After reading Vagabonding, the bible of solo travelers I decided to set out for a grand adventure – Morocco was calling me. I dreamed about going there for eons, and living in Madrid provided me with a perfect opportunity. I gladly paid 117,44 euros for a two-way plane ticket, and happily reserved rooms for around 8 euros per night (I looked for the best and cheapest places – you’ll find the links below).
I was about to spend 22 nights in seven different cities – Fez, Meknes, Chefchaouen, Tangier, Asilah, Rabat, and Marrakech. They proved to be more inspiring than the Arabian Nights themselves. This article is a testament to my journey and a guide for adventurous souls who want to explore Morocco.
“Having an adventure is sometimes just a matter of going out and allowing things to happen in a strange and amazing new environment—not so much a physical challenge as a psychic one.” – Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
Ultra-useful tips for traveling in Morocco
Here’s a list of things I wish someone has told me before my Moroccan journey:
Offline Google Maps didn’t work in Morocco, but Maps.me worked great in most of the cities. This little app will save your skin many times as you get lost in the web of narrow medieval streets. It will also serve you as a compass.
Get familiar with the Moroccan currency (Dirham / MAD)
10 Moroccan Dirhams (Dh/MAD) equals roughly 1 US Dollar (or 1,15 Euro). That should give you a quick way to estimate the price of whatever you’re buying. The currency exchange offices are ubiquitous in Morocco, and don’t take any commission (always use official offices). Don’t take too many Dirhams at a time as you won’t be able to exchange them in your country. If you run out of Euros or Dollars, you can use the ATM’s which are readily available in big cities.
Travel to as many places as possible
Going from place to place in Morocco is very cheap (around 70-120 Dh – even to places as far away as 500km). If you have enough time, you should take advantage of that and travel to as many places as possible. Take trains for longer distances, buses for shorter ones, and shared taxis for short trips.
Take tons of pictures
Morocco is one of the most photogenic places of all time. Make sure you have your camera handy wherever you go.
Learn how to avoid the touts
As you travel along, you’ll be endlessly bothered by street merchants, false city guides, and all sorts of other people. Rule number one – don’t trust them as they will tell you anything to sell you stuff. Some of them are obvious in their deception, but others are clever and very crafty so always be alert.
You’re from Vanuatu Islands?
They’ve been living there for three years! They studied there, and they have family living there. They like the food and the girls are very beautiful. And so it goes.
Here are some basic tactics to avoid these people:
- Try not to look like the most obvious tourist in the world (getting a Moroccan dress is a good idea). Try to blend in.
- When they call you, pretend you don’t hear them and walk away.
- If you can’t avoid confrontation, be polite but firm. To get rid of 90% of them, just say “La” (no), “Shokran” (thanks), and use your hand as if to say “stop”. When they say “I will show you this or that” just say that you’ve already seen it, thank you very much.
- When they start following you, stop, look them straight in the eye and say “Safi!” (Enough). After this, don’t let them follow you again.
- If you know some Spanish, pretend you don’t know English. Most of them speak Arabic, French, and English so if you just speak Spanish, many of them will leave you alone.
Learn basic words in Arabic
These words will help you a lot to get along and be polite with Moroccan people (you can use an equivalent in French but Arabic is always appreciated):
- Hello – As-salām ‘alaykum (or just Salam) – when they say it to you, reply with ‘Alaykum Salam
- Goodbye – Ma’a as-salāmah
- Thank you – Shokran
- Yes – Na’am
- No – La
- Sorry – Asif
- Enough – Safi!
Learn how to shop and bargain like a pro
Bargaining is the ultimate skill of the Moroccan traveler. 95% of tourist shops don’t have price tags, so you better know how to get the price you want. If you learn how to do it, your trip will be so much more enjoyable. Here are some golden rules for striking a deal of your life:
- Never name a price you’re not willing to pay.
- Before buying anything, shop around and casually ask for the price of the thing (be it a carpet or a tea cattle) but don’t buy it. It will give you a basic idea of how much you should pay when you’re ready. Also, check the “Prices” chapter in this article from Wikitravel.
- You can’t just go in there and ask for the price – first, you let them do their presentation. After that, if you’re interested, casually ask “how much is it?” Usually, they will give you a price which is two times higher than what you should pay (that’s why it’s good to know the average price beforehand). Appear to be shocked when they tell you the price and say that’s far too much. Then gradually go down.
- A great tactic is to name your last price and stick to it no matter what. When they say you are crazy, you say “thank you” and slowly leave the shop. At that point, quite often they will agree to your price.
- Don’t offend them by naming a ridiculously low price for their products.
- Appear to be disinterested even if you like the item very much. If you say “Oh my, that’s so beautiful”, they will ask for a higher price.
- If they invite you for a tea, expect to buy something – otherwise, prepare for verbal abuse.
Buy some of the Moroccan specialties
There are certain things Morocco is known for, so instead of buying regular magnets and other tourist stuff you can stock up on the following items:
- Black soap – made of olives, smells very nice and it’s used in hammams (traditional baths).
- Argan oil – it’s made exclusively in Morocco. It can be used as a skin lotion. Make sure you buy the genuine one.
- Carpets – Morocco is known for its magnificent carpets. First, try to learn about them and have a friend who can show you the authentic product. Otherwise, you’ll buy an overpriced piece of rug.
- Scratchy glove for the baths – this little glove comes in handy when you want to scrape yourself in the hammam.
- Leather goods – worth buying especially in Fez which is known for its tanneries. Just make sure you buy high quality for a reasonable price, and shop around before deciding.
- Spices – Morocco is known for its fragrant spices but you have to find the right place to buy them. Make sure they are fresh and have a strong smell.
- Tajins – that’s the conical clay pot you use to prepare a dish by the same name.
- Moroccan tea mix and crystalized eucalyptus – you can add it to your regular tea to remind you of your journey.
The alcohol issue
It’s very hard to find alcohol in Moroccan shops. You will never encounter liquor stores in the Medina (The Old Town) and you’ll have to go to the Ville Nouvelle (The New Town) to get it. Usually, you can find it in Carrefour which is always a bit out of the main tourist areas. You can buy a 500ml can of beer for around 17Dh. Other than that, you can buy drinks in numerous bars but prepare to pay much more (around 40Dh for a small beer).
Go to a hammam (the Arabic baths)
Visiting a hammam is a unique experience. There’s certain etiquette so I advise you to take a look at this article before going. Visit the local hammam at least once as it’s cheaper and more authentic (around 100 Dh for everything including the formidable Berber massage – or 10 to 20 Dh just for the entrance – but you will need your own equipment). You can also try a more touristy option which will cost you around 200-300 Dh.
Learn the basic body language of the Arab culture
- Always try to use the right hand (the left hand is considered “impure”).
- The handshake is a little bit longer and less firm than in the West. After shaking the hand, you can touch your heart with your right hand as a sign of respect.
- When you want to thank somebody, touch your chest with your right hand and bow a little.
- If you want to say “Stop”, “Be careful” or “Enough” place the right palm of the hand to face the person in front of you.
Read at least an introduction to the Koran
The Koran contains the essence of the Arabic culture so if you want your journey to be more meaningful, try to read at least the introduction and a few chapters of the holy book.
When you use a taxi, always agree on the price first
In more modern cities they have meters, so ask for the meter first, and if they don’t have one, agree on a fixed price. It’s good to check the distance on your offline map to know how much you should pay. 10 dirham for 1km seems to be the norm for tourists.
If you’re on a budget, try the delicious street food instead of eating in restaurants
Morocco is known for its street delicacies. The average price in restaurants is 40-80 Dh for a meal but you can get a nice sandwich and French fries at the street corner for around 10-20 Dh. It will keep you full for many hours. If you want to learn more about Moroccan food, I highly recommend Jamie Oliver’s documentary about Marrakech or Anthony Bourdain’s Tangier episode (number 6) from “The Parts Unknown”.
Use Wikitravel and Trip Advisor for every new city you visit
They will provide you with the best places to see, and other useful tips.
22 Moroccan Nights – An Unconventional Travel Guide
Morocco exceeded my expectations. The days and nights I spent there was pure magic. As a solo traveler, I had choices I wouldn’t otherwise have but I still met dozens of interesting people along the way.
These 22 nights changed me. In the guide below, you will learn about my adventures, travel tips, and secret places in each city I visited. (On the map it shows I traveled 1002 km but I always like to think it was actually 1001).
Fez – The Holy City of Islam (7 nights)
Arrival in Fez
I will never forget the first time I stepped on African soil. It was after dusk but the ground was still breathing with the warmth of the day. I shared a taxi to the city with two young people from Barcelona, and as we went, I was surprised at the ugly modernization the country was going through. I saw the same thing in India – McDonald’s next to an ancient temple.
The Ancient Medina
But after around twenty minutes we were transported a few centuries back, to the world of Medina (the Old City). Fez has the biggest non-traffic zone in the world and the taxi can take you only as far as the famous Blue Gate (Bab Bou Jeloud) or many other gates around the walled city. More than 150,000 people occupy this Arabian Nights kind of place, and with 9500 narrow streets, you are guaranteed to get lost.
Reaching the Riad
Crossing the Blue Gate was such a thrill. I’ve found Riad Dar Rabha (Riad is a traditional Moroccan house with an inner courtyard) by following tunnels, passages, and dark places. Then I met my first travel companions, and as I climbed to the rooftop and gazed at the vast city before me, I knew I was alive.
Just as I once did in Udaipur, instead of waiting for the dawn I went out during this first night and was amazed at the heat, the street merchants, the colors, and the food stalls. This first shock of a new city is my raison d’être.
Fez travel checklist
The next day I started to explore the Medina and its tortuous alleys. I had a list of all the things I wanted to see in the city. This included Bou Inania Madrasa, Borj Nord, The Merenid Tombs, The Shrine of Moulay Idriss, University of Al Quaraouiyine, The famous Chouara tannery, The Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts, Al Attarine Madrasa, The Jewish quarter (Mellah), and the Ibn Danan Synagogue, The House of Maimonides, The Al-Andalus neighborhood, Batha Museum, The Royal Palace and the Jnan Sbil gardens.
The mysteries of the Bou Inania Madrasa
I decided to get into the imposing Bou Inania Madrasa first (Madrasa is an Islamic school). From the rooftop of my Riad, it seemed like no more than 200 meters in a straight line. I was actually searching for it for almost an hour. The streets are so confused and tightly packed that you could go through the whole city by jumping across rooftops – Prince of Persia style.
As I entered this time-honored edifice I’ve found myself totally alone. Well, almost. There was a single man standing in the shady corner of the intricately adorned courtyard. He was blind and murmuring something. I addressed him with a respectful As-salām ‘alaykum, and then we had a strange conversation. He would talk to me in Arabic, and I would respond in English. He would say something in French, and I would reply in Spanish. Then we spoke Polish and Arabic, and I bade him farewell.
I looked around what was probably one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. There was a prayer niche, but the entrance was forbidden to the infidels. The whole Madrasa swelled with wood-carved designs, beautiful Koranic calligraphy, and mysterious symbols.
The eight-pointed star
There was an eight-pointed star carved into the walls and only later I’ve found out it was called Rub el Hizb which means “one fourth”. It was used to divide the Koran into 60 groups of roughly equal lengths. It made it easier to memorize the book by the students of the religious school. On my way out, I casually asked if I can see this passage to the right and a nice lady led me into the old corridors of the Madrasa.
The secret palace of Fez (you won’t find it in the guidebooks)
I soon found out that Fez has many secrets and it offers more than meets the eye. There’s no ostentatious wealth on the outside, but if you know the right door, you have a chance to see great treasures.
I was walking down south the strangely empty Derb El Horra Street and I saw a gate to my right. There was just one man sitting there. He looked like he was waiting for someone. I stepped in and the place looked like an old storehouse mixed with a mechanic shop. The man stood up, and without a word told me to follow.
As we turned the corner a marvelous ruined palace stretched before my eyes. It was vast, empty, and nature was encroaching on its former splendor. The man opened all doors for me and I felt like Indiana Jones uncovering the secrets of a lost civilization. I gave 20 Dh to my guide and still astonished, took my leave.
In love with the water
During the summer, you have to explore Morocco in short bursts as the heat becomes unbearable. My thirst for water (Maa’ in Arabic) was unquenchable, and I guess I must have drunk at least 6 or 7 liters per day (you should never drink from the tap and when you buy a bottle at the store, always check the screw-on-top).
When I retired to the safe chambers of the Riad, I took a cold shower and it felt ecstatic. No wonder the whole Islamic culture is enamored with water, and in the second Sura of the Koran it says:
Prophet, give those who believe and do good the news that they will have Gardens graced with flowing streams.
The butcher shops and tanneries of Fez
I went out again and passed the butcheries. There were cow’s heads, hoofs, and intestines on display. The stench was unbelievable and the retailers actually seemed very proud of the flayed animal corpses dangling from the hooks outside the shops. (Actually, the tanneries smell even worse but they’re a must-see).
Fez – The City of Sacred Music
Next, I saw a small Oud store and as a Middle Eastern music aficionado, I couldn’t help but enter. There was an elderly man sitting there and at the first glimpse, I knew he wasn’t a mere vendor, but an artist. He let me sit down and strummed some old Arabic tunes. Then he gave me the instrument and I’ve failed miserably, but gladly.
He spoke only Arabic and French (most people in Morocco are familiar with two, three or even four languages) but we shared the love for the Oud and we communicated through a translator from a shop nearby.
I especially mentioned the late Saïd Chraïbi whose album “Holm bi Fès” reflects the soul of the city beautifully. We also spoke of Driss El Maloumi, an excellent Oud player from Agadir, and his album “Morocco: The Dancing Soul”. In fact, Fez is a host to the annual Festival of World Sacred Music, but even throughout the year, the whole city is soaked in great musical vibes.
Fez – The City of Saints
They say that after performing the Hajj (the pilgrimage) to Mecca, your next destination should be Fez. It’s a holy city and a home to the University of Al Quaraouiyine – the oldest functioning university in the world. Many buildings in the town are covered in green which was the favorite color of the Prophet. Five times a day you can hear the dazzling cacophonic call to prayer – Allahu Akbar! – from dozens of mosques.
I’m not religious in any sense but during my stay in Fez, I watched a great documentary “Fez: City of Saints”, read some Koran, and listened to a few lectures of Hamza Yusuf, a highly influential classical Islamic scholar. It opened my eyes to the intricacies of the high Islamic culture like never before.
Street food and travel companions
Inspired by Kitchen Confidential I ate some more street food, tajins, and drank the sweet Moroccan mint tea. Then it was time to head to Meknes. I met a beautiful Chinese girl in the lobby of my Riad and we decided to go together.
“Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” ― Ibn Battuta, The Travels of Ibn Battutah
Meknes – The Old Imperial Capital (1 night)
The marvelous Riad Ould Dona
Meknes is an hour away from Fez, and fortunately for people who go there, it doesn’t share its fame. It’s much calmer (for Moroccan standards), and it’s a great place for shopping. We arrived there in the morning and after some confusion, we’ve found our abode – Riad Ould Dona.
It was the best one I had during my whole trip. The owner is a lovely French-Moroccan lady called Patricia, and she blew our minds with her hospitality. Moreover, the whole place was luxurious, beautifully designed and totally renovated.
The City of a Hundred Minarets
Meknes is an old medieval city surrounded by walls and huge gates. It was once an imperial capital and Moulay Ismail, the ruler of the Alaouite dynasty made sure it had all gardens and mosques it needed (hence the nickname – “The City of a Hundred Minarets”).
Shopping time in Meknes
We walked the souks (traditional market areas) for hours and stepped into many shops. We visited a shop with the famous Argan oil, spices, and other goodies. The lady from the shop told us the business was slow, and that all the items were produced by the mysterious community of the Working Women of Morocco.
They also showed us a type of jewelry famous in Meknes which is still alive with the Berber heritage. First, they prepare the design by making shallow grooves in the metal (usually iron). Then they take a strand of silver and slowly hammer it into the grooves. These ornaments were uniquely beautiful and varied greatly in quality and shape.
Local street food
I and my Chinese companion decided to eat out and we settled on a local street restaurant. We sat among Morrocans in a small dining room; a huge oven sat right next to us. Smoke fills the whole room as we ate delicious Kefta in a piece of bread – it was worth it.
The main square of Meknes
Finally, we emerged from the labyrinth of the Medina and into the El Hedim Square which once rivaled the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa Square in Marrakech. It was huge and had the emblematic Bab Mansour Gate on its side. Right next to the gate, there’s a Museum of Meknes which is definitely worth the 20Dh ticket price. Then we went around the gate and into the old Imperial Palace area – make sure to take lots of water if you want to go there.
The unforgettable night at the rooftop
After much effort, we came back to the Riad, and our hostess arranged a helper who organized some drinks for us. He took a journey to an undisclosed location and came back with two nice bottles of wine from the Meknes’ region.
We put them into a bucket of ice and enjoyed it thoroughly while sitting on the rooftop with Patricia and her French and Spanish friends. There were huge drums there and I banged on them as we continued our conversation long into the night. The next morning I had to part with my Chinese acquaintance and went to the mountain city of Chefchaouen.
“If you engage in travel, you will arrive.” Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom
Chefchaouen – Adventures in the Blue City (2 nights)
The journey to Chefchaouen
It took me around 4 hours and 70 Dh to get from Meknes to Chefchaouen. It was a local bus without AC and my t-shirt stuck to the seat as I drunk hectoliters of water. We took a short stop along the way. It was basically a restaurant in the middle of the desert with a skinned lamb hanging from the hook at the entrance.
I met some Swedish and Spanish people there and we decided to find our way to the city together. When we arrived at the bus stop, we switched to a shared taxi. I asked one of the thirsty girls if she would like some hot water, which she declined with much laughter.
Why The Blue City?
The nickname of Chaouen is “The Blue City” as its walls are bathed in the light blue color redolent of Greek Islands. It’s probably the best place to practice your photography skills. They say it’s blue because it helps to drive away from the mosquitos (as they don’t like to hang around clear, flowing water). In fact, blue just looks nice and is good for the overall atmosphere. You feel a seaside vibe even if you’re in a valley among the Rif Mountains.
Making new friends at the Riad
I stayed in Riad Baraka which was probably the most Anglo-centric place in town. It was full of Australians, Americans, New Zealanders, and Brits. What I’ve noticed is that people who are most well-off in this world also complained the most. But they were a superb bunch of backpackers, and during these two nights, we had the best of times.
In Islam, Baraka is a beneficent force from God that permeates all the physical and spiritual worlds. It’s also the name of one of the best travel-inspiring and original movies of all time.
Hashish, sunsets, and snails
The first thing you notice about Chefchaouen is that everybody wants to sell you hashish. It’s not an accident. The Blue City is the capital of the dirty chocolate in Morocco. They sell huge amounts of it for pennies and we took full advantage of that. (You can also buy brownies and all sorts of other industry-approved specialties).
In the evening, we went through the colorful streets of the Old Medina, passed a random Ostrich standing on the corner of the street, and then up the hill to the anomalous Spanish Mosque built in the 1920s by the colonialists. We smoked some more as we gazed at the magnificent sunset over the city.
Inspired by Bourdain’s quote that “your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park” I ate some boiled snails somewhere along the way. I faced the stark consequences of this courageous act only later, in Tangier.
A wonderful day at the waterfalls
The next morning we decided to go for a trip to Cascades d’Akchour – the waterfalls and mountain streams in a nearby valley. It took us around 1,5h and 30Dh per person in a shared taxi to get there.
We could take the way to the waterfall or along the mountain stream and to the “bridge” which was a natural stone formation that enabled you to cross the canyon. From other travelers, we’ve learned that the waterfall wasn’t that impressive so we went for the streams. It was a glorious adventure.
We jumped across wet stones at the bottom of the canyon and enjoyed the lush flora of the place. There were numerous pools along the way and with some hesitation we jumped into this icy water. It was as refreshing as the Ice-bucket challenge.
There was a small recess near one of these pools. It almost looked like an underground water cavern (only smaller). I swam up there and lurked in the penumbra only to realize I was surrounded by giant bugs lounging at the ceiling.
On our way back, we watched as the locals jumped into the water from a small building with a “no jumping” sign on it. They also climbed the rocks and jumped headfirst from at least 15 meters (no joking).
The local oasis and cannabis plantations
There were no more shared taxis and we had to fight really hard to get back to the city. Finally, we grabbed a decrepit Mercedes bus that must have seen at least a few million kilometers of the road. The driver stopped at a water hose to get some mountain water.
Suddenly, around ten other people from the bus (including me) started giving him empty plastic bottles to fill. After this oasis experience, we rambled through the mountains listening to loud Berber music. We were awe-struck at the huge cannabis plantations and desolate mountains along the way.
After eating some cow’s hoofs in a chickpea-tomato sauce in the evening, it was time to prepare for the legendary Tangier.
If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise. — Prophet Muhammad as reported by Abu Darda in Sunan Abu Dawood, hadith 1631.
Tangier – The Cosmopolitan City of Morocco (3 nights)
The inevitable stomach problems
Tangier was the hardest. Just after arrival with an Israeli girl I met along the way, we ate some lousy tajine near to the bus station and I was on my way to the Medina Hostel. It was 2km and as I approached the seaside I already felt unpleasant gurgling in my stomach.
It was the snails I ate in Chefchaouen and now I was about to deal with the consequences. I spent the next two days and nights in the loo. It was terribly unpleasant but I had something similar in India so I was patiently waiting for some signs of relief.
The Australian encounter
I watched the sea from the rooftop of my Riad, and feeling a cool breeze on my face, I wished I could go out for more than 30 minutes at a time. My room was empty at first but then it was assailed by a group of five Australians (it seems like half of the backpackers in Morocco are Australians). One of them was a nurse and as she put a poultice on my forehead I felt reassured. I was going to survive.
At night, the whole group came back drunk and one of the girls was very into me. I reminded her of her Russian ex-boyfriend and she desperately wanted to kiss me – the bed struck snail victim mind you! I warded her off by saying I have a girlfriend (which is actually true and I love her very much).
The Spanish heritage of Tangier
After two nights of struggle, I was finally ready to explore the town. Tangier was in Spanish hands once and I realized it directly when I saw the ruined Gran Teatro Cervantes from 1912 and the helplessly run-down Cine Alcazar. The benefit for me was that most people spoke some Spanish.
Le Kasbah Museum
To appease my stomach, I ate some Harira (the traditional Moroccan soup) and then went to Le Kasbah (The Fortress) neighborhood. There’s a beautiful Kasbah Museum there which holds many artifacts from the Mediterranean cultures. There were mosaics from Ancient Rome, vases from the Hellenic period, medieval Islamic maps, and a beautiful garden (everything for 20Dh).
The sneaky Tangerine guide
When I went out, I saw a gateway leading to a terrace with a beautiful view of the harbor. There I met an old Moroccan guy who spoke good English. He told me he was a steward to the place and he worked here for thirty years (just like his father). It seemed suspicious and when he started showing me some things and telling a story I knew I was in trouble.
I told him I didn’t have any money (he didn’t want any money – of course) but he kept persisting. Finally, I got rid of him by parting with some spare change. During our unpleasant encounter, he actually showed me one interesting thing: a house with a beautiful green door which was featured in one of Matisse’s paintings. Henri Matisse actually spent some good time in Tangier and produced a few Morocco-inspired works here.
Ibn Battutah – The greatest traveler of all time
Then I searched for the tomb of Ibn Batuttah – the famous Tangerine. While in Morocco, I’ve read the excellent Travels with a Tangerine by the British historian Tim Mackintosh-Smith. From it, I’ve learned that Batuttah set out from Tangier at the beginning of the XIV century. He traveled as far as China (on foot, camel, horse, and by the sea), covering some 80.000 miles in around 30 years.
At the end of his Rihla (Journey), he came back to Morocco, and with the help of Ibn Juzayy he compiled the famous Travels. According to his scribe, Batuttah said:
I have indeed—praise be to God—attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the Earth, and I have attained this honour, which no ordinary person has attained.
It is known that in his later years he spent some time in the south of the country, then in Fez, but his actual burial place is probably lost forever. Nevertheless, I searched for the symbolic tomb to pay homage to the great traveler. After asking around 10 people, I finally found it in one of the narrow streets.
The next morning, I was on a train to a small coastal town of Asilah.
“Real travel is not about the highlights with which you dazzle your friends once you’re home. It’s about the loneliness, the solitude, the evenings spent by yourself, pining to be somewhere else. Those are the moments of true value. You feel half proud of them and half ashamed and you hold them to your heart.” ― Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams
Asilah – A Perfect Summer Retreat (1 night)
An endless search in a tiny town
I left the train station by sharing a taxi with two Spanish girls (we paid 10 Dh each). The driver left us at the gate to the Medina, and in a few moments, I realized my hostel was actually in a new part of this quaint coastal town.
Only about 28,000 people live here. “I’m going to find it easily!” – I thought. After more than an hour of search and almost fainting from exhaustion, I’ve found the elusive MIA Hostel. A very nice German hostess showed me around and after a quick shower, I was ready to go out.
An unusual encounter, fire, and no boats to Spain
On my way to the Old City, I encountered a Swedish guy I met in Chefchaouen. There was a great fire on the way from Rabat to Tangier and he had to leave the train in the middle of nowhere. Finally, he landed in Asilah with some Moroccan people.
He had a flight from Granada the next day and to his dismay, I informed him that due to strong winds, they canceled all the boats from Tangier to the Coast of Spain (it’s always better to expect these things in advance – especially when it comes to flights). We ate some pizza and tajines and they were on their way.
The best viewpoint of Asilah
I went into the beautiful, and tiny (compared to other cities) Medina. It was all white and blue, and with a strong wind from the sea, I was finally relieved from the constant heat. I reached a bastion at the edge of the walled city. It was sticking out into the sea with a height of about 20 meters.
Every person there was watching the sunset and taking selfies. There were also the locals, who plunged into the water from the edge of the wall. They actually had to wait for the right wave and jump just at the right moment. Otherwise, they would have hit the rocky bottom of the sea.
The baker lady with a tray of rolls
I wondered about the blue streets again. They were filled with tourist shops and modern-looking Moroccans. In one of the tiny alleys, I saw a young lady with a tray of freshly baked rolls. As she passed, beaming with joy, she gave one to the street merchant, and then one to me. That moment made my day.
Adventures at the sunny coast of Asilah
The next morning I decided to go to the beach. That’s what I was waiting for all along. It took me some 2km of a good walk under the burning sun. To my surprise, the water was freezing – just like in the Baltic Sea some few thousand kilometers north. It must have been the Atlantic Ocean currents I thought. Nevertheless, I jumped in.
I watched two young siblings playing in the water and they reminded me of my own childhood and my sister. I proceeded to one of the numerous beach restaurants and ate eight big grilled sardines with veggies, bread, and lemon (for astounding 25 Dh). Then I watered it down with icy coke and had an interesting chat with a Moroccan man who spoke five different languages.
More fires, fighting for the money, and a shared taxi
It was time to head to Rabat and as I approached the train station, I’ve heard the news of another conflagration on the way from Rabat to Tangier – all trains have been canceled. I’ve rushed through the door to get a refund for my ticket.
Inside, there already was a pack of Moroccans, screaming, banging at the window, and abusing the cashier. They were relentless as a pack of hyenas. Yet after around 30 minutes of sweating, being pushed around, and sticking my hand through the window, I got my refund for 80Dh.
After drinking 1 liter of water on the spot, I ran to the parking lot and inquired about a shared taxi to Rabat. I collected some other foreigners and in a few minutes, we were set for 150 Dh each. Along the way, I watched the boisterous clouds of smoke hanging above the seaside.
“Travel brings power and love back into your life” – Rumi, The Essential Rumi
Rabat – The Busy Capital of Morocco (1 night)
The dramatic search for the hostel
I ejected the taxi at around 9:00 PM and found myself at the main train station of the imperial city of Rabat. This time I was prepared and I had all the directions at hand. As the name suggests, the Medina Surfing Association was situated in the middle of the Old City.
First I marched for around 3km and then entered the maze from the most promising side. I soon got lost and it was already getting late. The situation was getting hopeless. I asked around but the shop owners never heard of my place. Finally, an old man gave me some complicated directions, and then one of the merchants knew exactly where it was and led me there (may he be forever blessed).
The midnight pizza
This same night I met two nice Dutch girls and a Venezuelan beauty, and we went together to grab some midnight pizza (appropriately getting slightly lost along the way). After sharing our travel stories under the starry sky, we all departed into the world of dreams.
The King of Morocco
We were in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, and one of the four imperial cities (the other being Fez, Meknes, and Marrakech). Rabat is the home to King Mohammed VI, the son of Hassan II. Everything revolves around the King in here.
All the main streets are called “The Avenue of Mohammed VI” (I guess every new king changes these names after ascending the throne). Every school, shop, and restaurant bears at least one portrait of the king. When you turn on the TV, and there’s no recitation of the Koran, you’ll see his face.
He’s as ubiquitous as Ataturk is in Turkey and people seem to like him. His wealth is estimated at 2,5 billion dollars so it would be really nice of him to send some food to the starving people in the south of his country.
Chellah – The Antique Necropolis
In the morning it was time to explore and this time I was with a Mexican-American, and Swiss-Moroccan girls. We went to the ancient fortified holy necropolis called Chellah. It was a grand fortress with an imposing gate. First, it was ruled by Phoenicians, then Romans, and finally Muslims. Now it was home mostly to storks.
The area was vast and arid, full of ancient buildings and forgotten tombs. But in this sandy graveyard, we also found beautiful, exotic gardens. We met an old cat lady (there were maybe 15 stray cats around her) who was reading a beautifully ornamented Koran. She was sitting by the pool filled with old coins and water turtles. We followed along the stream and into an oasis-kind-of-place. It was shady, cool, and felt like paradise.
The Royal Palace of Rabat
Later we were back to the heat and on our way to the current Royal Palace. The perimeter of the palace complex was huge, and the whole area was surrounded by tall walls and guarded gates. We got in for free but had to leave our passports at the entrance. After passing a grand mosque, we approached the palace but couldn’t hope for an invitation for an afternoon mint tea. We came back to Medina, talking about the king.
The bread fight at the local restaurant
We stopped for a chicken with fries at the local restaurant. There was an old lady-beggar coming our way (when I say old, I mean around 80 years old). Instead of giving her cash, we parted with some of our bread of which we had plenty. Then, as if from nowhere, two younger ladies appeared and inquired for the bread.
Just a moment later saw all of them fighting for the newly obtained food. Young ladies pushed the old one and she almost fell. Then the ancient one pulled out a wooden club from her trolley and aimed it at her opponents (one of whom carried an infant on her back).
Then a man rushed forward and hit the wrinkled one really hard at the back of the head, and slammed her face with an open hand. All hell broke loose and people started screaming and gesticulating with fervor. A few moments later the situation was resolved and all parties went their way. We just wanted to help…
The Hassan Tower
In the afternoon we went north of the medina and from a good vantage point, we saw the broad and densely populated beaches of Rabat. In the distance, there was the shimmering Hassan Tower. When construction started in 1195, they wanted it to be the tallest minaret in the world. With 44m (140 ft) of the 86m (240 ft) intended height it was still pretty impressive.
The secret café at the seaside
Then we descended into one of the secret Café Maure – a beautiful shady place right next to the sea. After much relaxation, we passed through the Andalusian Gardens and back to the Medina. On our way to the hostel, I bought some fresh fruits at the bazaar and was on my way to the train station. It was time to go to Marrakech.
“Never hesitate to go far away, beyond all seas, all frontiers, all countries, all beliefs.” ― Amin Maalouf, Leo Africanus
Marrakech – The Sin City of Morocco (7 nights)
The train journey and violence against Moroccan women
I paid 120Dh for the ticket and it took me around 4,5 h to reach Marrakech from Rabat. The train was very busy, and I was the only foreigner in the compartment.
At first, the old ladies bantered along, but after a while, I was left only with two young women. One of them bore scars from a severe beating on her cheek. She was visibly ashamed of this. I once saw an old lady in Tangier who was scarred and blind in one eye because of the beating. Later I’ve learned that violence against women is a serious problem in Morocco.
Face tattoos in Morocco
I also met a few women (mostly elderly) with tattoos on their faces. In some African tribes, these tattoos are considered an amulet and a mark of beauty. In Islam, however, they are forbidden, considered ugly, and serve as a deterrent to unwanted men from other communities. Many Muslim women circumvented the prohibition by beautifying themselves with henna tattoos on their hands and feet.
Getting to the Kasbah
I stepped out of the train station in the late evening and grabbed a super small taxi van for 40Dh. I soon realized the traffic in Marrakech was crazy. There was no notion of lanes, and all the cars and bikes flowed in one chaotic stream. We stopped in the Kasbah (the Citadel), right next to a giant mosque and I was picked up by Mohammed my new host from the Riad Dream Kasbah.
Jemaa el-Fnaa – the epicenter of Marrakech
After a few minutes of rest, I emerged back to the streets and went to the legendary Jemaa el-Fnaa square. It was a grand spectacle of lights, smells, and sounds. The place was enormous and filled with people. There were food stalls, juice shops, and merchants.
It looked like a giant fireworks show, only without fireworks. The lights were blinding and there was a cacophonous wave of sound coming from various street bands. They were playing drums and shrill trumpets of African descent.
Then there were monkey owners, snake charmers, fortune tellers, and henna tattoo artists. It all filled me with joy mixed with apprehension and I decided to call it a night. On my way back I saw many prostitutes, bars, and clubs and thought that if Fez is the Holy City, then Marrakech is the Sin City of Morocco.
The Medina, busy traffic, and pickpockets
In the morning I explored the vast Medina. The Old City of Marrakech is filled with motorcycle traffic so be careful. The place is a bit dirty and decrepit, but it didn’t bother me as much as the pickpockets who wanted to snatch my wallet. I noticed their attempt in time, and evaded it but by the time I could say anything they were gone. I met some nice Spanish girls back at the hostel, and in the evening we grabbed some Flag beers (17Dh for a 500ml can) from a nearby Carrefour.
The Bahia Palace
While sitting around at the Riad, I met a young and talented American girl named Aurora. She carried an acoustic guitar, and traveled the world on her savings from a bartending job, and singing at local restaurants. We became friends, and I was mesmerized when she sang for me. We indulged in some strong espressos and Moroccan sweets and went together to the Bahia Palace which in my mind could almost rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
Rock climbing at the Ouzoud Falls
The next day we went to the Ouzoud Falls 1,5h away from Marrakech. There were seven waterfalls in total and it was quite easy to get to the first two. Then it required a lot of effort and dangerous climbing. But climbed we did, and at some point, my foot got momentarily stuck in the rock. After releasing it I lost my balance and almost fell to certain death. I felt so much alive at this moment that I decided to do more of this in the future.
Finally, we reached the last waterfall and took a short bath in one of the pools. We were surrounded by other people, jumping and sitting around, and basically looked like a bunch of monkeys having a good time.
The Hammam, Tiskiwin Museum, Photography Museum, and the Ben Youssef Madrasa
Soon we had to part ways with Aurora (but not without visiting a great Hammam Zinani where we paid 200Dh for the sauna, scrubbing, massage, and being covered in hot foam).
Then I went back to exploring the city on my own. I visited the Tiskiwin Museum and it really opened my eyes to the life of the North African tribes and their customs. After this, I headed in the direction of Ben Youssef Madrasa.
On the way, in the very heart of Medina, I encountered the same Venezuelan girl I met in Rabat. We went to the Madrasa together, and then to the modern Photography Museum where we learned about Berbers and looked at the photographs of old Morocco.
The Majorelle Gardens
We couldn’t leave Marrakech without visiting the famous Majorelle Gardens – the place where Yves Saint Laurent used to hang to work on his designs. The place had a peculiar Majorelle-blue color and many different species of cacti and other plants. We also went into the Berber museum inside and it was definitely worth the additional 30Dh.
Goodbye to Morocco
I exhausted my body, soul, patience, and monetary resources, and on the last day took an Indian-like Tuk Tuk (auto-rickshaw) to the airport. I’ll definitely be coming back for more.
“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.” – Moslih Eddin Saadi, The Rose Garden
How did you like this unconventional guide to Morocco? Do you want to travel there soon? Please share your plans and impressions in the comments section.