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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.