“Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind / Had to get away to see what we could find”
- from Marrakesh Express, Graham Nash
If you imagine Morocco as a world frozen in time, with simmering spices, colorful carpets, and intriguing snake charmers, you would be partially right. It just depends on where you look. Over 5,000 years of history have contributed to its exotic personality, and its location on the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea only adds to its appeal.
Our prehistoric ancestors inhabited this area, followed by the indigenous Berbers, then settlers from Portugal, then Arab, Spanish and French colonialists. Independent for over 50 years, Morocco blends their cultural influences, and its official languages include Arabic, Berber and French. It was fun to see signs in all three, with little English in sight.
First stop: Rabat
A SAS friend remarked that Morocco’s capital city of Rabat is similar to Washington, D.C. with its wide avenues and government seat. It is also an ancient city with incredible architecture, marble and mosaics. My highlights included Dâr-al-Makhzen, or Royal Palace, the primary and official residence of the king and his family; the Chellah necropolis, which was built in the 14th century on the site of the ancient Roman city of Sala; the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, containing the tombs of past kings; Hassan tower, intended to be the world’s largest minaret (but construction stopped in 1199 upon the sultan’s death); and the Kasbah of the Oudayas, also built in the 12th century. Not only do I appreciate being able to throw in words like sultan, minaret and kasbah, but I also appreciate that old here really means old.
Second stop: Marrakesh
We got up early the next day to make the long bus trip from Casablanca to Marrakesh. You probably just started humming Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Marrakesh Express, and this tune will be stuck in your head all day. You’re welcome.
Marrakesh is the town that felt most frozen in time. It is a colorful world of souks and bazaars (both words mean market) with local crafts, leather goods, mosaic tiles, rugs and carpets, spices, and carvings. I purchased pure argan oil and for the price, got to try my hand at grinding the argan nut as the locals do it, still by hand.
We also spent time and dirham at Jemaa el-Fnaa, a huge public square filled with small merchants, vendors, musicians, and of course, entertainers: snake charmers and fez-topped monkey trainers. Despite my animal obsession, I did not patronize either of these, knowing that just snapping a photo would cost me money and recognizing the poor treatment of these little guys
Lastly, we were lucky to visit the Majorelle Gardens, famous for its artistic landscape and beautiful plant life. It was raining lightly, and I could have wandered around all day. My camera did not do it justice.
Fun Fact: The name Morocco means “country of the sunset”. I experienced not only a beautiful sunset but an incredible full rainbow on our drive back. (Bonus: successfully graded 120 essays!)
Third Stop: Casablanca
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman fans will want to know if I visited Rick’s Cafe. There is a restaurant in Casablanca paying homage to the fictional bar, but we just saw it from the outside. There was also an historic medina and great landmarks, mosques and photo ops to be had, but my favorite memory of Casablanca will be our foodie experiences. The Central Market is frequented by locals and holds beautiful piles of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as seafood and spices. After enjoying the smells and colors there, we proceeded to a cooking studio to prepare our own lunch. The Carrefour Culinaires Ecole de cuisine et pâtisserie School featured only French-speaking chefs who instructed us on Moroccan specialties through our tour guide/translator. Our menu included saffron chicken, spicy olive relish, khobz (bread), traditional Moroccan salad, mint tea (the national drink), and pastries. We did not make the khobz or pastries, but I hope to make both when I get home!
Other foodie highlights: Morocco is well known for its tagine, a meat and vegetable stew-like dish that is slow cooked with spices such as saffron, parsley and ginger in a clay pot of the same name. We also had couscous, of course, sometimes cooked with onions and savory spices, other times tossed with almonds and dried fruit. Salads preceded our meals but instead of one tossed salad as you might expect in the U.S., we were served several small dishes, including eggplant, tomatoes and cucumbers, lentils, fermented cauliflower, etc. Best of all was the dessert we were served in two different restaurants: heaping bowls of fresh oranges and apples.
As we were driving back to the ship on our final day in country, I asked our tour guide what she would like Americans to know about Morocco. She said our women in particular would be very proud of them for their efforts at equal rights for women. She noted their current king is the first to marry a commoner and the first to allow his wife to be seen in public. She also noted this queen is involved in many activities that are fighting for fair treatment of women.
Next up: Portugal