine mosaics in colour can still be seen.
Going into Fes is like stepping into an ancient world. The old medina is a bustling warren of shops, mosques, workshops and madrassas. Whenever you turn a corner, a beautiful ornately carved door or colourful tiles may surprise you amidst the crumbling earthen colours of the walls. You can easily get hopelessly lost inside without a guide. There is no map and I doubt even if one exists you will be able to find your way around.
There are many places of interest in the medina, which include the University of al-Karaouine, Bou Inania Madrassa and Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts. The Chaouwara tanneries with its colourful vats of dye appear in most promotional materials on Fes and Morocco. When we were there, restoration and upgrading works were in full swing. Empty vats equal no colour and no smell. To have the best view of the tanneries, go into a leather shop and the top floor will have a terrace to look out from.
Through the Atlas Mountains and Quarzazate
Heading towards Marrakech involves crossing over the Atlas Mountains. The landscape becomes stark and the people more conservative. Desert country beckons. Some tours include a romantic night sleeping in tents amongst the camels and the stars. Not for me. These old bones are not made for thin mattresses and basic amenities. Ksar Bicha in Merzouga with its rustic furnishings and piles of rugs was a much better choice. Wifi was surprisingly good too! Early in the morning, we went a short distance to see the sun rise from the sand dunes. Along the way, we passed by the tents erected for tourists to stay overnight.
The Ksar Ait Benhaddoun, a mud construction on a hilltop is impressively beautiful. No wonder it has been featured in so many movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, The Jewel of the Nile and Gladiators.
Other interesting sites include the Draa valley with date palm trees, the Todra Gorge, and the Kasbah Taourirt in Quarzazate. On the road of a thousand Kasbahs, statues of Egyptian pharaohs watch over movie sets. Buy yourself a prehistoric souvenir in the form of million year old fossils. Don’t forget to order a trout (or two) in Midelt. Delicious!
You can sense that Marrakech is different from the other imperial cities the minute you enter. The usual palace, madrassas, medina, tombs are all there. But here, it felt like a garden city with olive trees and rose bushes lining the streets. There are a lot more luxury hotels and tourists, tourists and tourists. New shopping malls are filled with young Moroccans in stylish western attire. This is particularly striking having just left the countryside where the people are conservatively covered up.
The most famous place in Marrakech is the Place Jemaa el Fna. It is a square with performers and food stalls. Travel documentaries rapturise about the Jemaa al Fna with tales of snake charmers, singing troupes, dancers and hot food steaming in the air. Our excitement at its height, we went after sunset when all the action is supposed to happen. We were left disappointed. It is still a good place to visit but it was a lot smaller than what we had imagined. We didn’t see any snake charmers. Singing bands dominated the scene. Dancing was lead by lady boy dancers who were not as good as those in Egypt and Turkey. As for the food stalls, they were mainly selling snails, skewers, sausages, soup, fruit juice and dried fruits and nuts. We thought the prices were steep for street food since we could have got the same in a nice restaurant at the same price.
Surrounding the square is the souk where you can find plenty of souvenirs, Moroccan lamps and leather goods. Unlike Fes which has a character all its own with its crumbling ancient world attractiveness, this souk is more recent and the alleys are wider. Bargain away! A Moroccan lamp quoted at 800MAD was finally sold to us at 200MAD. The shopkeepers are extremely friendly but beware! Behind the friendly smile is a persistent take-no-prisoner man of steel. Typical opening line goes like this: “Hello, where are you from?” “Timbuktu”. “Lovely place, Timbuktu. Welcome to Morocco. We like Timbuktoons. Muslim? I give you special price. For Timbuktoons.”
Moroccan food is good! The tagines are the most famous and rightly so with meat that is tender, succulent and flavourful due to the style of cooking and spices used. Meals are normally served with bread and platters of olives and salads. Fruits are also plentiful – apples and pomegranates were in season at the time of our visit.
Most tours do not include meals, especially lunch. It is ostensibly to reduce the price of your tour and you get to choose what you wish to eat. The reality is oh so far from the spin. The tour stops at specific restaurants and the only choice you have is which set meal to take. It is not practical to look for your own eatery as there is not enough time to wander around.
Note: I must thank my fellow tour mates, most likely Warda, Julie and Norma who have contributed their photos.