Here’s looking at you, Morocco!

“Don’t bother visiting Casablanca,” said the travel bloggers, “It’s just a political hub and not worth seeing other than perhaps the Mosque.” 
“You can give Tangier a skip – it’s run-down and there’s little to see”. 
“Rabat is easily missable, it’s just another capital city.” 
“Marrakesh. Meh…overrun by tourists and tauts.”

I’m grateful for this mis-guidance because it meant that we approached Morocco with minimal expectations and ended up enjoying a series of exciting surprises:

🐪The edgy and decaying glamour of Casablanca intrigued us with her shabby art-deco buildings, bustling Grand Marché and inspiring Mosque
🐪We were completely seduced by the pristine and exquisitely maintained capital city of Rabat where we whizzed around on an eco-bike. 
🐪The dazzling, semi-seedy, tourist town of Tangier lured us in and rewarded us with one of the best meals of our trip. 
🐪The charming, blue mountain-top village of Chefchaouen belied it’s Instagram ‘influencer’ status and for us remained unspoiled and quiet, as well as a haven for cat photography. 
🐪The ancient labyrinth of Fés confounded us with its alleys, historic craftsmanship and fascinating architecture. 
🐪The magical madness and unexpected sophistication of Marrakesh was delightful, colourful and left an indelible impression on all five senses. 
🐪We adored the refreshing coastal fishing town of Essouira, the soaring seagulls, dramatic ramparts and iconic blue fishing boats. 
🐪The continuously contrasting terrains of ocean, mountain peaks/valleys/gorges, verdant oases, cities and desert made the road-trip (that we were warned against) doubly appreciated. 

Morocco is a vast and varied territory that was only relatively recently united into a modern nation state. Its long history records a struggle for ascendancy between the Berber tribes of the mountains and the Arabs of the plains, the rise and fall of powerful dynasties, the creation and collapse of mighty empires, and, from the 18th century, manipulation and exploitation by European powers seeking to expand their empires.

In the 7th and 8th centuries Arabs introduced Islam to Morocco, and the great Arab dynasties began to rule over vast swathes of the Maghreb and Spain.

In the “last scramble for Africa” at the beginning of the 20th century, Britain, France, Germany and Spain vied with one another to dominate Morocco, one of few remaining parts of the continent outside the colonial grasp. With France and Spain’s occupation of Morocco, resentment of foreign rule simmered for 40 years until the country’s independence was regained in 1956.

The elation felt at independence soon gave way to rivalries and insurrection. Following the death of Hassan II and the crowning of a new, young king, Morocco entered into a new era – of hope and change. Today, with the effects of the Arab Spring being felt throughout the region, King Mohammed VI understands the need for reform, and a new constitution is being drafted which aims to devolve roughly half the king’s powers to a prime minister elected by the Moroccan people. (Insight

A new family code – the Moudawana – was unanimously adopted by the Moroccan parliament in February 2004. The new law is a landmark reform of the status of Moroccan women as it puts them on equal footing with men in regard to marriage and children.
The new code places the family under the joint responsibility of the husband and the wife instead of the husband only and curbs the submission of women to the guardianship of a male member of the family. Men may no longer practice polygamy.

Although we were going to have a shot at seeing most of the country as thoroughly as you can in just under 3 weeks (we knew we couldn’t assume we’d be able to return soon) we‘ve never been attracted to the overly ‘touristy’ attractions, preferring to seek out the true essence of a place, it’s people, it’s food, possibly a street or two off the beaten track. This meant that we were unlikely to ride camels in the Sahara, visit the snake charmers in Jemaa el-Fna, or learn to cook a basic chicken tajine in Fès. But we were overwhelmed with all that there was to explore!

Morocco’s breath-taking diversity of primeval cultures can make you feel like you’ve been transported into a tale from the “1001 Arabian Nights”. One day we were walking the alleyways of a medieval medina, dodging donkeys carrying their loads to market. Another, quietly sipping mint tea on a rooftop listening to the wistful chant calling people to prayer, infusing the air with something primordial, something timeless. Next we took a bullet train to visit the kasbah of a prehistoric city. Then we were watching the sun sink below the most inhospitable desert in the world as caravans of camels headed out for stargazing. A day or two later we were racing along an endless stretch of beach on quad bikes, surfing the dunes and smelling the fresh Atlantic air. 

Above: Mint tea on a Chefchaouen roof terrace; Camels heading out to overnight in the Sahara; Quad-biking in Essaouira; Festive evenings in Marrakesh; The splendour of the Hassan 11 Mosque in Casablanca

Morocco has a population of almost 38 million people. They are extremely welcoming and friendly. Occasionally, a bit too friendly. Having survived the persistence and sometimes downright trickery of the tauts in Egypt, India, Thailand and Turkey, we were ever-vigilant for a potential scam and felt a little bad that we treated everyone with suspicion. The second we let our guard down though, we found ourselves disappointed. Like the lovely guy we met in Fès. We’d already paid to park our car. Perhaps the young man genuinely wanted to practice his English as he said? 10 sentences in and he was persuading us to buy olive oil from his family farm and we were trying to back out politely. It is disappointing that there is never an innocent or casual conversation. It irks me that when someone speaks to me I’m wondering what they want…
Then there are the inexplicable few that try to convince the tourist he is going in the wrong direction. “You must go the other way.” or “Follow me.” And how angry they become when you say “Non, mercy.” How the hell do you know where I want to go in the first place?  is the sentence that threatens to burst from my irritated core. And God help you if you stop to consult a map or your GPS. Its an invitation to be swarmed!

Another favourite is to be told that a tourist destination is closed or some other nonsense. This is because everyone is a tour guide. Any random person  tries to insist that you follow him. Unless you are very clear that you are absolutely not playing this game, your silence is taken for acquiescence and your “guide” will repeatedly materialise a few turns ahead, grinning at you like the Cheshire Cat, anticipating your next move and ready to self-righteously claim a tip for “showing” you the way. Annoying doesn’t begin to describe the feeling. 😡

One of the more ridiculous examples of this was when we were driving into Fès and slowing down in anticipation of our turn in accordance with the directions we had from our hotel. A motorcyclist banged on our car shouting, “Follow me!” He became quite outraged when we waved him away, and yelled at Geoff to “Smile!” and “Don’t be a racist!” Really…!

Despite this we discovered that tour guiding is a strictly regulated profession in Morocco and is subject to complex and actively enforced rules. Tour guides have to be licensed and display their credentials. A police campaign to arrest fake tourist guides began in January 2022 with the aim of protecting tourists from illegally ‘guiding’ and mostly harassing tourists as they strolled through the tourist sites and hotels of the city. The increase in this phenomenon is thought to be one of the reasons that the number of tourists visiting Morocco had decreased in recent years and the country has stepped up its efforts to attract a large number of tourists back to the country. Its hard to imagine how it must have been before they tightened up on legislation.

The route we followed, heading north from Casablanca and the clockwise returning to Casablanca once again

Practically all Moroccans are bilingual. The official languages of Morocco are Arabic and the indigenous Berber dialects. Arabic is the language used for business. French is a second language for roughly a third of the population. It was introduced as the language of government and education in 1912 but today it is still widely used. Spanish is spoken somewhat in the north of the country. English is becoming more popular as it is viewed as more international. Young Moroccans are apparently opting to learn English and it is now an option in schools since 2002.

One of our primary joys during travelling is to take pictures. (As an illustration of this passion – we took approximately 5000 pictures in our 2.5 week holiday!) It is extremely difficult to take photographs in Morocco. I’m not even talking about taking portraits of people. We strolled through the souqs, camera in hand looking for that ‘opportune moment’, only to notice that the people around us anticipate the camera lens from a mile away and quickly cover their face, turn away sharply, or say “no photo!” This when you haven’t even raised the camera to your eye.

Dude, I’m only interested in your donkey – not you! 

We were led to believe that this attitude has a lot to do with a perception of privacy embedded in the culture dating back thousands of years. Which I would buy, if it wasn’t also explained that offering a tip usually makes people surprisingly amenable to having their picture taken. Either way, mindful of being respectful, we learnt to be extremely discreet and even downright sneaky in capturing a shot without being seen. (Our pictures are also not for commercial use).

Luckily most of our hotels offered the service of porters who were willing to haul our bags in a trolley for a reasonable tip.

We had booked all our accommodation inside the walled old Medinas of the cities. No cars or taxis are allowed in the Medinas, which meant that we had to take our bags and walk to our accommodation after parking at an overnight garage area which could be an old building, or a simply a boomed-off dusty lot. 

When you leave your vehicle you are required to keep the steering wheel unlocked and the handbrake off. It’s a bit startling to find your car two days later - a fair distance from where you left it. We often expressed relief that we’d taken out fully comprehensive insurance!

We loved the old Medinas (the sights, the colors, the sounds, and smells), even though it can be overwhelming. The notorious ritual of haggling wasn’t as bad as we anticipated, but still we didn’t buy much. We prefer to window shop and rather spend our money on experiences and good food rather than souvenirs. Also, all spontaneous purchases are ruled out when for example you spot a lovely silk scarf and enquire “How much is this please?” only to get the response “Where you from?” or “How many colours you buy?” or even worse, “Come in, you try on!” We ended up avoiding a particular street all because of a particularly pushy pottery salesman. And ironically we were really interested in some of his wares. It was all too much hard work. Which is why, I tend to turn away before we’ve even begun the negotiation process. Except for food. Food is not a negotiation thank goodness. The olives, nuts, or dates on display have a clearly marked price per kg and the vendors are generous about offering you a taste before you choose. We bought a lot of food 😁.

Morocco varies greatly region by region. That’s what makes it such a diverse holiday destination. What you experience in one part of the country may be completely different from another area only 100 kilometers away. You can go snow-skiing in the Rif mountains, camel-trekking in Merzouga, and quad-biking on the the dunes near Essouira. In the north there is a greater Spanish influence felt, due to the proximity to Spain (only 14km) away. Shop keepers assumed we spoke Spanish before reverting to French.

The architectural style of Morocco is as diverse as the countryside. It is a tapestry of influences developed over the centuries, incorporating Berber, Islamic, Spanish, French styles.

Casablanca has an architectural style known as Mauresque. This style is a blend of traditional Moroccan design with the more liberal influences of early-20th-century Europe. By the 1930s, Mauresque architecture began to reflect the Parisian Art Deco style, characterized by ornate wrought-iron balconies, staircases, and windows; carved facades and friezes; and rounded, rather than straight, exterior corners.

The post office building in Casablanca

Tangier and Chefchaouen are influenced by Andalusian architecture which uses curved bricks to form the arches that strengthen the buildings and decorate the narrow alleyways. The presence of Spanish influence is one of the defining traits of Moroccan architecture

The Hispano-Moorish style also features prominently in Moroccan architecture. Its main design elements include sharp white walls, stucco roofs among the arches, and large domes. Some very clearly Spanish influences include the white, stucco walls and red-tiled roofs that can now be found across most parts of Morocco. In addition, the exposure to Spanish architecture also introduced more European styles of arches into Morocco. The blending of European and Islamic arches can be seen in the keyhole-shaped Moorish arch.

Arches and curved doorways in Casablanca

In the early 20th century, France occupied Morocco and began colonising it. As a result, French architectural elements were tossed into the blender and are still found throughout Morocco.

Some of the longest standing structures that have survived the centuries well are Berber designs using mud bricks as the dominant architectural material. Known as pisé in French, the solid, imposing look created from this material is seen across Morocco.

Islamic architecture is the most visible element of Moroccan architecture to this day.

It is characterized by intricate geometric patterns, ornate tiles or woodwork, and decorative calligraphy, elaborate ornamentation. Islamic architecture tends to be highly decorative, but also very consciously laid out. The courtyard layout is common in both ancient palaces and everyday homes, called riads or dar, reflecting a clear division between places of public and private interaction. Entryways with Islamic, horseshoe arches welcome you into these spaces.

Apart from these elements, Mosques are an ubiquitous features of Moroccan skylines. They are found in every city and even the smallest village, identifiable by Islamic-style domes and sky-high minarets. The Islamic powers who introduced the religion to Morocco arrived amidst an era of perpetual warfare, and as a result many Moroccan cities are also surrounded by impressive defensive walls.

The grand defensive walls that surround Essaouira. It makes the city cooler by creating shade.

Green roof tiles are an important element in Fassi architecture and are often seen atop mosques and places of learning like the University of Al-Karaouine in Fés.

In the Medina, we observed that there are no proper outward facing balconies: all terraces face inwards, in fact, you won’t even find two doors facing each other. This is designed to protect the privacy of the family, particularly the modesty of the women folk.

This beautifully tiled fountain in Nejjarine Fondouk dates back to the 18th century

And then after centuries of sophisticated design we came across this nomad settlement on a deserted beach south of Essouira…

To this day, Moroccans still wear the clothing that their ancestors wore centuries ago. Ladies of all social classes wear flowing kaftans in different weights of fabric depending on the weather. The dress is loose fitting and modest and can be embellished for more formal occasions. During the French and Spanish colonisation there was a move to more western styles of dressing, but recently the youth are embracing these traditional styles once again.

Men generally wear a long, hooded robe known as djellabas, made from wool or cotton, depending on the season. The pointy hood, called a qob serves as protection against sand and wind but is also traditionally used to carry a loaf of bread or small parcel.

Qandrissi trousers, or Ali Baba pants are worn by both men and women and have been embraced by tourists as they are and easy to wash and wear. Geoff bought into this fashion and pronounced his “pyjama” pants as superbly comfortable and cool.

Traditional Berber garments and headdress
Ladies formal wear gowns
Colourful leather slip-on babouches

You can read about my experiences of the cats in Morocco here. But don’t get me started on the donkeys. I’ve never seen so many donkeys in my life. They are everywhere in the country, moving people and things within and between cities and towns, defying the wave of modernity that is flowing swiftly across the country. My heart aches for these gentle beasts of burden, their attitude of patient resignation coupled with a sad expression of fatigue and perhaps even despair. I think that they are treated reasonably well as they are valued not as pets, but as important ‘equipment’ much like a tractor or bakkie.

Both donkeys and mules are an integral part of Moroccan daily life. They pull irrigation machines and plows on the land, they toil beneath bricks and bags of cement in the Medinas. Carts hurtle on the shoulder of the road, loaded with entire families or bulging burlap bags, animal feed, boxes and other goods. Daily, they haul gallons of water, firewood and deliver children to and from school. I hope there is a very special place for donkeys on the other side of the rainbow bridge.

As we headed towards our final destination of Casablanca, I reflected on how I would describe this interesting country. Africa but not fully African; Middle-eastern, but not entirely. A touch of Europe but also very different to Europe.

Dramatic, majestic, simplistic, vibrant, ancient, modern, unique — these are some of the contradictory thoughts I had as we traversed the cities, the highways, the trains, the mountains, the desert, the lush palmaries and the sweeping coastline – all across this tip of North-West Africa. 




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