Moroccan STOP sign. Do as it says and expect the cars behind towhack you up the bum, so to speak. A basis for negotiation
The blog timeline is all over the shop as we were unable to find a wifi signal for a few days and am thus still adding Morocco based posts even though we're now back in Spain. Oh well, we wrote ‘em so you're getting ‘em. Waste not, want not, as anyone who's ever seen a ration book will agree.
I’m still readjusting to ‘European’ driving. Anticipating, with reasonable expectation that fellow drivers will give way when appropriate, stop when a road sign requests it and so forth. Even a short time on Morocco’s roads demands a speedy acceptance that road signs are merely a basis for negotiation.
I agreed with Marigold’s list of favourite places. Not surprising as we went to all of them together. I’m always hesitant about recommending anywhere. A bit like films, books or tv programmes, it's such a subjective endeavour. As regards Morocco, here's the absolute essentials, assuming you have the time to do almost everything.
There are four so called Imperial Cities, but the best would have to be Marrakech, Meknes and Fes. Marrakech has several alternate spellings and I veer between them myself but hopefully you’ll know where I mean. Fes or Fez too, both are widely used. Marrakech is simply magnificent. The vast square of Deem El-Fna is packed, day or night, the souk is all hustle and bustle and the traffic is a nightmare. Above all else though, it's a place to see things you've never seen before. Exotic, noisy, crowded, but above all, different with the High Atlas Mountains as a snow clad backdrop.
I place Meknes above Fes as it's less crowded, but equally impressive. For many years it was the capital during the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl in the 17th century and the gates to the city still remain and are both enormous and magnificent. If you like Roman ruins, as we do, Volubilis is wonderfully well preserved and is an easy trip out from Meknes.
Fes only ranking third? Well, yes, in my opinion. It's as old as time itself and the ancient medina, the walled city known as Fes El Bali, is 3,000 years old and doesn't appear to have changed much at all. Medieval Fes was Morocco's capital for more than 400 years. There are more great gates at each entrance and inside is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, artisans and everything that can possibly be made by hand is made in here. We once bought a copper sink from a teenage boy who sat cross legged on the floor, holding the metal between his feet while he patiently tapped away with a small hammer, shaping and decorating. We went back the next day as he was finishing it and bought it from him.
We don't tend to use guides, ever, but the exception would have to be if you want to find the best viewpoint for the tanneries as otherwise you'll wander the alleys for hours. Ancient circular vats where cloth and hides are cleaned, bleached and coloured they never fail to amaze. Yes, the safety standards for the workers are abysmal and the smell is overpowering, but what an experience.
Downside? It's scruffy, no getting round it, but I can live with that, but the touts are more aggressive here, to the point of being a real pain in the backside, and it's very hot, humid and claustrophobic inside the medina so you may think one trip is enough. One tip: don’t make your admiration for an object you see in the souk obvious or you'll soon find it is snatched away, wrapped and the stall holder is expecting to be paid in the blink of an eye.
Where else? Essaouira, of course. Marigold loves it here and there's no better recommendation. Inside the medina it's very Arabic, outside there are snazzy restaurants, bars and cafes, a great beach and a working fishing harbour. They build the boats here as well which is fascinating. Not much fibreglass involved here! If you're interested in wine, like me, there's a reputable vineyard, Val d’Argan, run by a winemaker from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which can't be bad!
Many, many years ago, we were all set to travel to Essaouira with our Aussie surfing mates, but events decided otherwise. It took us a while to get here, but when we did we saw why every true surfer wants to come. It is the coastal wind – the beautifully named alizee, or taros in Berber – that makes Essaouira such a surfers’ paradise. It blows all year, the waves are often huge and all a surfer asks for is a wave and, ideally, warm water.
Next would have to be the small town we've just left: Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains. The blue houses are lovely, there's a delightful central square, Outa el Hammam, for a drink or a meal and if you're inclined to smoke certain substances, it's cannabis HQ. On the way in, every hillside contains young boys flashing shards of mirrors to attract attention, shouting out ‘keef, keef.’ (The Berber word for cannabis is kif, pronounced keef.)
Most visitors content themselves with admiring the High Atlas from afar, but since we first visited the area many years ago it has become a favourite. Jebel Toubkal is North Africa's highest peak at 13,667 feet and it's possible to take a trek to the summit from Imlil. We're not mountain goats so we’ve never climbed to the top, but the clear, cool air up here is such a contrast to the baking heat of the plains and a couple if days will be well spent.
Going down again, especially if you're intending to head for the desert, is an experience as there are many bends and it needs clear heads. Head for the Dades Valley, between the Jebel Sarhro and the High Atlas, for spectacular scenery. The red cliffs on each side are lined with traditional forts known as kasbahs, many of which have been turned into luxurious hotels, but if luxury isn't your thing, check out the Berber villages and the magnificent Todra and Dades Gorges.
Finally, and crucially, do try and go into the desert. The Sahara is immense and timeless. Forget you’re in the 21st century from the moment of entry. From now on, you’ve gone back in time thousands of years. There are organised trips by companies promising the ‘ultimate desert experience,’ nights out under the stars and meals with authentic desert tribesmen. Just one word: avoid. Yes, that's just our personal view, but we've travelled hundreds of miles in the desert and never felt unnerved by the experience. Obviously, a reliable vehicle, plenty of water and vast amounts of common sense are required. Sometimes, it's good to dare. The rewards are astonishing and you'll never forget the experience.
There’s my list. I’ve not included everything, barely scratched the surface in truth, but they're the ‘must sees.’