My wife and I have always been fascinated with the country of Morocco.
We had a trip planned for April of 2020, but we all know what happened then. You’ve seen Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, its largest city, Crosby Stills and Nash sang Marrakech Express way back in 1969 and of all the smaller countries in the world, Morocco features many cities that we’re familiar with such as Rabat, its capital, Tangier and Fes.
So, this Arabic , Berber, English and French speaking country bubbled to the top, and here we are…
First a little background about this friendly Islamic kingdom tucked away in northwest Africa… It overlooks the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and has land borders with Algeria to the east, and the disputed territory of Western Sahara to the south.
Its roots go back many centuries but more recently, the Alawi dynasty, which rules the country to this day, seized power in 1631, and over the next two centuries expanded diplomatic and commercial relations with the Western world. Morocco’s strategic location near the mouth of the Mediterranean drew renewed European interest; in 1912, France and Spain divided the country into respective protectorates, reserving an international zone in Tangier. Following intermittent riots and revolts against colonial rule, in 1956, Morocco regained its independence and reunified.
Since independence, Morocco has remained relatively stable. It has the fifth-largest economy in Africa and wields significant influence in both Africa and the Arab world.
Among the highlights of our twelve-day tour was downtown Marrakech to take part in a group cooking class at a local culinary educational college.
My wife and I love these types of classes anyway but to participate in one overseas, especially preparing cuisine that we’re not particularly familiar with made it all the more exciting!
We prepared, from scratch mind you, a chicken tagine entree, plus two room temperature sides. One was eggplant based with chopped tomatoes, olive oil and spices, while the other was a blend of tomatoes, roasted peppers, onions, and spices. The vegetarians substituted assorted veggies for the chicken by preparing them in their own tagines.
A tagine, by the way, is the ceramic pot with a cone-shaped lid, used in cooking whatever is on the menu for that meal. In the end, everything turned out great and we were rewarded with certificates of achievement in Moroccan cuisine.
After dining on our own creations, we headed over to the Jardin Majorelle, a gorgeous botanical garden, located in the heart of Marrakech; it’s also home to one of the homes of Yves Saint Laurent and the Berber Museum.
The Berbers, generally speaking, are the nomadic tribes of Northern Morocco, many of which are Jewish and live in small villages that dot the border of the Western Sahara Desert.
What a peaceful way to spend an afternoon, amongst the gorgeous flora, cacti and tastefully adorned pathways that circumnavigate the twenty-acre property.
The next day began early as we had a long drive from Marrakech to our destination of the day, Ourzazate.
Our first stop was to visit the Kutubiyya Mosque, completed in 1195, the largest of its kind In Marrakech. Standing over 250 feet tall, the minaret towers over the city. The most scenic part of our journey commenced as we drove 120 miles through the High Atlas Mountains and the amazing Berber villages that dot the windy, rugged terrain that separates the fertile landscape from the desert on the other side.
We stopped for a tour of one such village in Ait Ben Haddou, or village of Ben Haddou, where for so many years Muslims and Jews live in harmony.
Our incredible, local tour guide Mohammed led us up into his world of adobe structures and into his own home, where we met his mother and got a peek into his lifestyle. Mohammed was an extra in the movie, Game of Thrones, filmed in his village. Mohammed challenged me to a mock battle using gear he received for his participation in the shooting of GOT.
Under construction currently, just outside his window, is the arena for Gladiator II…
He introduced us to a local artist named Mustafa, who paints of his local heritage and environment using heat to reveal hidden images on his paintings applied with saffron, indigo, sugar, and tea. There was no way we were leaving without one!
The next day began with our longest drive of the trip so far, leaving Ourzazate to get closer to the Sahara. Just out of town, we passed the Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex, a 580MW power plant. It is the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world.
The Medina (fortified walled city) in Fes.
At our midpoint stop we experienced the beauty and grandeur of the oasis adjacent to the Todhga Gorges, a series of limestone river canyons, or wadi, in the eastern part of the High Atlas Mountains near the town of Tinerhir.
Both the Todgha and neighbouring Dades Rivers are responsible for carving out these deep cliff-sided canyons, on their final 25 miles through the mountains. The height of the canyon walls can vary, but in some places can be up to 1,300 feet high.
You can’t appreciate the awesomeness of it all unless you’re standing along the riverbed looking up at it!
The following day we were in our off-road vehicles for a race to the dunes, but first a brief stopover to meet true Moroccan nomads who have set up their tents in the remotest of locations, albeit within a few hundred yards of a fresh water supply. This is a family of eleven, from a grandmother to several grandchildren living in a way we have no real knowledge of and they served us hot tea as we’re guests in their home. Just amazing hospitality!
Finally, on to the dunes for an hour-long camel ride…please note just thirty minutes prior to arrival, a wind, sand and rainstorm kicked in making the experience that much more challenging, but our group was up to the task! A sunset camel ride in the Sahara…who could ask for more!
After a much-needed night of rest, we had lots of miles to cover to get from our hotel near the Sahara, all the way to the city of Fes. Many mountain switchbacks, elevation changes and varying topography made for an interesting ride.
Our first stop was a camel farm where we witnessed the female mother getting milked. Turns out, camel milk is healthy for humans. Then we headed straight away to Fes, a metropolis of over two million people. Pronounced like Yes, not the hat fez…
Fes was originally built by the first Muslim Dynasty, the Idrissids, alongside the Fes River. It’s claimed that it was founded in 789 as a town, and it then eventually grew into a true medina, or city, with mosques, palaces, and markets.
Over the years, refugees from surrounding Moorish dynasties like Andalusia and Tunisia came to Fes, establishing districts within the city.
Fes has two medinas, the Fes-el-Djedid, which was built in the 14th century, and Fez-el-Bali.
Visitors usually spend most of their time in the “old” medina, Fez-el-Bali, as we did yesterday.
It’s a labyrinth of narrow walkways that lead to other narrow alleys and paths filled with shops, residences, and restaurants. No autos are allowed inside the Medina. Only donkeys and handcarts may move food and supplies in and around this fortified city, home to over 300,000 people.
It’s broken up into quarters and we visited the areas that specialize in the handicrafts of ceramics, the tanneries and the making of gold, silver and bronze tea pots, trays and jewelry.
There are really no words to describe a day inside the Medina. You must go and experience it yourself and be awestruck like all of us were. Simply amazing!
After lunch we traveled to Volubilis, a partly excavated Berber-Roman city in Morocco situated near the city of Meknes that may have been the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania, at least from the time of King Juba II. There are many well preserved structures and mosaics that we observed during our visit there.
On our final touring day was an early motor coach ride from Fes to the capital city of Rabat and then on to Casablanca.
Rabat is a coastal city on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, home to approximately 600,000 people and where all the government offices and agencies reside.
In the 17th century, Rabat became a haven for Barbary pirates. When the French established a protectorate over Morocco in 1912, they made Rabat its administrative center. When Morocco achieved independence in 1955 Rabat became its capital.
It combines centuries old fortresses and walls with modern architecture.
We stopped for lunch at the “American Embassy” otherwise known as McDonalds. It was the cleanest “Micky D’s” I’ve ever been to, and we had to try the fries with Algerian sauce.
On to the most famous of Moroccan cities, Casablanca. Since the movie debuted in 1943, people have flocked here, especially to eat at Rick’s Cafe, featured prominently in the film.
We were fortunate to have 6:30pm reservations, as it’s tough to get a table.
The atmosphere was swanky, the food was delicious, and it was our last chance to wish our fellow tour travelers’ “adieu”.
In summary, the country is large, about the size of Texas, its population is about the same as California, around 36 million and very diverse. Even though 99% of the people are Muslim, they welcome all religions and persecute no one for their faith. There is no common looking Moroccan. They are light skinned to dark skinned and everything in between.
Moroccans are very friendly and hospitable. Most speak Arabic and French fluently, and enough English to be helpful and do business.
The terrain is as varied as California. Desert, mountains, fertile plains, and beaches. The history is rich, and its people are proud of their heritage, as they should be.
I’m glad we got to experience this country and now I understand why it’s so popular as a tourist destination.