Updated: Apr 12, 2020
In the spring we traveled to Morocco, in North Africa. As our plane came in to land at Casablanca I was surprised at how green the countryside was; I hadn’t done my homework. Morocco has a broad coastal plain of rich farmland. It’s a regional oasis with a Goldilocks climate, a Shangri-La that is cut off from the rest of North Africa by snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas Mountains. The coastal plain is where most Moroccans live and where you’ll find the country’s legendary cities of Casablanca, Marrakesh and Fes.
Cross the mountains and you’re at the edge of the Sahara Desert – that enormous hot dry collection of sand and stone, which is the size of the continental US and has one of the harshest environments on the planet. The vast barren emptiness of the Sahara isolates Morocco from the rest of the African continent while Europe is within sight across the Strait of Gibraltar on a clear day. The result is a complex history and wonderful mix of Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Morocco was a breadbasket for the Roman Empire, a terminus of ancient trans-Saharan trade routes, a sanctuary from intolerance during the Spanish Inquisition, and a connection across Africa to the Middle East. It is a great place to explore.
We started our trip in Casablanca, which is a port city and Morocco’s commercial hub. We enjoyed walking through its old quarter and the modern Hassan II Mosque is magnificent, but we were otherwise happy to leave what was a hectic, congested city that didn’t show much to distinguish it from other such conurbations across the globe. (We took a rain-check on Rick’s Café, which recreates the nightclub of the classic Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman film.)
Perhaps a more interesting port city to explore would have been Essaouira, which is on the Atlantic coast west of Marrakesh. It’s said to be smaller, relatively untouristed and have loads of atmosphere. Sølvi and I may have to visit next time we get to Morocco.
From ‘Casa’ we traveled to Marrakesh and fell in love with its medina – its old quarter. How could we not? The medina is a tangle of covered narrow alleyways dating back centuries, with pink walls and colorful souks selling everything under the sun. You navigate these on foot and of necessity learn to jump quickly to one side when you hear a shout of “belak!” which means I’m coming through with my donkey or heavy cart or carrying something steaming-hot so you’d better watch out. It’s a real feast for the senses, and test of reflexes.
covered alley leading to a music shop in the Marrakesh medina
The ancient medina is anchored by a large central square – Jemaa el-Fna – which comes alive at the end of the day with musicians, fortune tellers, acrobats, water sellers (forget single-use plastic bottles – they offer water squeezed from a goatskin bag into shared communal tin cups that are hung like Christmas ornaments across their chest), snake charmers, belly dancers, storytellers, magicians, and food & drink stalls. We enjoyed a marvelous dinner of street-food there one night. You walk among the many stalls, choose one that looks promising then squeeze onto crowded benches and trade stories with locals while you wait for your food. We had barley soup at one eatery then moved to another for marinated meat and veggies grilled on skewers tableside. Delicious, and inexpensive. Sated, we wandered back through the carnival atmosphere to find our hotel and bed for the night.
food and drink carts at Jemaa el-Fna square, Marrakesh
Besides the medina, another must-see in Marrakesh if you’ve got an artistic bent is a second home of the famed French couturier Yves Saint-Laurent. It was a place for him to escape the cold wet climate of northwestern Europe. The home has large grounds with an extensive garden. After YSL’s passing, the property was converted into an arboretum and a museum showcasing his extensive collection of Berber artifacts. It is worth a visit.
From Marrakesh we headed up into the High Atlas Mountains and stayed at a place on the flank of Jbel Toubkal, which is the highest peak in North Africa. Toubkal stretches well above 13,000’ (over 4,000m). In late March there was still plenty of snow on the mountaintops. We stayed in a renovated kasbah – an old fort – on a prominent ridge below the peak. Kasbah du Toubkal became our base for hiking throughout the area. One afternoon hike found us on a sunny rooftop in a nearby village enjoying freshly-prepared mint tea. That must be the national drink. The custom, I learned, is to lift the teakettle as far as you dare above the glass while pouring to create a bubbly froth on the surface of the tea. You don’t want to serve the tea flat; that just wouldn’t do.
Back to my geographic ignorance: I never expected to find tall snow-covered mountains in North Africa at the edge of the Sahara. They’ve gotta be what allow Morocco’s Atlantic coastal plain to be the lush, green oasis that it is. Without the high mountain barrier, the desert would surely extend to the coast.
Kasbah du Toubkal in the High Atlas Mountains
From Kasbah du Toubkal we crossed over to the far side of the mountains to enter a barren landscape at the edge of the Sahara Desert. Only three colors existed: the deep blue of a cloudless sky, the brown of weathered rock and mud-brick buildings, and narrow sinuous strips of cultivated green along the occasional river. We drove along the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs past remote villages and trading posts. And stopped at the desert outpost of Ouarzazate where we toured movie sets of Hollywood blockbusters such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator, and the HBO series Game of Thrones.
one of many (1000 ?) kasbahs in the Dadès Gorge on the far side of the Atlas Mountains
Then we continued further out in the desert to Merzouga, close to the eastern border of Morocco (see map at top). We stayed at a remote tented Berber camp surrounded by sand dunes, and rode camels in the late afternoon sun to experience the sunset far from everyone and everything. The silence was deafening. And the color and shadows of the dunes at day’s end were magical. It was one of my favorite experiences in Morocco.
late sun on the dunes of the Sahara outside Merzouga
I got up before dawn the next morning to walk out into the desert on my own. Unfortunately a sandstorm had come through overnight and although the storm had passed there was still a lot of dust in the air, robbing the sunrise of its color and the dunes of their definition. So we got on the road and crossed back over the mountains to the coastal plain.
Fes was our final destination in Morocco. [Disambiguation: Fez is the iconic cylindrical men’s hat, whereas Fes is the city and Fès is its French spelling.] The city was once known as the “Athens of Africa” as it was a center of learning, religion, and art. It has a university and library – Al Quaraouiyine – founded by a woman in the ninth century during the “golden age of Islam” that are the oldest in the world still operating today. The buildings were recently restored to their former glory, also by a woman – a Moroccan architect and engineer born in Fes but now based out of Canada.
towers of Al Quaraouiyine rise above the Fes medina at dusk
Fes has a walled medina that is the world’s largest urban car-free area. The old part of that old quarter dates to the ninth century and the ‘new’ part was developed in the 13th. Both retain elements of their medieval origins. Together they form the heart of Fes, and are irresistible.
Initially we stayed in a modern hotel overlooking the medina but soon moved to a residence within the ancient city walls that is now a beautifully renovated B&B and one of the top restaurants in Fes. It became our base for a few days of wandering, on foot of course.
It’s hard not to get lost. Most of the stone and brick streets (alleyways) are unmarked and when you do find a sign, more often than not it’s in Arabic script which is indecipherable to this traveler. So you learn the names of the major gates into the walled city, and with a map and the kindness of strangers you can get to the general neighborhood of where you want to be. Through time you become attuned to lesser landmarks such as a certain teashop or an old woman who sits at the same spot day after day. But if you’re out early or late and the woman is not at her post, then your fragile familiarity with the old quarter’s geography is lost and you are too.
Many of the buildings in the medina are plain, windowless, and unadorned. That is the custom from when they were built centuries ago, purposely nondescript on the outside. Should you gain entry to a place, however, you’d often find high-ceilinged rooms with magnificent tile and woodwork opening to a light-filled central atrium. There were hidden marvels like that throughout the medina, in differing states of disrepair or renovation.
woman in red walking down one of the less-crowded lanes in the medina
A favorite spot in the medina for us was Sefarine Square. It was a place of banging tinsmiths making pots the old-fashioned way - shaping them cold with hammer and anvil. It was also a kind of local crossroads receiving foot traffic from all directions. We liked to sit there, on some out-of-the-way steps or at a café, and soak up the sights and sounds. Wikipedia informs that tinsmithing was a common trade until the Industrial Revolution largely put tinsmiths out of business, but they’re still doing beautiful work by hand (and foot) in old Fes.
tinsmith forming a pan (note use of big toe)
Another throwback in Fes are its tanneries; little changed through the passing centuries. Their recipe? First you soften animal hides by putting them in stone vats containing a wondrous mixture of cow urine, pigeon feces, lime and water. Really good. (Visitors to the tanneries are given sprigs of fresh mint leaves to hold against their noses to mask the worst of the pungent aroma coming from the piss and poop and rotting meat.) The hides spend two to three days in that secret sauce for it to do its magic. Afterwards they’re moved to vats of natural vegetable dyes to color them and then they’re dried in the sun. The result is beautiful butter-soft leathers that are sewn into high-quality shoes, jackets, purses, etc and exported around the world.
tannery worker at dyeing vats (softening vats behind)
What else can be said about Morocco? I’ve only scratched the surface. There is the rhythm of the Islamic call to prayer, five times a day from minarets located throughout the cities and towns. It becomes a reassuring measure, a meditative gauge, of the passage of time that you might hear from multiple minarets at once. There are the communal bakeries, where families bring their bread to be baked in large wood-fired ovens. Why would individual households want to undertake the trouble and expense of having a big oven in their own kitchen? The local baker becomes the neighborhood gossip, who learns by what he’s baking who is home, who is away, who is entertaining guests, etc.
There are the 2,000-year-old Roman ruins, such as those at Volubilis west of Fes, that are a testament to Morocco’s place on the edge of that ancient empire. There are the centuries of trans-Saharan trade that moved gold and salt and slaves across the desert until large sailing ships developed to become a more efficient and less risky mode of transport around the desert instead of across it. There is a culture of tolerance that led Morocco to accept many thousands of religious refugees from across the Strait of Gibraltar during the Spanish Inquisition. And maintain Jewish cemeteries to this day in a Muslim-majority country.
We found present day Morocco to be a safe and peaceful country. It has largely been free of the chaos and civil unrest that have plagued other countries in North Africa. And it is a fascinating and worthwhile place to explore.
Here is a link to some favorite photos of ours from Morocco . . .