On returning to Durham university after a year spent living and studying abroad, several acquaintances eagerly inquired about my experiences in Morocco, where I lived for three months. A natural interest, given the times we spent gloomily staring out the foggy glass expanse of the library, woefully daydreaming of hypothetical exotic adventures to be had. Before venturing to this enchanting corner of the world, there are some practical tips and recommendations that you should know.
Chefchaouen, Northern Morocco (above)
Handmade tagine pots in the Kabah de Udayas, Rabat
My base during my stint in Morocco was the gorgeous seaside metropolis of Rabat, situated on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.
Rabat boasts a harmonious and eclectic mix of Islamic heritage and European elegance owing to the majestic Kasbah de Udayas (a historical fortress and city dating back to the twelfth century) as well as wide, Parisian-style avenues dotted with quaint cafés. From a tourism stance, Rabat is not as celebrated as cities like Marrakesh and Fes, but it is ideal for a long-weekend retreat to escape the sweltering oppressive heat of other cities. It will give your worn-out, trampled-on feet and overpowered nose a necessary rest from the chaotic, bustling and fragrant-smelling souks (marketplaces) elsewhere.
I would recommend you relish the relatively calm aspect of Rabat’s Medina and indulge in a juicy Barbary fig or two (also known as a ‘prickly pear’) sold on stalls for less than a penny. Rabat’s Medina is charming and offers a respite since you no longer have to fret about being trampled on by locals, stepping in some form of excrement or hastily diving aside whilst a red-faced man yells ‘Andak!’. This, by the way, means the man is dragging behind him some kind of big wooden trailer, or worse, a mule trudging its hooves. Regardless of what comes rumbling behind the chap, an unexpected collision with both could result in damage to toes — dainty little sandals are not advisable.
I admit I am painting a rather unfavorable picture of the rather hectic, convoluted markets of Morocco. But they are equally as thrilling as treacherous. With their curiosity shops selling homemade artisan goods, all delicately embroidered (engraved or sewn by hand) or giant magic carpets, they offer a pleasing contrast to the local Durham market. I remember walking through them; stalls selling succulent fruits and Medjool dates to my left and stalls with piles of freshly picked sprigs of mint, parsley and coriander on my right. There’s a cascading huge pile of cumin, turmeric and chili, and the wafting scent of saffron fills my lungs. A weekly food shop suddenly becomes far more exciting than my usual dash around the supermarket.
Fes is the oldest city in the country and has a rich historical heritage, reflected in the old-world feel of the buildings. It’s also seen in the stunning Islamic architecture of the Bou Inania Madrasa and the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, which houses the oldest university in the world. Sadly, it’s not open to non-Muslims, however, locals often encourage visitors to take a furtive glance through cracks or open doors.
As well as being the artisan centre of Morocco for wood carving, ceramics and other crafts, its main trade is in leather. Each year, eager visitors peek and pinch their nostrils as they gaze down at the Chaouwara Tanneries, where leather is famously produced. Fesi businessmen once again have proved their entrepreneurial talent, as each leather shop has a terrace offering a different view of the tannery below, meaning of course you must trudge through caverns of bags, embroidered babouchas (Moroccan slippers) and poufs waiting to be sold, en route.
However, if you’re like me and would prefer a more authentic visit, you should visit the smaller Berber tannery. In exchange for a small fee, you will be guided through the roaring, bustling factory. The journey will require stepping daintily on the narrow slippery boards that are adjacent to bottomless pits of brilliantly coloured dyes, soaking animal skins and even worse, huge piles of pigeon poo. Our slightly hazardous and pongy guide required some agile footwork, but it gave us an insight into not only the intricate processes of the trade, but the gruelling labour required by the workers. The experience was a humbling one.
These cities such as Fes and Marrakesh are hubs of energy and activity and undoubtedly magical in a very special way. However, as you can imagine, the experience of trudging through waves of limbs and narrowly avoiding approaching donkeys or roaring motorcycles becomes tedious rather quickly. Hence, the prospect of sipping a refreshing mint tea in the ocean breeze at Café Maure in Rabat seems so much more appealing. It is a delight to stroll through the aged Kasbah to explore its meandering streets or to investigate the archaeological ruins at Chellah (occupied by the Phoenicians and Romans). Or, why not dabble in some surfing classes at one of the city’s surfing schools? Rabat boasts some fine French restaurants, which are a fantastic treat if you’re a little tired of the hearty, wholesome tagines or couscous usually on offer. And, if the prospect of sipping a glass of good-quality chardonnay with your meal makes you salivate after days or weeks of ‘dry’ dinners, then go for it — you are on holiday after all! Morocco is a majority Muslim country and therefore alcohol is rarely on the menu, however, some hotels and western restaurants are an exception.
Of all the varied and captivating regions of Morocco, I can admit to being besotted with a little-known city huddled in the Rif Mountains in the north of the country, Chefchaouen.
This dainty town has become renowned for its winding, tumbling streets and houses painting all shades of a clear, crisp blue — best admired if you traipse up to the Spanish mosque. Perched on top of a well-situated hill, the mosque looks out onto the colourful mass of higgledy-piggledy streets and laundry-strewn rooftops nestled amongst the impressive crags of the Rif.
Despite the thousands of tourists that descend upon this little town each year, it has maintained its vibrant identity and remains delightfully unaltered by western influence.
Every morning, local farmer ladies install themselves on the side of the streets, their eyes shining brightly from their weather-worn faces and looking rather fetching and slightly haughty in their wide-brimmed traditional hats. These women proudly arrange on tea clothes the wares that they intend to sell: luscious figs, sweet bell peppers, homemade goat’s cheese, fresh coriander sprigs and other wonderful treats collected in the nearby fields.
Take a short drive to the nearby Akchour to hike alongside the deep-blue naturally-formed mountain pools and follow the trail to the magnificent Gran Cascade waterfall. For those of us who prefer a slower pace to life, feel free to simply meander along the valley and indulge in a tea-break whilst you dip your weary feet into the refreshing cold water of the streams.
Admittedly, I could waffle on for days about the extraordinary beauty and charming haphazard nature that Morocco has to offer. I can only hope that the details I have divulged here arouse your curiosity. And, for the more hesitant of travellers among us, my seventy-year-old grandparents relished touring about Morocco by my side, after almost a decade of not venturing across the channel. So be brave, and let my grandparents inspire you, as even now they’re still chirping on about our dinner table!