To be honest, I had no strong desire to go to Morocco. The only influence I was aware of was from my dad constantly telling me he wanted to go to Morocco just to eat street food and one friend that had visited Morocco during her study abroad trip who recommended I go there. Yet, some small idea turned into a notion which turned into an action so that with five days free before my first midterm, my first trip to Africa was set in motion.
While part of the group had arrived the previous day to hike Mount Toubkal, my first day started in Marrakech where I checked into the Riad Adriana, whose impeccable service, friendly hospitality, and not to mention fantastic homemade breakfast was the perfect place to stay for our time there. Once settled in, I headed to the Jardin Majorelle, where artist Jacques Majorelle’s combination of Moorish architecture and art deco holds a small, yet beautiful garden and memorial to French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
Afterwards I went to the famous souk area of Marrakech. Here, expect to find chaos as sellers and shoppers intertwine business among alleys filled to the brim with carpets, crafts, clothing, fabrics, jewelry, potteries, spices and much more of this famed market area of the medina. For those with professional bargaining skills, now is the time to bring them out. For those less aggressive, here are some tips or if you’re luck matches mine, travel with friends who speak French and better yet, are Berber. Unfortunately, I arrived at the end of the day and the souks were mostly closed, so I headed into an herboriste to purchase some spices. (I’ve read some debate over whether it’s better to buy spices at a souk or a specialty shop like a pharmacy. The vibrant colors of the spice souks may provide a good photo opportunity, but the fixed price of well-preserved spices in a professional environment reassured me of a quality purchase.) Ras el hanout, whose Arabic translation means “the best of the shop”, is a fragrant mixture of ground cardamom, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices; most popular for it’s traditional use in tajines or couscous. Other popular spices to buy in Morocco include saffron, cumin, aniseed and curry, which is much different from Indian curry. Dinner in the open air courtyard of Latitude 31 served a great meal of pan-seared sea bass and olive and lemon chicken tajine for a nicer dinner.
Once the rest of the group arrived, we spent the rest of our night strolling the busy and lively Jemaa el-Fna, where the sounds of voices story-telling, live performances, and competing food stalls pack Marrakech’s main square and marketplace.
On the topic of food, being a self-proclaimed foodie means no post goes by without mentioning something about food. Something to keep in mind when traveling to any underdeveloped country, take the precautions such as drinking only bottled water and staying away from any raw fruits or vegetables that may have been washed with local water to avoid any unnecessary health incidents. That said, though it may be due to my two months of strictly Italian food, but Moroccan food is absolutely delicious. For starters, make sure to try the fresh baked Moroccan flatbread and local olives. To drink, sip on a traditional mint tea which is highlighted for it subtly sweet taste and also being a common remedy for healing. I am positive that for every main course, I ordered tajine. Traditional slow-cooked savory stews, the word tajine is actually the name of the cone-shaped pot that the food is cooked in. There are different ways of preparing tajine but whether you order beef, lamb, chicken, vegetable tajine (or multiple in my case), each dish is full of flavor and Moroccan perfection. For dessert, fruit is often the dessert of choice but I have to mention a delightful discovery we came across in the front row of booths at the Jemaa el-Fna. Still searching for what it’s called, it looks like a brown cake with sesame seeds on the outside. Upon biting into it your taste buds are overwhelmed with every spice you could imagine harmoniously combined together and is accompanied by a warm cinnamon tea to create a dessert I shamelessly went back for a second time.
The next day we went to Essaouira, a coastal town known for it’s historic fortresses, fishing harbor, and remote beauty on the Atlantic Ocean. This city is just about two and a half hours away from Marrakech, but has a completely different scenery from its whitewashed walls to its serene and calmer environment. Strolling down the beach front and enjoying fresh caught and grilled seafood for lunch, Essaouira is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and a prime destination for relaxation.
Being it our first time in Africa and not being that familiar with the country, we decided to do a guided tour so that we could enjoy all Morocco had to offer without the hassle of planning and figuring out what to do on our own. The Berber-owned company Sahara Tours 4×4 offers a variety of tours that provide tourists with organized trips and knowledgeable, friendly tour guides (thanks again Abdullah!) that take you through the best of wherever you want to go. We chose the three-day tour from Marrakech to Fez. Our tour covered a vast area of Morocco and we saw many important sights, including but not limited to the Atlas Mountains, Berber villages, Dades Valley, and Todra Gorges.
My favorite part of the tour by far was when we rode camels out into the Merzouga desert, where we slept in middle of the desert below a full moon, only to wake up to watch the sunrise from the top of the sand dunes. Laying out in the middle of the dunes under a sky full of stars, it truly makes you realize how small we are in comparison to the world, and how big and great God is. You can find our full itinerary and many other trips here. Though there is a lot of driving, I definitely recommend these tours to anyone that wants to have a fun and memorable trip in Morocco.
Our tour ended in Fez, Morocco’s third largest city and “cultural capital”. Our Riad Dar Tahrya recommended we take a guided tour through the Old Town of Fez, during which we walked through the maze of streets housing the oldest university in the world, synagogues, schools, skilled Moroccan artisans and their impressive craftsmanship. Authentic tanneries, local spice shops, and handwoven carpets are just a few of the native products Morocco is known for and are all worth investing in if you are looking for a souvenir to bring back from your trip.
All in all, my trip to Morocco was more than I could have imagined and I am beyond glad that I went. Not to mention, I traveled with the best group and cannot stop saying how grateful I am for friends from all over who have the desire to see new places, experience new cultures, and explore the world together. My experience in Morocco definitely presented the culture shock that I have been missing in other travels. The completely different way of life down there, from bargaining over prices in everyday business to the limitations and restrictions women have in both religious and social contexts, made me realize how thankful I am to live where I do, to have grown up the way I have, and to known the freedoms I have as a woman at home. Despite these differences, this trip really made me eager to step further out of my comfort zone and to continue seeking new cultures, ideas and ways of life. And as I receive more knowledge about the world, I, in return, want to give myself back to the world; the never-ending gift of travel.
And now that I finally figured out how to use video on my camera…