If you’ve read my previous post about my trip to Jordan, you will know I have wanted to visit Morocco for as long as I can remember. I finally did it and booked a trip of a lifetime which took me into the heart of this North African country. I’m going to share with you my experience of the Sahara, Marrakesh and beyond.
I have always imagined Morocco to be reminiscent of Agraba from Disney’s Aladdin – which is somewhat true depending on which city you’re visiting. Every city is unique and has so much more than I had originally expected, depending on the nations that had conquered the region over the ages.
For this post, I’ve added a star based system out of 5 which is based on my experience in each of the locations. Obviously this can vary with each person depending on their own interests and I didn’t spend the same amount of time in each location, however for me the 5 star location are places I’d definitely return to!
Flying into Casablanca and spending a short few hours there the following morning, I did not think I was in Morocco, its high rise buildings and office suites are much like any other European city. This soon changed as my trip progressed however, my first stop which was just a few hours drive to the north which was Tangier – a sought after city due to it’s strategic location and proximity to the European mainland. Still not exactly the Morocco I had expected, Tangier was a modern city which has a lot of influence from Spain, in fact the city is just a boats ride away across the Straits of Gibraltar – which many Spanish take on their daily commute to work into Morocco.
As I walked through the city I came across doors (babs) which lead me to the old town or “medina” which was surrounding an ancient citadel (kasbah) and palace. It’s narrow, cobbled streets were more like the Morocco I had originally imagined and it was here that I saw my first piece of the infamous mosaic art (more on that later on). Once a top the hill and standing on the highest point within the city I saw breathtaking views of where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic.
Chefchaouen was a highlight for me and not a town to be missed – in fact I would go back to Morocco just to please my eyes with the hues of blue which emanate from its walls. Originally this settlement within the Rif mountains was a place for Jewish exiles which had travelled from Spain – it was kept blue to represent heaven and the sky (however many locals disagree and have many theories which I’m sure you’ll hear about if you visit). However when the Jewish people of Morocco were called to Israel there were worries that this treasure would be lost. So the Moroccan government took action and paid it’s citizens to keep painting their homes blue, which is something they are very proud of.
The intense blues surround you as you walk in the narrow maze-like streets and alleys, which all lead to the heart of the Medina. Here you can find its restaurants and souks (markets), which unlike Marrakesh and Fez won’t cause you much hassle and everyone seems happy to help, so browse without too much caution or just sit and enjoy the view from one of its rooftop restaurants. I felt at ease during my time in Chefchaouen – just ignore the local hashish sellers and you’ll be fine!
If you want to find out more about the history of Chefchaouen, there is also the Kasbah museum which tells the story of the town and it’s surrounding area. Within the museum outer walls are picturesque gardens, full of palm trees and exotic flowers. I’d recommend going into the museum just to pay a visit to this tiny oasis which has great views of the surrounding town and hillside.(Total cost is just 87p or 10 DH so won’t really make a difference to budget!)
After exploring this beautifully blue town, take a stroll to the nearby stream where you can find fresh orange juice (a Moroccan speciality) and head up to the mountain view point for spectacular views of the town, great to end a day in this small heaven on earth.
The ancient walled city of Meknes was my next stop before reaching Fes,with a grand palace, beautiful gates (27 to be exact!) and a warrior king, this small city had a lot to discover. Meknes was one of the four Imperial Cities of Morocco, which included Fes, Marrakech and the current capital of Rabat. Sultan Mouley Ismaïl took the title of capital from Fes in 1672 and built the infamous walls which surround the city, some of which have been built using the remains of an ancient nearby roman city; Volubilis.
The Sultan was somewhat of an architect and had designed part of the walls to be used as food storage for the 12,000 horses that resided there (maybe for his 867 sons?! ), this is known as Heri es-Souani. The cool, dark and eerie feel whilst standing inside is somewhat chilling, however this created the perfect temperatures for storing food.
The Mausoleum of Mouley Ismaïl is a must visit if you’re heading to Meknes, it’s beautiful both inside and out and is deserving to be the final resting place of the Sultan. Non-Muslims will not be able to enter the inner chambers, however it is still worth visiting as I found the architecture of the outer chambers is just as impressive and typical of the Moorish art which runs throughout Morocco. With free entry, make sure to add this to your “to visit” list.
Bab Mansour was the final piece of architecture the Sultan had ordered built and great skill must have taken place to create this spectacular piece of work, which is now a UNESCO site. Its perfect location faces the El-Hedhim square, which is a lively area where you can see performances and try local street food – this is an extremely busy area as are most city squares in Morocco, but is a great place to become entwined with the locals, especially in this not-so touristic town.
As mentioned above, if you’re passing through or going to Meknes, the ancient archaeological site of Volubilis should be paid a visit. This ancient roman town was once the capital city of an ancient Berber (native people of Morocco) population under roman occupation. This site has been used in the past to create the monuments in surrounding cities such as the walls of Meknes, however UNSECO now protect this site and it is only used for tourism. The most impressive part of Volubilis are it’s almost intact mosaics which have survived for over 2000 years – I could have walked around this site for hours imagining its ancient residents wandering the still-recognisable streets as I now had done.
At just 80 pence or just 10 DH entry you’ll definitely get your moneys worth visiting Volubilis!
Meknes was more the Morocco I had envisioned, however my senses were about to be overwhelmed with the next city on my itinerary; Fes. The second largest city in Morocco was created from the amalgamation of 2 older settlements – which is believable! Fes is the oldest Medina in the world and is made up of thousands and thousands of streets. Tip: Don’t split up otherwise you could get lost within its labyrinth, unless that’s your plan!
As you walk through the streets of the old town (Fez El Bali) you’ll witness buildings which have stood for 1,300 years, for me it felt as though I was walking within a piece of history itself – the Al-Qarawiyyin is one of these monumental pieces of the past and is said to be the oldest university in the world which still functions to this day. Vehicles are prohibited within the UNESCO-protected old town, so you’ll see more traditional means of transportation and labour which add to the rustic feel of the Medina. I took extra time to enjoy this city freely, as wandering its alleys and streets you’re bound to stumble upon many hidden treasures.
One place you’ll be able to find without too much trouble due to its pungent odour is the leather tannery – the smell is due to the initial soaking of the leather in cow urine and then the smothering of pigeon faeces, which is said to soften the tough leather. Before they get to you they are then cleaned and coloured using a number of natural dyes – so don’t worry! (The tannery was under refurbishment, so unfortunately I didn’t experience it at this point in full – however I did upon my arrival to Marrakesh) Tip: You can get much cheaper authentic leather products within the souks of Fes and other cities than within the tannery itself. Also beware of people asking to guide you to the tanneries or elsewhere for small cash. A strict no is usually enough, although you may have to reaffirm this a couple of times!
Fes is known as the spiritual capital of Morocco and one place where you can find out more is the Bou Inania Madrasa. Both a school and a mosque this was one of the biggest religious establishments within Morocco. The school is a beautiful structure which is made up of mosaics, carvings and other great craftsmanship as with most religious or educational buildings in Morocco and therefore a must visit whilst in Fes and will only take a couple of hours – easily doable whilst exploring!
Make sure to visit the endless souks which sell all sorts of wondrous produce, from vibrant mosaics and ceramic art, mystical lanterns and succulent olives. The sellers and craftsman can be quite demanding in their prices, however love some haggling and are often willing to drop prices by over half in most cases! I often walked away empty handed and made sure to double check prices within the different stalls before making the final purchase – the sellers however can be quite pushy which even swayed me to buy things a few times, they are professionals after all! Tip: Keep respectful and walk away if you’re faced with aggression, not buying something won’t insult anyone and it’s all part of the Moroccan experience.
Ceramics are a Moroccan speciality bought to Fes from Andalusia, Spain. With their arabesque art and intricate detail these are a beautiful addition to any house-hold, I stopped off at a local ceramic and mosaic workshop to see the process in action, from the furnace to the precise hand painting, in which some designs are hundreds of years old. Traditional Fes pottery are made with different shades of blue, due to oxidation techniques – be sure to check for an official stamp of authenticity. Throughout Morocco you’ll find mosaics in regular households, schools, palaces and more – something I found created a uniqueness unlike I’ve ever seen before.
Thank you for reading!
I hope you enjoyed the first part of my Moroccan adventure and it persuades you to visit this beautiful country. Part 2 will be coming soon, where you can read about Ait Benhaddou the ancient mud city turned movie-set, the infamous Marrakesh,the Atlas Mountains and much more.
Useful links & information
- Official language: Arabic / Berber
- Capital: Rabat
- Religion: Sunni Islam
- Population: 33,01 million
- Currency: Moroccan Dirham
Driss is a great and knowledgeable tour guide native to Morocco who can take you on excursions and/or help with the planning of your whole trip to Morocco, here’s a link to his website: http://www.moroccospecialguide.com/