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Exploring Morocco: From the souks to the Sahara

BY Josh Ferry Woodard

1st Jan 2015 Travel

Exploring Morocco: From the souks to the Sahara
Snake charmers, street monkeys, royal palaces, and cats. A journey through Morocco offers travellers a surprisingly vibrant and varied adventure. Our travel writer Josh Ferry Woodard takes in all the country's sights. 

Djema el-fna, also known as Jamaa el Fna, at dusk 
My journey from the souks to the Sahara began in Marrakech.
For centuries traders, performers and spectators have been drawn to the city’s vibrant open-plan square: Djema el-fna.
A relatively sparse set of snake charmers, henna tattooists and orange juicers frequent the dusty plaza during the intense hours of sunlight.
But it’s the effervescent evening when Djema el-fna really shines. The square comes to life as hoards of spectators form tight circles around captivating storytellers, enigmatic magicians and mesmerising Berber drummers.
Locals and tourists alike dine on regional delicacies, such as boiled snails, grilled meats, tagines and couscous, before trying their luck with the shrewd traders of the souks.
With multilingual tongues and unerring powers of persuasion, the souk owners drive a hard bargain. Bartering is an absolute necessity if you want to take home that beautiful Berber rug, terracotta tagine or pungent spice set.

Magnificent Marrakech

The opulent Saadian tombs. Image via Flickr
After taking a horse-drawn caleche into town I visited the Saadian Tombs, home to dynasties of former rulers and a select few ‘lucky’ servants. Although subjects were not permitted names on their graves, it was considered an honour of the highest order to be buried among the intricate marble mosaics of the magnificent mauseoleum.
In the past, Moroccan kings would invariably keep multiple mistresses within the secretive walls of the Royal Palace and live a life of unbound luxury.
Great lengths were taken to conceal the opulent living quarters, lavish banquet halls and exotic gardens from the poverty-ridden public. The palace’s exterior walls were painted a plain ochre and nobody but blind musicians were permitted entry to entertain the king.
These days the opulent palace is open for all to see and Moroccans are proud to have a moderate king of only one wife.
Many see King Mohammed VI’s marriage to Princess Lalla Salma as a union between the monarchy and the middle classes.

“Here’s looking at you, kid”

The real Rick's Café. Image via Safe to Move Around Travels
150 miles north of Marrakech lies the former French colonial city of Casablanca: home to Rick’s Café from the Humphrey Bogart film and the impressive Hassan II Mosque.
Rick’s Café just isn’t as romantic in colour, but the imposing oceanfront mosque is a striking building.
Built by King Hassan II­ to honour the life of King Mohammed V, the extravagant structure cost around £500 million and, at times, was worked on by 1,400 men by day and 1,100 by night. It is said to mark the continuity between ancestral art and modern-day technical innovations.
Craning my neck to take in the 689-ft high minaret–the tallest in the world–I gazed at panel upon panel of divine white marble and handcrafted green mosaic. A delicate silence enveloped the shaded area between the mosque’s tall archways and main entrance.
My jaw loosened and my tongue became weightless. I felt the anxieties of the world slip away from me, to be absorbed by the smooth surfaces of the colossal structure.

Rocking the Kasbah

The beautiful city of Rabat
Rabat, Morocco’s almost-forgotten capital city, is a mere 50 miles north along the Atlantic coast from Casablanca.
Among other things—most notably: Barbary pirates, the Hassan Tower and an abundance of cats—Rabat is known by travellers as the home of the Kasbah des Oudaias.
Led by an energetic and eccentric tour guide named Fadir, I explored the 12th-century fort and Andalusian Gardens.
The walls of the Kasbah were painted a glorious blue and white. As we shared the streets with local residents going about their daily routines, Fadir told me in short, sharp bursts that every district in a Moroccan quarter has five things:
  1. A public oven for cooking bread and stews for the family
  2. A Koranic school because religious studies are very important
  3. A mosque for prayer
  4. A public fountain so that everybody has access to clean water
  5. And a hammam public bath as a place to wash and to socialise
As we looked out over the Atlantic Ocean from a cliff-side viewing platform, Fadir told me another function of the hammam: to allow mothers to spy on their son’s fiancées.
“Some weddings can be called off, just like that. If the mother doesn’t like what she sees when the hijab is removed,” Fadir mused before wishing me farewell.

Athens of Africa

Fez's medina
From the capital, my journey continued through the imperial city of Meknes and the ancient Roman ruin site of Volubilis until we reached Fez: a historic city known as the ‘Athens of Africa.’
In North Africa, most cities have walled old towns known as 'medinas', in Fez it's an expansive labyrinth of over 9,000 narrow cobbled streets. It’s the largest car-free urban area in the world and the maze-like streets are so difficult to navigate that even the locals occasionally enlist the help of guides to locate lesser-known addresses.
After stopping at a mosque on a hill to view the immense patchwork of sandstone buildings from afar, I ventured into the vibrant medina on foot.
Spice bowls, brass lanterns and silk scarves awaited me around every corner. Butchers in white hats and aprons sliced slabs of raw, rancid smelling, meat. Women batted flies from the flesh of their freshly caught fish.
Leather faced old men cried “Yalla Yalla!” to clear congested narrow paths for donkeys lugging heavy loads.
After munching down a sumptuous lunch of aubergine dips, spicy bean stew and juicy lamb tagine, I capped off the day by visiting a ceramic co-op, a Koranic school and a horrific smelling tannery.

Sleeping beneath a blanket of shooting stars

To reach the Sahara, I journeyed through the Alpine city of Ifrane, where the air is clean and cold. I fed fruit to Moroccan macaque monkeys beside the road and cut a stunning route through the sweeping valleys of the Middle Atlas Mountains.
Standing at the intersection between land and sand, a camel collapsed awkwardly to its knees, like a puppet whose master had dropped its strings. I jumped on and perched between its humps.
Rocking from side to side, we travelled across silky smooth orange sand dunes to a Berber camp where I would spend the night.
I arrived just in time to catch the sun setting beneath the unworldly Martian landscape of dry fiery dust. That night I dined on delicious beef tagine and danced to the beat of the Berber drums.
My journey from the souks to the Sahara had come to an end. But I had plenty of new experiences to think about as I lay on my mattress beneath a blanket of a thousand shooting stars.
Josh visited Morocco as a guest on Topdeck Travel’s Moroccan Explorer tour. You can read more about his adventure on his travel blog.
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