Morocco

An intrepid adventure through a country full of surprises.

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Morocco always seemed to me to be the epitome of the word ‘exotic’. I imagined bustling souks, camels trekking across the desert, houses decorated with boldly patterned carpets and ornate mosques gleaming against a blue sky. Basically I was expecting a land straight out of the Arabian Nights.

And I wasn’t disappointed – the souks were bustling and the mosques were gleaming. But I would also be pleasantly surprised to discover the many other faces of Morocco, such as the friendliness and humour of the locals, the varied landscapes and the blend of modern and traditional life.  

I’d decided to visit Morocco back in January, when, after spending two weeks of sun and Christmas celebrations with my family in Australia, I’d come back to the depths of an English winter. The only way I could face my cold, dark, desk-bound existence was to book a trip somewhere completely the opposite. Morocco beckoned.

Having recently travelled independently, I decided to switch it up and book onto an Intrepid tour. I was drawn in by the prospect of getting to know a group of like-minded travellers and a local tour guide. I was also happy to leave the organising and the research to someone else. All I had to do was to pick a tour on Intrepid’s website, book my flights, and I was all set for my Moroccan adventure!

Casablanca

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The incredible Hassan II Mosque that sits at the edge of the sea

I arrived in Casablanca with a horrible cold (thanks England!) but I was happy to be hauling my trusty (and, as usual, overpacked) backpack onto my shoulders once again. Following Intrepid’s advice, I negotiated a taxi fare of 300 dirhams and was dropped off at my hotel, where the tour group was due to meet in a couple of hours’ time.

I went up to my room to meet my roommate, who I was told had already arrived. She turned out to be Rita, a friendly, funny 19-year-old from China. Rita and I became fast friends and we rushed out to see the sights of Casablanca together.

It was a very hasty self-guided tour of Casablanca. Culture shock hit as we walked through our very first Moroccan souk and waved away dozens of persistent salespeople who offered everything from henna tattoos to carpets and lamps. We hurriedly made our way to the famous Hassan II Mosque, which sits on the edge of the city, looking out to sea.

As I stared up at it, my travel bug came out of hibernation and fluttered excitedly in my chest. This morning I had been walking through a sleepy town in England, and now here I was in dazzling Morocco, looking up at a majestic tower that shone against a backdrop of sea and sky.

The moment was short-lived. Rita and I snapped a few pictures and ran to catch a taxi back to hotel for the meeting that would kick off our tour.

Rabat, Moulay Idriss and Volubilis

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Getting lost among the columns of the Mausoleum of Mohammed V

After meeting our friendly tour leader, Hicham, and enjoying a first group dinner the night before, we kicked off our first day as a bunch of intrepid travellers by getting up early and heading to the train station. There were 16 of us, and as we engaged in the normal getting-to-know-you small talk, the diversity of the group became apparent. There were Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Chinese, Filipino, Dutch and English, ranging in age from 19 to 70. Some people were outgoing, others quieter. Everyone came with different interests, from weaving to cooking, hiking to photography.

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Walking through the city streets of Rabat, we looked up and saw this incredible painting on one of the buildings

We were going to be travelling in second class to Morocco’s capital city, Rabat. Hicham had prepared us for a busy, chaotic journey, but upon boarding, I was surprised to find that the trains were modern and comfortable. I spent the journey sitting next to a man in aviator sunglasses and a traditional Djellaba (a loose-fitting robe), who watched music videos on his phone for the entire journey, and occasionally couldn’t restrain himself from joining in with some small, but well-executed dance moves.

Despite being the capital, Rabat is only the seventh-largest city in Morocco. Hicham gave us maps and sent us off to explore on our own. Having terrible map reading skills myself, I stuck with my new intrepid friends, and we somehow managed to find our way to Kasbah des Oudaias, which looks out onto the Atlantic Ocean.

By chance, we stumbled across a breathtaking bar floating on the edge of cliff above the water, and decided to have a break from exploring. It was here, gazing out over the blue expanse, that we were introduced to the standard drink of Morocco – tea packed with fresh, aromatic mint and plenty of sugar.

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Wandering by the canal in Rabat

After exploring the spectacular Mausoleum of Mohammed V with its regal guards, it was time to get back on the train (this time in luxurious first-class style!) and nap for a few hours. We awoke to find ourselves in Meknes, but were soon packed into taxis and travelling through stunning green countryside towards the village of Moulay Idriss.

When we arrived, donkeys carried our luggage up the steep steps to our accommodation – a traditional ‘riad’, which, from the outside is just a door in a wall, but upon entering turned out to be a beautiful multi-story house, with the rooms around the edges and a spacious courtyard in the centre that lets you look up through the levels to the ceiling.

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The tomb of Moulay Idriss I – this photo was taken over a barrier that stops non-Muslims from entering

Moulay Idriss is a sacred place for Muslims, and many pilgrims come to pay their respects at tomb of Moulay Idriss I, who was apparently the guy who brought Islam to Morocco. As non-Muslims, we weren’t allowed to enter the tomb, but we explored the village, with its maze-like streets that took us higher and higher, up many steps, until we were rewarded with a gorgeous view over the town and the surrounding hills. The day ended with a feast of chicken tagine, meatballs, vegetables and couscous.

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I felt like I’d been transported to Italy at the ancient Roman city of Volubilis

We found ourselves amongst these green rolling hills the next day, when we visited the ruins of the ancient Roman city, Volubilis. Amazingly well-preserved, here we marvelled at colourful Roman mosaics and bathhouses.

This was something I definitely hadn’t expected from Morocco – standing amongst the stone columns and serene countryside, I felt like I was Italy. No wonder the Romans decided to build here!

Fez

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So many olive stalls in Fez’s souks – yum!

Just a short train ride away, our next day began in Fez. Does any name sound as exotic as Fez? I don’t think so. Fez is the second-largest city in Morocco, and it would be extremely easy to get lost in its medina, or old town, which is one of the largest urban car-free areas in the world. Luckily, we had a lovely woman to guide us through this labyrinth. She led us down streets so narrow you couldn’t stretch out your arms, twisting and turning and leading us deeper into the heart of the medina.

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A doorway in one of Fez’s narrow streets opened into a beautifully decorated mosque 

When we finally found ourselves getting bumped and jostled in those bustling souks I’d dreamt of, it was everything I’d hoped it would be. The never-ending rows of stalls were piled high with everything from dates, olives, snails, mint, wool, pink flower petals and even mobile phones. Men with heavily-laden donkeys came barging through, shouting “watch out, watch out” for the benefit of clueless tourists like ourselves. It was magical.

Chefchaouen

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Admiring the view over the blue city of Chefchaouen

After an exhausting but wonderful day spent tramping through the loud, smoky, bustling maze that is Fez, it was definitely time for a change of pace. But I could never have imagined how perfect the city of Chefchaouen would be for this change.

The hotel was the first surprise. We were led through to a sparkling blue swimming pool overlooking a city that was also blue, and I think I speak for the group when I say we felt like we’d hit the jackpot. Our rooms were separate little villas sitting high on a hill, with windows that looked out on the beauty below.

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I could live in this place and never need to see another colour ever again!

If looking out over the city was amazing, entering it took my joy and amazement to another level. Everything was painted powder blue, from the doors, to the walls, to the floor. Perhaps as a result of the colour, a feeling of calm washed over me like water the moment I stepped inside. I realised that Morocco had again surprised me with something completely unexpected, and this made it all the more special.

Tangier and Marrakech

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Tagines for sale in Marrakech

A couple of dream-like days were spent wandering the streets of Chefchaouen and hiking high into the surrounding hills for some stunning views. After which, sadly, it was time to leave, as we journeyed on to the coastal city of Tangier, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Here we drove through the aptly named ‘Hollywood’ area, where wealthy Moroccans, foreigners and even the King of Saudi Arabia own mansions that drip with opulence and have views to die for.

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Looking out onto the meeting of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean in Tangier

After a day spent exploring some caves and doing a bit of shopping in Tangier’s busy medina, we arrived at the train station at midnight, ready to board the overnight train to Marrakech.

The train journey was surprisingly comfortable, apart from a few hours in the middle of the night when the air conditioning malfunctioned and it got so suffocatingly hot that I felt like I would drown in a pool of my own sweat. But we all made it there alive, and by that afternoon we were feeling fresh and ready to see the city.

Marrakech gave me a glimpse at the two extremes of Moroccan life. At one end of town, teenagers shopped for the latest western fashions in shiny shopping malls, while at the other, men in Djellabas knelt on the floor of the mosque.

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The souks in Marrakech are lit with the glow of hundreds of exotic lamps

After getting lost in the huge souk for several hours, we had our final group dinner in the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square. As darkness fell, this expansive, UNESCO World Heritage Site became packed with bright lights, snake charmers and smoky food stalls, and filled with the din of jangling music and thousands of excited voices. It was an exhilaratingly exotic assault on the senses, and the perfect way to end our Moroccan adventure.

 

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The busy Jemaa el-Fnaa square, before the smoky food stalls popped up at dusk

 

The journey begins

After months of planning and years of dreaming, I found myself on a flight to Singapore, the first leg of my journey. Leaving home was as tear-filled and traumatic as expected, but it’s amazing how quickly you can pull yourself together and get on with the task of travelling.

An hour into the flight I was sitting there bopping my head and tapping my feet (literally) to my excellent Aeroplane Playlist that featured such classics as ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘We Gotta Get Outta This Place’. I was feeling great and looking forward to whatever adventures were ahead of me. After a couple of hours the greatness wore off a little and I became uncomfortable and restless. My poor nose was dried out, my stomach was bloated after the massaman curry I’d eaten (Singapore Airlines…it was a choice of curry or curry) and I just wanted to go to sleep. The joys of air travel! I thanked my past self for having the good sense to reserve exit row seats so that at least my legs weren’t suffering too.

After a stopover in Singapore where my connecting flight was delayed by an hour, I was on my way again, this time headed for London. I dozed on and off for 14 hours next to my exit row companions, who, thankfully, were as uninterested in chatting as I was. The most conversation we had was the occasional ‘excuse me’ as we awkwardly tried to pull our tray tables from within the arm rests.

Killing time in Heathrow

I was slightly worried that the delay in Singapore would make me rushed to make my flight to Athens. I was envisioning buses between the many terminals of Heathrow Airport and long queues at Customs. As it turned out though, the plane landed at the same terminal from which my Athens flight would be departing. I simply picked my bag up from the carousel, walked over to the check in desks and got rid of it again. I spent the next two hours trapped in Heathrow’s Terminal 2 – a small, rectangular space containing a handful of fancy, typically English stores like Ted Baker and Cath Kidston, and an even smaller handful of fancy food joints.

I was hankering for a McDonald’s burger (that’s right – hankering!). It would be cheap, satisfying and I could totally justify it to myself because of the ordeal of travelling. But there was no McDonald’s. There was a Heston Blumenthal restaurant, a mediterranean cafe and a restaurant called the Original London Pub. After doing about three laps of the terminal trying to decide where I would be happiest to part with my money, I settled on the London Pub and ordered a full English Breakfast. The waiter promised fried bread and fried eggs, and I figured, “I’m already feeling greasy from the flight, so what’s a bit more grease?”

When it came, though, I got a small bit of dry toast, one piece of bacon and poached eggs that had a slightly processed look about them. And it cost £12. Twelve pounds! That’s about AU$25! Bloody Heathrow.

The flight from hell

When the time finally came to board the flight to Athens, I was dazed and delirious. I had been awake for about two days. It came as a shock to be surrounded by young couples and families looking fresh and bright, their children running around excitedly at the prospect of a beach holiday. This was very different to the subdued crowd on my last flight, who, knowing their fate, gritted their teeth and boarded in silence. I felt out of place with my oily skin, ratty hair and, probably, vague aroma of sweat.

As the plane took off, dozens of children were either crying, squealing with excitement or watching loud and inane cartoons on their iPads. I was in hell.

I tried to remove myself from the situation by snoozing, but found that impossible as the mother sitting next to me had to keep getting past me to take her child to the toilet or get sweets from the overhead locker. I just smiled politely and willed it all to be over.

When the meal came, the mother and I began chatting and I discovered she was originally from Germany but now lived in England with her Greek husband and three very cute daughters. She and her husband were very helpful, giving me tips about where to go in Greece and how to get to my hotel. I forgave them a little for being so fresh and excited.

Intrepid but lost

When we arrived at Athens Airport I decided to start my intrepid travels off right and get the metro to my hotel, rather than lazily hopping in a taxi. I bought a ticket from a man who waved me away when I asked which platform I needed. The metro turned out to be quite straightforward, it just took a long time and involved changing lines. Upon arriving at the correct station, exhausted, with my huge backpack strapped to my back and my daypack awkwardly hanging off my front, I summoned my last burst of energy and strode off – in the wrong direction.

It was getting darker at this point, as it was about 8.30pm, and the area had a slightly dodgy vibe. I could see no sign of my hotel, so I asked a man at a service station for directions.

“It’s behind you!” he said. I began trudging slowly back the way I had come. I was sweaty, exhausted and wishing I had just taken a bloody taxi. I couldn’t see any street signs and I was getting a little concerned as I passed homeless people and men loitering on the street. And then suddenly it was there – the Hotel Neos Olympos!

I checked in and walked up three flights of stairs, my two backpacks weighing me down so that I thought I would break. I got into my room, sat down on the small, hard bed and gave a huge, exhausted sigh. Then it dawned on me that I was in Greece! My travels had begun.

 

The difference between leaving and going

“I had to remind myself that this wasn’t real life. I was caught in a whirlwind of celebration, a festival of finality. There was a reason I had bought a one way ticket to Europe and that was because I wasn’t content in my life. I craved adventure and freedom and new experiences.”

Parting is such sweet sorrow…

I’m no Shakespeare scholar but I’d say the bard got it bloody right when he wrote those words. For two weeks before I left on my one way European adventure, everything became about the leaving – leaving my family, my friends, my job. My whole life. And even though I had been wishing the time away for months, counting down the days until I got on the plane, in those last few weeks, it all suddenly became very real.

Suddenly I wasn’t thinking about going on my wonderful, life changing adventure. All I was thinking about was the fact that I would be leaving my life. And because of this, I started to see it in a new light. I had awesome friends, a good job that I had recently started to enjoy and a rowing club that kept me fit and happy. Above all else I had my family, who I never seemed to get sick of living with. I was so lucky.

My friend wisely described it as the Pre-Departure Glow. “Shortly before you go, everything becomes amazing and you ask yourself, ‘why would I want to leave? My life is glowing and full of happy unicorns!’” she said.

It certainly was a happy few weeks, filled with final catch ups, leaving celebrations and lots of ‘lasts’ – last rowing competition, last day at work, last family dinner, last time I would see Melbourne – for an indefinite period of time. Because time was running out, everything took on an increased significance and became more enjoyable than ever before.

I had to remind myself that this wasn’t real life. I was caught in a whirlwind of celebration, a festival of finality. There was a reason I had bought a one way ticket to Europe and that was because I wasn’t content in my life. I craved adventure and freedom and new experiences.

That is not to say that I didn’t value the things I was leaving behind, simply that I needed something more. Logically I knew this, but it was hard to feel it as I said my goodbyes and packed up my belongings.

It wasn’t until I reached the airport, and completed the leaving phase with a tearful goodbye to my family, that I was able to move into the going phase. I walked through customs, sniffing and dabbing my red eyes, and breathed a sigh of relief. I had left. Now I could get on with going.

As the plane picked up speed and rattled down the runway, I felt the pull of gravity in my chest and then the weightlessness as we lifted into the air. And in that moment I was so excited for what was to come, and so grateful for where I had come from.