Touring Morocco, From Marrakesh On (Part 1)

For a long, long time, I’ve given Morocco a high place on honor on my bucket list of travel destinations. I’d been drawn in by a host of temptations: flashes of rich colors and complex designs, hearing people sigh and nod meaningfully as they remembered their own time in this North African nation and the promise of setting foot on my 5th continent. So when I needed to slip in and out of the Schengen Zone for a few hours – which I allowed to turn into a week – to let my tourist visa renew, I decided to grab a cheap (yay for Easyjet) plane ticket to Marrakesh to see what exactly had been calling to me for so long.

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The patterns and sights of the Marrakesh Medina.

I know how this sounds, but I’ve been ready to go somewhere that felt truly new to me for a while now. The truth of the matter is, we as humans rely on a complex web of novelty and routine to keep our brains exercised and dopamine flowing. After 2 years of exploration, I have in my own way grown used to Europe. Just a year ago in Sicily, as I looked over yet another ancient temple with Greek-style columns, I head myself say, “I think I’m ready for another part of history.”

And my god, I found that in Morocco. Between a complex mix of Arabic, nomadic North African and Mediterranean cultures, an impeccable attention to colorful details and the always-present promise of surprise, I found what I was looking for here.

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The ancient passageway in the heart of the Medina that I’d follow every day to arrive at my hostel.

The thing about Morocco that I perhaps loved the most was that the interesting, historical and richly adorned streets I would spend my days wandering through were not just a small section of the city, more or less left alone by locals for tourists to check off their list and photograph. There was not a single street that exemplified the architecture, one place where everyone took the same photo before the mirage faded into “real” life. No, the whole country was truly a rich example of the way life has been and is being lived.

Between the affordable prices, variety of adventurous activities and cultural richness, as well as the relative safety of the country given the region, I would recommend Morocco to anyone, really. I saw families with children, other women traveling alone and couples who got engaged (congrats Kris and Will!) in the week I traveled the country. For the adventurous at heart, Morocco is certainly manageable, and utterly unforgettable.

Here’s more of the nitty-gritty of what I actually did while I was here.

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My Moroccan Tour

October 6 – 13th (I would highly recommend traveling here between October and April, when the days are only like 80-95 degrees F, not 110+ as in August, and the nights cool off considerably.)

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Marrakesh – My trip centered around this historic, culturally unique city. There are plenty of other amazing cities to visit in the north, but I don’t think anyone’s trip to Morocco is complete without having spent an evening in the chaos of Jamaa el-Fnna, getting themselves lost in the Medina or marveled at the intricate adornments of the Bahia Palace and Ben Youssef Madrasa.

Read more about my time and impressions in Marrakesh here.

East to Zagora and the Draa Valley

It was not hard to find a 2-day 1-night tour from Marrakesh to the Sahara desert. Whether I had waited to book my trip in Morocco itself or found one online before I arrived (as I did), the price and experience would have been more or less the same.

It’s a long, long drive through the hairpin turns of the High Atlas Mountains, then down to the ancient, cinematic village of Aït Benhaddou in the desolate desert, through the Anti Atlas Mountains, descending into the palm oasis-filled Draa Valley where Berber villages hug the road and largest river in Morocco. Through the city of Zagora, you emerge into the dunes of the western Sahara, hop on a camel (I make this sound easy, but after years of riding horses with control and comfort, finding my balance atop the lumbering gate of a docile, gassy camel was not as pleasant as it sounds once the first romantic minutes wore away) and ride out to a Berber camp for a night under the stars.

If I had booked a 3-day 2-night tour (the more popular version which I’d recommend if you have time), we’d have traveled to bigger dunes the next night and seen more of the area. But instead, we turned around and made the same drive back to Marrakesh.

My expectations were not through the roof for this particular adventure (I paid less than $75) and I didn’t get anything more than expected, which was basically a ride with stops at places providing tourist-safe food and some historic sites. What I did get was the chance to see more of the countryside, including glimpses of villages were the locals rode donkeys through the streets, markets were flourishing, and people were maintaining an ancient lifestyle in a harsh landscape. If you like desert landscapes, this drive provides an excellent and interesting example of the subtle changes in a desert ecosystem which you can see as you move east.

Essauoria

Just a few hours to the west of Marrakesh is the windy port city of Essauoria. For a second, you might wonder if you’ve made your way to Greece, with the white walls and blue doors of this town, but you are in fact still in Morocco. With sunlight that shines forcefully and hot, a busy fish market and much less intensity in the Medina, Essauoria is a great escape from the intensity that can overwhelm in Marrakesh.

There is a large beach, but the wind here renders it poor for swimming. Wind surfing is the top activity. (Head a few hours south to Agadir for better swimming conditions). I came to Essauoria for just a day, taking the three hour bus to and from Marrakesh ($8 each way) through more ever-changing desert landscapes to groves of argon trees along the coast featuring herds of goats reaching nimbly up for a bite of the leaves.

Staying in Essauoria is a little more expensive than Marrakesh, and I certainly felt like I saw more or less the entire old city in the 4 hours that I spent there. But if you need a breather and a great ocean view, it’s a great place to rest and see a different side of Morocco.

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The port of Essauoria

These three cities are just the beginning and only a snapshot of what this country offers to a traveler, and I would certainly recommend others expand their adventure to gritty Fez, the blue village of Chefchaouen and any number of other adventures this diverse landscape has to offer. I know that I certainly plan to in the future.

For my tips about making your way through Morocco with relative ease, as well as my impressions of being a blonde girl traveling alone there, check out Part 2 of my Moroccan blog stories.

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Traveler’s Notebook: Moroccan Daydreams

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I went to Marrakesh for many reasons. I went because I needed to leave the Shengen Zone of the European Union for at least 24 hours. I went because it was a cheap plane ticket and cheap cost of living. I went because I’d been tantalized by the colors, lamps, patterns, cushions and architecture which I’d seen recreated in prom and themed parties my whole life. I went because I knew it was a place I had wanted to go for a long, long time, even if I didn’t really know why.

Until I got there.

dsc00223Marrakesh is a dream. A hot, smokey, magical dream. Wandering through the mess of souks that is the Medina is like stepping into another world. You’re dodging motorbikes and donkey carts, passing under dusty slats of sunlight that slip through the ancient or makeshift roofs, looking over shops with leather goods, lanterns, scarves, wooden camels, golden lamps that might as well be hiding genies and a million other treasures. It is a city rich in life and history. Rich in smells – the very human, the very exotic, the very enticing and then suddenly the very familiar and intimate: the musty, leather, cigarette smell of my father’s office. Rich in sounds – the flutes of snake charmers, the drums of Berber dancers, the bells and clinks of horse-drawn carriages, the raspy shouts of the call the prayer, the merchants all around you trying their luck at guessing your mother tongue with, “Bonjour! Hello! Ciao! Excuse me! Ca va?”. Rich in history and intricate beauty: no detail goes unnoticed in the ancient architecture of Marrakesh, from painted ceilings to flowing script across walls and mosaic designs, you cannot trust a dusty, unremarkable building not to be hiding splendid treasures within the inner courtyard.

From Marrakesh, I went east, then west. East on a 10 hour bus ride over the beautifully-named Atlas Mountains through the ever-changing desert to the edge of the Sahara. There we spent the night in a Berber camp. We sat around a campfire under the stars listening to traditional (and some not so traditional) music, rode camels into the hot sunrise and explored ancient mud-caked cities and gigantic palm oasis along the caravan roads crossing the imposing landscape.

West, I went to the Atlantic, to the windy city of Essaouira where I wandered the 18th Century ramparts, looked down into the heart of a busy harbor and fish market, got a little less lost in the Medina and ogled amazing woodwork and a plethora of argon oil products. I cannot remember a time when the sun shone more brilliantly than in this port town of white-washed, blue-tinged buildings, not even in the Sahara just days before. Gulls flooded the air and the street cats looked remarkably happier than in the pandemonium of Marrakesh.

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But at the heart of it all was Marrakesh, an evocative place that sometimes overwhelmed, but mostly inspired me.

Begin in Jemaa el-Fnna (“The Assembly of the Dead”), the sprawling, oddly shaped square at the center of the ancient, walled city. By day, it is a passageway, an entry point, or an “oh, thank god I know where I am again” point. You’ll find henna artists, fresh orange juice hawkers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians and acrobats vying for your attention and change. Past a line of horse-drawn carriages for rent, you can see the Koutoubia Mosque, who’s minaret has stood watch over the market since the 12th Century and reminds us of the importance of detail and a compass: the mosque which was originally built there had to be destroyed and rebuilt because it did not properly align with Mecca.

Choose any of the streets leading off of the north end of Djammar el-Fna and you are quickly swallowed into the Medina. An ancient mess of alleyways that snarl like a spool of thread unwound and left in a heap on the ground, you haven’t visited Marrakesh until you’ve been lost in these shops. Suddenly you’ll find yourself in the pungent tannery, watching leather being dyed, or the handful of stands devoted solely to olives, then among opulent carpet sellers, then a butcher surrounded by hungry cats, then emerge into the florescent-lit tourist souks where faux guides will offer you unsolicited advice and directions. You come upon small squares filled with local produce for sale, or hit a dead end and retrace your steps, twisting back until there’s another road to follow. Dark sunglasses were my best friends here, even when passing under ancient archways or the covered souks, so my eyes could wander without catching anyone’s attention.

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                                It is impossible to capture the energy and magic of an evening in Jemaa el-Fnna in a photo, but this might be a taste.

Return to Jemaa el-Fnna and watch the sun set from a terrace while sipping sweet mint tea, because once evening sets in, the real magic happens here. I think the true spirit of Morocco was most clear in this place in the busy nights: here you can realize that it’s not just a show for tourists. Yes, maybe the snake charmers and the people hawking magnets under florescent lights in the Medina are aiming to get the non-locals to stop by, but as the evening approaches and the final calls to prayer silence the music momentarily, lines of open-air restaurants are constructed, the air fills with the smells and smoke of frying meat, the snakes and monkeys are packed away and the cross-dressing dancers – yes, the men wear makeup, a hijab, skirts and clinking belly dancing gear while they shimmy around – and the storytellers show up.

The thing about Marrakesh that made my heart sing loudest was that every night you could watch ancient traditions come alive as the storytellers would arrive with a bench and a lantern, set up shop and wait. Quickly, crowds would gather around them, leaning onto one another, pushing into the heart of the circle to listen.

I longed to understand Arabic, just for one night, to be able to join in these circles.

Of course, in hindsight, things all look glossy and delightful. In the midst of the magic and sensations, I also find myself challenged as a traveler; truly thrown out of my comfort zone for the first time in a while. There were a lot of overwhelming moments, when the heat, the crowds the maze of covered roads, the approaches from the locals all got to be too much as I wandered alone. But, I would, one way or another, find my way back to my riad, and relax in the courtyard for awhile. And really, I was ready to challenge myself a little, to see another side of history and corner of the world and expand my inner map’s borders.

This short tour was not nearly enough to so much as taste the rich Moroccan culture and beauty, but luckily for me, it’s one of the boyfriend’s favorite places in the world, so I can trust that we will most certainly be back