As we wind away along a narrow rutted goat track road, the Atlas Mountains tower above us, their craggy yellowish clay colour matching the houses that cluster in their ridges. In contrast the narrow river valley is a brilliant green, bursting with lush produce which will provide enough food both for the summer and to be stored for the harsh winter ahead.
The colour contrasts of the landscape are such a feature both here and throughout Morocco, whether it is the vivid blue and white painted houses in the laneways of Rabat, the intricate multi coloured towers of spices in the markets or the patterns of the beautifully detailed mosaics.
It is all so different yet connected with the same vivid blue sky that stretches forever, there is not even a wisp of cloud. It is summer, late summer, but some days are still fiercely hot. We wander languidly through markets, medinas and ruins, it is sensorial overload with everything just so fragrant and picture perfect. Deleting photos becomes difficult in a place with so much beauty. We relish the brilliance of the sun and gentle breezes, knowing we are lucky to have respite from the winter at home.
Anyone who travels with me will know that I have the attention span of a 2-year-old when it comes to ruins, churches etc.… Therefore, I fully surprise myself with my fascination of the ancient city of Volubilis near Meknes. Getting there early and being the first group through the gate is a huge bonus, we have the place to ourselves and our guide is brilliant, witty yet informative. I am intrigued that such amazing history is just sitting there open to the elements with the only barriers being your conscience. It is I think not to be missed. A little like a mini version of Ephesus but in a quiet way.
After the first few days, the donkeys with carts that initially see me ungainly hurtling my way out of our vehicle with camera at the ready (think Miranda) , become normal. They are everywhere. Often the streets of the medinas are extremely narrow (Fes being the most so, it is a labyrinth of tiny alleyways) and donkeys are the only means of transporting things in and out.
Sometimes there is little room for passing animals and pressing flat into doorways is the only option. The donkeys along with other animals inhabit houses with their owners. Animals downstairs and people up. I guess the animals are in spaces usually reserved for kitchens and bathrooms of which many villages don’t actually have. Running water may often be from a central well location particularly in rural areas.
The village baker is the one who bakes the bread as opposed to making it. The formed dough is delivered from families with their initials on top, it is then baked in a huge fire fueled oven and the fragrant golden loaves then collected and taken home. In the afternoon it is time for pastries (oh they are delicious) and then in the early evening the oven is filled with tagines.
Tagines are a staple in Morocco, be it chicken, goat or lamb, they come with an array of vegetables and sometimes couscous. It is with some amusement when we ask Mohammed (our guide) if we could please have something different from tagine as we have had this (in different forms) for the last 4 days. He laughs and tells us that he has been having it daily for 34 years and that is as it is. As all good guides do, he of course is happy to oblige, and our meals start to include kofta (meatballs), kebabs and meltingly tender lamb that has been cooked over coals and then sprinkled with cumin salt. Most meals start with an array of olives and an individual bowl of Berber salad – finely chopped red onion, tomato and cucumber. Whether this is dressed with olive oil, herbs or salt depends on where you are, but it fast becomes a fresh staple that I look forward to. The vegetables are delicious, cooked carrot salad with dill, cumin, cinnamon and olive oil is common as is roasted pureed eggplant with garlic, sundried olives, lentils, chickpeas etc. Along with the wonderful khobz (discs of warm fresh white bread) to mop up juices, I am so very happy.
The freshly squeezed orange juice each morning with pastries are a treat as are the nuts and stone fruit that we stop and buy from roadside stalls. All of the fruit and produce is so fresh and vibrant. The peaches are bursting with juice and flavour and freshly roasted almonds and walnuts wrapped in a paper cone are just the thing to create thirst for our next cup of mint tea. Referred to fondly as Berber whiskey, mint tea is the national drink of Morocco and is served throughout the day. Mountains of mint are sold daily at the markets, all destined for tea pots to infuse green tea with a minty taste and aroma. The addition of sugar is too much for our palates but without this it is so refreshing.
Our flat white coffee habit from home is quickly replaced by nous nous – little glasses of milk coffee. Coffee shops are everywhere although the only women to be seen are tourists. Cafes and coffee drinking are a man’s domain.
Moroccans take their food seriously, whether it is making and pouring from a great height a cup of mint tea, creating the perfect coffee, or preparing meals, it is all delicious. With all the spices on display at the markets we are all a bit surprised at how mild the food flavours are. Yes, they are fragrant but mildly so and the flavour seems to be more produce driven.
Keen shoppers will love the ceramics (Fes is famous for this) and light shades that are pretty much everywhere. Oh and of course there are also the carpets and leather. Despite or maybe because of the abundance of everything, my senses are overwhelmed, and I make do with some lovely little hand blown glass pieces from Essaouira, the moment I get home I wish I had bought more.
Essaouira is a charming city/town out to the coast from Marrakesh, It is technically a city but within the walls of the medina you do feel that you are in a village. Unlike the frighteningly confusing labyrinth of Fes medina, in Essaouira it is easy to find your way using landmarks and wander the lanes like a local. It is perfectly safe to wander alone as it is in most places.
As well as fresh from the boat seafood, silver jewelry is famous here, the styles are generally traditional with many of our group finding pieces to buy.
The fresh fish from the Atlantic is outstanding and we feast on the most delicious butterflied sardines with chermoula, calamari, monkfish, prawns and more. A memorable lunch involves us (well our guide) buying our seafood, plus salad and bread and then arriving at a café to have it cooked an served. An interesting concept of a café not needing to plan, shop or worry about waste as all of the food comes in with those wanting to eat it.
Cats in Morocco are as prevalent as many countries surrounding the Med but it is those in Essaouira that are the sleekest and healthiest yet. I wonder if they are living proof of the benefits of a diet rich in oily fish.
The people on the whole seem to have a very healthy diet, alcohol is not commonly consumed although we did visit a local winery where they are making some lovely wines. Casablanca beer is also made for the tourist industry. There is not so much as a whiff of the hashish that Morocco was once famous for.
The people we meet are often shy and generally warm. Tourists touting cameras have lost their novelty, not everyone wants their photo taken and people are frightened of ending up plastered over social media. For married women this is particularly distressing. It takes me some days to work all of this out and I cringe at the thought of my overzealous clicking early in our trip. There are more than enough lovely faces willing to be snapped although with so much character and beauty it is hard to be restrained.
Locals, particularly those in rural areas are modest, women cover heads and limbs and men are unlikely to be seen in shorts.
Their cloths are often an array of stunning colours unlike the black robes of many other Muslim countries.
Our journey starts in Rabat (we fly into Casablanca) and travels to Meknes, Fez, winding high into the Atlas Mountains and then back down to Essaouira and Marrakesh. Some of the days and drives are long but that is what it needs to be in order to see everything.
Each place has its character and charm and as we reminisce over the past 12 days it is hard to isolate one that surpasses the other.
It truly is a wonderful destination and who knows, I might just be back next year…
Moroccan Ghribia Biscuits
Moroccan Travel Tips
*Do be culturally respectful in dress code. Exposing cleavage and upper thighs is inappropriate. In the mountains and more remote villages it is best to cover shoulders as well as having skirts/shorts that come almost to the knee.
*Do not accept invitations to take tea with people unless it is organised for you. There are some people who will try and take advantage of the situation and extort money from unsuspecting travellers.
*For hassle free shopping in the souks, wear sunglasses and refrain from making eye contact with vendors. Ignoring people completely is the best way to have them leave your side. Any verbal comment is taken as a positive.
*You can take alcohol with you into Morocco if you wish, you can also buy local Casablanca beer and wine. Hotels and riads will not necessarily have fridges in the rooms although it is OK to enjoy a glass of alcohol within your rooms and sometimes the communal pool areas.
Villa Mandarine in Rabat, a charming small hotel with the most beautiful pool and gardens.
Bin El OUidane Wildiane Suite and Spa, amazing views and location in the lower Atlas Mountains
Les Jardins de la Medina Marrakech
We ate at so many fabulous places but many are small and not on the map and we also enjoyed hospitality within peoples homes.
Corner Cafe Marrakech – great falafel and generous portions for a casual lunch.
Chez Lamine Hadj Mustapha Marrakech – simply cooked delicious succulent lamb, served with cumin salt, olives and pickles.
Qatar and Emirates both fly to Morocco. Qatar via Doha and Emirates via Dubai.