Morocco is a tricky place to characterize. It is not quite African. It’s not quite European. It’s not quite Arabic. The country’s history has witnessed so many cultural, religious and lingual influences it has become its own entity. It is a rich mixture of life that stands apart.
Just when you think you’ve figured it out, unexpected details emerge. Mixed-heritage locals wile away hours in Moroccan-run Parisian cafes debating life’s philosophies in French, Arabic and Berber, while adjacent convenience stores host Muslim-run liquor shops in back rooms.
Increasingly modern cities have grown up surrounding ancient warrenlike medinas. In the confusing folds of unnamed streets, hectic, colourful souks still form the beating heart of Casablanca, Fes and Marrakech. Plain walls hide intricately tiled riads arranged around courtyards with fountains, date palms and orange trees, ceilings covered in painstakingly detailed wood and alabaster carving.
Terracotta-hued alleyways climb the gentle hillsides of smaller villages like Ait Ben Haddou in the dessert, while kasbahs and camels form the only visual markers in the soft glowing sand dunes of the Sahara. In this unforgiving climate nomadic Berber families still etch out a living from the dry, scrubby landscape, relying on the small handful of ancient wells that haven’t yet dried up.
Everywhere, cavalier cats with closed eyes bask in sunny doorways beyond which sweet mint tea is continuously being poured from a height into little glasses.
Find authentic roots in Fes
Marrakech is the largest city and most popular tourist destination in Morocco. It’s here you will find the widest variety of food, shopping and 5-star hotel experiences that expand as far as your wallet can take you. But my favourite spots lay further inland.
Fes is beloved by many people who make a return trip to Morocco. Especially those seeking something closer to the atmosphere they remember from decades ago. Of all its cities, Fes is the one that feels the most Arabic, and has the most mazelike medina. In my book, the more likely you are to get lost the better.
Fes is also home to the infamous Chouara Tannery built in the 11th century. It’s here where someone greets us at the door with a sprig of mint and we follow in earnest as he disappears up endless sets of narrow stairways and room after room of leather goods. Still clutching our mint we emerge on a rooftop overlooking a vast network of muddy pools in hues from light grey-green to dark brown. Bare feet hop boldly between the pools while hides are dunked and re-dunked. If there is some order to the system it’s indiscernible. The purpose of the mint becomes apparent as the stench of pigeon excrement reaches our nostrils. “They use it to soften the leather,” our guide explains.
Elsewhere the heady scent of spice stalls takes over. The earthen tones and powdery mountains of paprika, turmeric, ginger and cumin evoke the breathtaking sunsets we will soon witness across the dunes in the Sahara.
Ride camels in the desert
Kasbah Yasmina in the desert rises like a medieval fortress from the swirling sands. An uninterrupted view of dunes stretch out behind it as far as the eye can see. A cotton scarf I bought at a roadside stall is carefully being twisted into a turban on my head by someone who’s evidently done it many times before. He sweeps the end across my mouth and nose, “in case of sand storms,” he explains.
As we prepare to mount our camels I feel as giddy as a kid in a sandbox at the prospect of adventure atop this lanky even-toed ungulate. For the uninitiated here’s a tip: riding a camel is not at all like riding a horse. Hold on tightly. Our wobbly lurch — and my favourite part of the trip — began into the peacefully silent folds of sand, culminating with an invigorating scramble up a steep dune for panoramic views of the desert and the waning sun.
With toes buried deep in the most perfectly uniform, warm silken sand I’ve ever touched, the setting seemed surreal, dreamlike. Our camels just dots on a vast orange canvas below.
What to buy in Morocco
Morocco is a travel shopper’s mecca. Spectacularly vivid markets brim with craftsmanship from brilliantly colourful pottery to richly patterned Berber rugs that are unique to Morocco and its cultural heritage. Other things to look out for: leather goods, argan oil, spices, olives and dates.
Two things were certain on my trip: I was going to ride a camel, and I was going to buy a tagine. I found the latter, a gorgeous, hand-painted sculpture of a vessel in Fes at Art Naji Ceramics. Here you can watch the process of casting, baking, designing, painting and firing from start to finish, everything done by hand. Intricate patterns and brilliant colours make Moroccan pottery one of the most sought-after souvenirs.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to haggle on the price of whatever you’re interested in buying. It’s a national pastime in Morocco so prices always start at 2-3 times the value of the goods.
When and how to go
Summer brings the classic blazing heat and haze that Morocco was designed for. But late summer, fall and early winter see fewer tourists and more comfortable temperatures.
Keep in mind that most traditional Moroccan buildings are not heated or insulated, and everything is clad in tile. So cooler temperatures can feel quite cold. Don’t forget to pack layers and a down-filled jacket for nights in the desert and early morning starts.
I did my trip with G Adventures with one of the most down-to-earth and knowledgeable guides I’ve ever travelled with. The group tour allowed me to fit in way more than I would have been able to on my own. It also curated some unforgettable connections with local families that would have been impossible otherwise. It was the perfect way to see Morocco for the first time.
Royal Air Maroc and Air Canada offer direct flights between Montreal and Casablanca. While travelling from Toronto or further west, or travelling to other cities in Morocco, will require a stopover.
What’s that? A Moroccan linguistic guide
Medina — the old Arab or non-European quarter of a North African town
Souk — an Arab marketplace or bazaar
Riad — a traditional house or palace with an interior courtyard garden
Kasbah — the citadel of a North African city
Tagine — a shallow earthenware cooking dish with a tall conical lid; also the name of the North African stew of spiced meat and vegetables cooked inside it
Berber — an indigenous person of North Africa
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