14 reviews from the community
Review of "General: Morocco"
In Morocco, children speak every language under the sun. I am almost tempted to say that they could probably pick up very quickly any other languages that may be found throughout the galaxy and the entire universe… that is… when it comes to asking for a dirham (Moroccan currency), a dollar, a euro, a pen, a sweet or anything that you happen to be holding at the precise moment when they spot you.
At first, it is extremely annoying, for, although they seem to speak every conceivable language, they do not seem to understand any, including their own. Body language will not work either. Violence quickly becomes tempting, but you soon realise that their begging is due more to some sort of mechanical intrinsic feature endemic to the soil upon which they were born.
They recite their begging in a manner devoid either of tone or expression, usually starting in Spanish; if you ignore them, they will switch to English, French, German, Swahili, Kirghiz and so on… automatically, like pre-programmed little robots, completely unaffected by your mood, your threats, your screaming, your desperation, your crying and your ultimate begging to be left alone.
The problem is that, if you do give them a dirham or pen or whatever, you are suddenly assailed by a troop of other youngsters, who have been prying somewhere in the background to see if you are a suitable victim.
As sad and cruel as this may seem, sometimes, your only option is to threaten to call the police. The Moroccan police are not nice to beggars, they are very cruel indeed.
To be fair though, I must say, that these sorts of "attacks" do not usually happen in Morocco's most prominent cities, simply because the presence of the police is ubiquitous and they are "protecting" tourists from their own people.
This is cruel too, but understandable. For although Morocco is a fabulous country to visit in many ways, the constant leech-like begging that takes place in certain cities and villages can be enough to ruin the entire experience.
Such an experience was one of my first as I entered the beautiful land that is Morocco. We drove from Spain, taking a ferry from Algeciras and into Ceuta (also known as Sebta), the last Spanish City before you enter Morocco.
Ceuta is a rather small town, with about 75,000 inhabitants, most of whom are "Spanish Muslims", mainly of Berber descent. Berbers do not consider themselves as Arabs, and indeed, they are not, but I shall go into more detail about this subject later.What is most known about Ceuta is its duty-free shopping facilities. Many people go there just to shop, and it certainly is worth it. On our way in and out of Morocco through Ceuta, we bought more alcohol than we ever have in our lives.
On the way in, we stacked up on whisky (for the locals and some friends) and wine (for us, well for me mostly… : ) On the way out, we bought every conceivable alcoholic drink that happened to be on the shelves and in our view. We prayed very hard before crossing the border, and were not searched. No one wondered why the car was moving so slowly…
Morocco is one part of what is known as the "Maghreb", which in Arabic translates as "the setting sun". The Maghreb consists of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and the latter is usually referred to as "the farthest land of the setting sun".
The history of Morocco (and the Maghreb in general), before the conquest of Islam towards the 7th century AD, is not very clear. What is known is that, the Arabs failed in their very first attempt to conquer the tribal people who occupied what is today known as Morocco. These people were the Berbers, whose culture is thought to have existed for at least 4000 years, but again, a lot of mystery surrounds their own history also.
At the beginning of the 8th century AD, Islam had effectively conquered the farthest land of the setting sun, even though clashes between the Berbers and Arabs continued in many areas. Even today, and albeit having converted to Islam for the most part, Berbers are still a very proud people and clearly see themselves as different from the Arabs. Many Berbers you will meet, especially in the sooks, will try to gain your confidence by confiding that "we are Berbers, we are not Arabs, we are honest people!". Sometimes they are right, but often they are just trying to fool you into believing their price is better.
Berbers have their own customs and very special music, and they tend to mingle their Islamism with their traditional culture. As I have said above, they consider themselves as Berbers, not Arabs. In the early days, even those who had converted to Islam were treated as second class citizens, and this took a long time to wear off, some feel that it hasn't, hence their apparent grudge against their conquerors.Although there is of course, much more to say about the history of Morocco, I will, in this review, only be recounting my personal experience as I travelled through it for a sadly short period of two weeks.
After leaving Ceuta, we headed straight for Chefchaouen (also known as Chaouen and Chechaouen), in the north of the country (well, yes, we drove in from the north!).
It is a picturesque little town in the Rif Mountains, with clean air and beautiful scenery. The drive up there was in itself an adventure, and I have discovered that the shades of green are indeed far more numerous than the ones you will find in the most extensive palette of any painter. I found myself photographing grass for half an hour!
This is where we were first "attacked" by children. I was 5 months pregnant (so this was 5 years ago) and although my then partner was finding this very normal (having lived in Morocco for the past 7 months), I was finding it extremely annoying and try as I may, in Arabic, French, Spanish and English, they would not leave us alone. We ended up taking one as a guide to find a hotel, and after having tried 4, we settled on the fifth. For a clean double room with a separate (sort of clean) bathroom, we paid £6. The hotel was a minute away from a restaurant called "Aladdin", where we had a delicious breakfast consisting of mind-blowing Arabic coffee (or is it Turkish now?) and home made "petits-fours" that were so nice, I had to ask the waiter to get me the recipe, but he wouldn't! Huh!
There is a little market in Chefchaouen, but nothing magnificent. The best thing is to walk around the little town and enjoy the scenery. The little Medina is okay, and the Plaza Uta el-Hammam is a busy square, especially in the evenings, but I was put off when, sitting in a café with my ex-husband, I realised that I was the only woman there and everyone was looking at me!
After Chefchaouen, we headed for Fès. Fès is the oldest of the imperial cities and supposedly the symbolic heart of Morocco, but I am afraid I was not very impressed.
I found it too dirty and swarming with people everywhere.
But I must also be honest, we only stayed a day (because there were cockroaches in the hotel we stayed in and it was a 3 star one) and so did not get to see many parts of the city. It was my decision not to stay another day, I suspect it was the pregnancy and the heat, but I did not even feel like "discovering" anything further.
It is said that 9400 streets and lanes make up the labyrinth that this old city is. Again, as soon as we arrived (By taxi, having left our car parked in the hotel), a horde of children gathered around us and offered their services as guides. We decided it would be wise to "hire" one, as Fès el Bali is renowned for its twists and turns, from which exit is virtually impossible without a very experienced pilot. We chose the shiest, quietest one of the lot. He was not only very kind, but an absolutely perfect guide indeed, and shared with us his extensive knowledge about every nook of the Old city.
I was so thankful that he was with us, for the streets are extremely narrow, very crowded and quite claustrophobic. I said I was not impressed by Fès, but I think I lied, for this place was amazing, and although we cruised past houses, fruit and vegetable stalls and many other places at an excessive speed, I did have the feeling that we had travelled back in time. The fact that it was so crammed did not really allow for a leisurely stroll, it was late evening, perhaps we should have tried it in the morning I thought, but our guide assured us it would be the same.Dark had set in, and we found ourselves, finally, in a street that was quiet, in front of the Karaouine Mosque. The guide said that it was custom to make a wish and put a coin in a slot near the door of the Mosque. I proceeded to do so, my wish being that my child should be born safe and sound with all its limbs and proper faculties. The guide said (I can't remember who told him I was pregnant) "you can put a coin and ask Allah to grant you a son!!". I was about to launch a profoundly philosophical discussion about sexism, but ended up holding my breath at the last moment, it was not worth it, I don't think our guide would have quite got my point.
We sat on a step in front of the Mosque, about 3 metres away from it that is, the street being about that width, and admired the beautiful embroidery like metal work on the windows.
"Would you like to buy some carpets" - said our guide.
"I have a very good friend here, Berber, who will certainly give you a very good price."
I don't know how, but we ended up at the carpet seller's place.
We were made very welcome. It was now getting chilly, the huge place was carpeted with carpets : ) and made us feel very much at ease indeed. We were invited to sit down, big smiles and all, the entire family started to appear, the typical mint tea with 300kgs of sugar in each little pretty glass was drawn out, many questions were asked and answered as briefly as possible and then… the subject of carpets sneakily raised it head!
Oh shit! I thought, I should never.. Was it me or you?...never should have shown even the slightest bit of interest in the matter!!
Ok, I thought. Red carpet. I liked red carpets, with lots of yellow and orange and pink. I want the design to show a water lily coming out of the mouth of a serpent that looks very fierce and with stars all around!
They didn't have this but in less than 5 seconds, two dozens of carpets were laid down at my feet, all red, pink, yellow and orange…
I smiled… it was just a joke.. just a joke…
"How much are you willing to pay?"
"How much do they cost?"
Smile. Smile back.
I pointed to the one I liked best (beautiful carpets!). It was about 3x4 metres, made of wool.
It is worth $300 but I'll give it to you for $150.
Polite smile from me. Bursts of laughter from my then partner.
To be honest, I am completely ignorant about the value and "acceptable" prices of carpets, I don't know if this was too much or not, but clearly I was not prepared to pay this sum of money at that precise moment.
So we left, tea unfinished (diabetes tests proved negative afterwards), smiles everywhere and "come back whenever you wish". But he did not try to put the price down.
We paid the guide the equivalent of £5 and he was so happy he nearly kissed us.
We left Fés the following day, without exploring it any further.
There are many Mosques and Madrasas (or Medersas - theological colleges) to visit in Fés, as well as souqs and hammams. I am certain there are many other attractions, but I did not get to see them and so from here I shall recount the rest of my trip.
We travelled straight down from Fés into Marrakesh, passing the majestic Middle and High Atlas mountains, a beautiful scenery accompanied us all the way down, truly worth seeing, seemingly untouched by time, although this was clearly just an impression. The air was clean and breathing was a pleasure!
I realised what they were selling one day when, having parked not far from a road, we had sat near some rocks to have a bite, and two bodies materialised in front of us, approaching with hands outstretched. They were holding crystals, multicoloured crystals that were almost fluorescent.
I instantly realised they were dyed to look this way. I am by no means an expert in crystallography or geology, but I knew a little about it, and did not remember ever having seen or heard about any such formations or the possibilities for them to form.
They tried to convince us these were crystals that only existed in these parts but seeing our lack of interest, they left, only to return a few minutes later with more "real" crystals this time. Beautiful white quartz and amethyst still nestled in an egg shaped rock. To cut a long story short, the price went from £40 to £7, and I was very pleased indeed with my quartz egg.
You will often meet roadside merchants like this in Morocco, never look too interested, or you will most certainly be ripped off. Whilst it is good to help these people in their difficult way of making a living, do bear in mind that they Will try to sell you what they have for a ridiculous price to begin with. Haggle like hell, and you may get away with a bargain and they will have earned good money. They will not sell you something if it is not worth it for them.
The magic of Marrakesh is made of nocturnal matter.
Marrakesh really comes alive at night. You can almost see a magic veil slowly descending upon the city, as the food stalls on Djemaa El-Fna square start to light their fires to grill meat and vegetables. Smoke starts to drift in the air as the square gets filled up by the minute. But more of this later.
The city of Marrakesh is the second largest city in Morocco, with a population in excess of 1,500,000. It was founded in 1062 AD by the Almoravid Sultan Youssef bin Tachfin (The Almoravids were a confederation of various Berber tribes), and at one point, was one of the most prominent artistic and cultural centres of the Islamic world.
It is a city which has suffered many ups and downs throughout the years, and its history is long, complicated and at times, painful. I shall not go into detail about this here, but will simply mention that after another episode of decline, during the 19th century, it was helped back to its feet with the aid of the French during the protectorate period (1912-1956) and has been standing on relatively firm legs since.
Djemaa El Fna Square is I believe the number one attraction. It is a huge square in front of the extensive and very interesting as-Smarrine Souqs. During the day, it is surrounded by orange and grapefruit juice merchants, as well as spice, nut and some olive vendors. The juice is fresh and delicious and costs around 20p a glass, but do make sure you ask the vendor to clean the glass properly and watch him do it, as they tend to just take a glass from one person, immerse it in a bowl of water and fill it up again!
Nothing seems very special about Djemaa El Fna during the day, apart from a few musicians and the very colourfully dressed water vendors, not much goes on. It is usually too hot (temperatures in Morocco can reach 45 degrees Celsius during the summer) and most people prefer to be in the shade somewhere.
But when the sun starts to set and the sky puts on its pastel lilac, pink and orange night dress, spirits as if from the past start to emerge on the scene, slowly and gracefully. If you are sitting at a table in one of the many rooftop cafés surrounding the square, you can watch the metamorphosis take place and marvel at the fluidity with which the panorama changes. It is almost palpable, yet mysterious.
Food vendors set up stalls in the middle of the square and this is when the smoke I mentioned earlier adds its ingredient of charm and wonder to the whole picture. Musicians and other performers begin to sprout from everywhere, "magic potion" charlatans lay their carpets and remedies on a carpet and sit down to await visitors, and before you know it, the dark has set in, the square is bursting with life and colours, noises, smells and a unique spirit.
It is enchanting, it is, I repeat, like another world and you could spend a whole night just walking around, watching the performers, listening to the very good musicians, sampling the (cheap and delicious) food, discovering the "remedies" sold by the men I called "charlatans", although I have no idea what they are really called. Then you may want to have a walk through the souqs, which stay open until very late.
And talking about the souqs, whether by day or by night, they are amazing indeed. Although just as labyrinthine as Fés' souqs, I found them somehow less claustrophobic and more colourful.
It is advisable to "hire" a guide to navigate through them; we had a friend as a guide on our first visit, and managed not get lost on our subsequent explorations.
The variety of the merchandise on sale is quite staggering; there are all sorts of leather goods on offer, from shoes to bags, jackets and so on. Carpets of course, in all shapes, sizes and colours, either made of wool or silk mainly. Furniture, lamps, food, textiles, pottery…. You name it, if it isn't there, they will invent it on the spot!
One thing we have learned through our Moroccan friend is that, all the goods have a price for Moroccans and one for tourists. No need to say here that the difference between the two is immense. We were told that the "tourist" price is at least 5 times that charged to the locals. Some sellers will try to raise it even more, depending on how gullible you seem to them.
Haggling is a necessity; no one in their right mind would give you a "correct" price to start with. They expect you to haggle, they relish the challenge; no haggling would utterly disappoint them and ruin all their fun!
There are definitely fantastic bargains to be made, even if you are "slightly ripped off", it will be worth it. I bought beautiful leather sandals at between £4 to £6 each, which is very cheap by any European's standard, but our friend later told us we could have got them even cheaper. I still felt I had had a very good deal.
I also bought a very nice woollen carpet (1.5 x 1 metres) with a price that started at $150 and ended up at £30. That was a bargain indeed!
There are many other places to visit in Marrakesh.
Mosques of course, and quite a few to mention, so I shall only talk about one.
Koutoubia is one the first Mosques you are likely to encounter; it is only about a15 minutes walk from Djemaa El Fna and is probably the most famous landmark in Marrakesh. Its minaret is the tallest in the city and can easily be spotted from any direction, unless you are in a souq. Of the three most famous minarets, the other two being Tour Hassan in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville, Koutoubia is said to be the oldest and best preserved.
It was built in the 12th century by the Almohads (Moroccan movement of very conservative Muslims, also known as "al-muwahhidin", those who proclaim the unity of God).
There are many madrasas (or medersas) to visit also, but not having visited any, I shall not mention any in this review, which is too long already, and I am still in Marrakesh!
Before leaving this beautiful city, I find it essential to point out, if only by name, the many other places to visit in and around it:
The Palais el-Badi, is Marrakesh's most famous palace and was built between 1578 and 1602. Although once renowned for its beauty, not much is left of its former glory, but it is still worth visiting.
There is also the Palais de la Bahia, the Museum of Moroccan arts, the Saadian Tombs and the many Gardens… there are many beautiful gardens in Marrakesh and should you happen to go there, I advise you to put them on your list of things to visit. There are too many and clearly, Marrakesh needs a review of its own, but I must now lead you South…
We left Marrakesh without really wanting to, but I had to get back to work in a few days and if I wanted to see the south, no further delay was permissible.
Back in the car, with 4 litres of orange juice and lot of water, a variety of nuts and dried fruit, sunshine and music, and happiness was becoming a word I could easily relate to.
From Marrakesh, we drove "straight" through the glorious snow covered High Atlas mountains all the way down to the very last village before the Sahara Desert. This village is M'Hamid, but the road to M'Hamid is the adventure, and so do allow me to share part of this with you.
"Straight" is not a word one should use when referring to Morocco. Whether you are talking about the roads or the minds, things tend to twist a lot, in a nice way…
We did not stop in any villages on the way to M'Hamid, except to buy bread and water. It took us two days and one night to get there, but not without countless stops to admire the incredible sceneries that unfolded before us.
There isn't much to do but admire, breathe in the fresh air, watch a couple of shepherds and their flocks and enjoy the peace. Peace is very hard to find, as you may well know, so is in itself a precious experience.
Leaving the Atlas mountains, we drove through the Drâa Valley, and spent the night in a palmeraie, but not before we had admired the sunset through the palm trees.
A funny thing happened to us the next morning.
We slept in the car, having lowered the backseats and made ourselves very comfortable on our duvets and pillows. The next morning I awoke around 6 am and watched the dawn break. My then partner woke up soon after me and I started joking about the way that wherever we went in Morocco, there was always someone asking us for a Dirham or a pen or anything.
"Imagine someone comes asking us for a Dirham here" - I laughed.
Then I sat up to take in the scenery for the millionth time and in the distance, between the palms, I saw something moving. I assumed it was some animal, but the closer it got the more humanoid it appeared.
No!! Not here! How? Where… what the…?
My partner wouldn't believe me when I said someone was coming towards us. The most annoying thing is that I badly needed to "relieve" myself and now this… I quickly calculated that he needed a few more minutes to be very close to us and hastily went behind the car… then I came back and started making coffee.
By that time, there was no more doubt as to the race to which the "visitor" belonged. It was a very human looking teenager, who parked himself a few palm trees away from us and sat there staring. We had some coffee, some bread and cheese, put the coffee away, folded the duvets and stacked them with the pillows in the back of the car, all this taking about an hour's time, during which the human had not moved from his spot.
"Just curious" we thought. But as we took our respective seats in the car and started the engine, life suddenly came back to our friend, and he started walking towards us. He stopped in front of the driver's window, extended the palm of his right hand and said: "Dirham?"
We laughed all the way down to M'Hamid.
We arrived to M'Hamid, a desolate and tiny village in the middle of nowhere, around 10 am. We quickly found a hotel (well, there aren't that many) which is owned by a Moroccan gentleman, all dressed like a Bedouin, who had lived 25 years in Switzerland. Sadly, I have lost his address, but I am certain that if you get there and ask for "the man who lived in Switzerland", you will be taken there in no time.
The rooms of the hotel were clean and so was the bathroom. The owner was extremely kind and very interesting and breakfast was heavenly. Fresh butter and hot bread, delicious coffee and some fruit. We paid £4 a night for a double bedroom.
For those who wish to visit the Sahara desert proper, M'Hamid is one point of departure, but not the only one. However, you are really close and many excursions are on offer. Whether on camel's back or in a 4x4, for a day, a week or more. Prices vary a lot, and haggling may need to be used.We, however, did not take this opportunity. Time was one factor, but the main one was the fact that I was pregnant and surely this would have been a risk I was not willing to take.
We did however, drive our car to the limit of the village, near a large sand dune, behind which the Sahara lay.
Our car was a very old and battered Peugeot 405, and we literally drove it to the limit of a gravel road, in front of which lay nothing but very very VERY fine sand, then the dune.
We walked on the dune, took pictures, played with the sand and got back in the car to have a bite. Sure enough, 2 minutes later, 3 children walk up to us asking for something. I spoke to them in Arabic, making sure they did understand, which they did, and told them:
"We will give you a dirham each, a pen and 2 honey biscuits each, but you must swear on the Koran that you will leave us in peace after this, you know what swearing on the Koran means, don't you?"
Of course they did, and that was very cleverly mean of me, playing them like that, but by then, I had developed a neurological disorder due to the constant begging for anything, that had not ceased ever since I had set foot in the country. I came out in rashes and brief neurotic fits whenever anyone approached me with "this look".
They took their "gifts" and left. I was very confident and convinced this had worked. We had half an hour of peace and then, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a congregation of about 15 kids walking towards the car. Completely freaked out, my partner left his sandwich on my knee, started the car and instead of entering the reverse gear, he drove straight into the sand dune, where both front wheels promptly sank into the fine quartz dust. Try as he may, reversing was now useless and I was about to cry.
By then, the throng of children were surrounding us and my partner was cursing everything and everyone. He got out of the car and told me to sit at the wheel while he tried to push the car out.
It was hot, I was seriously p****d off, the only woman in a very short dress and I was made to swiftly realise that. After about 2 hours, the car was freed and we managed to reverse it onto safe ground. We decided to give them 50 Dirham for their trouble, but I told my partner to give it to a very specific person, who was the one who really did most of the work. This he proceeded to do.
As we left the dune, swearing never to return again, the scene that was left behind us was that of a teenager, holding his arm up as far as it would stretch, with the 50 dirham note firmly clutched in his hand, and the rest of the 50 or so kids, jumping around him trying to reach it.
I hope he escaped.
We left M'Hamid after only a day and travelled the same way up to Marrakesh again and then back to Ceuta. We did not stop in any other major place, so this is where my Moroccan adventure ends.
Needless to say, I only saw a small part of this vast country and there are many other cities to visit there. Essaouira by the Sea, Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier and many others…
FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD
You cannot possibly talk about Morocco without mentioning the local food.
Moroccans turn into magicians the minute they enter a kitchen. They all seem to know how to cook and can turn any ingredients into the most succulent dishes.
The variety of dishes is far too great to detail fully, but as many of you may know, Couscous is a major one. And once you have tried a home made Moroccan Couscous, you will know what couscous is meant to taste like.
Tagines are absolutely delicious, and can be vegetables only, chicken or lamb based. They are cooked in a terracotta dish with a cone shaped top. Depending on where you eat them, they will taste different, but are truly heavenly.
Restaurants all over Morocco are relatively cheap, and all the ones where we ate had marvellous food. Various meat dishes, salads, vegetables and many pulses on offer, especially in markets. We invited our friend to a rather posh restaurant once, and the three of us had roast lamb (a lot of it), salads, chips and a vegetable dish. Oh yes, and wine. The bill was less than £10.
If you eat out on Djemaa el Fna from one of the many stalls, the prices are almost risible, but the quality is not always the best, look at the meat you are going to buy and make sure it isn't over cooked.
Hotels in Marrakesh are so numerous that it is very hard to decide which to choose. From Luxurious hotels to youth hostels, the prices are more than correct. We paid about £10 a night, for a double room in a 3 star hotel with a café just in front of Djemma el Fna, but please bear in mind this was 5 years ago.
Having made some quick research though, I can see that hotel prices in many cities in Morocco are still very cheap and you can still get rooms for £5 a night in youth hostels, and pay less than £50 per night in some fantastic hotels.
The larger international ones, such Le Meridien are much more expensive, but accommodation is widely available.
Morocco is a country I would definitely recommend and it certainly is a country I would visit again. Despite the inconveniences mentioned, the Moroccans are friendly and kind people and when you get to know some of them well, it becomes easier to forgive the others. Many Moroccans are very well educated and / or very artistic and are very interesting people indeed.
If only for the landscape and the food, and considering that flights to Morocco are relatively cheap, if you are looking for an exotic experience that will not cost you the Earth, Morocco is most certainly a first class contender.
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Listed on Ciao since: 25/07/2000