Morocco is a vivacious country thriving in the desert. Sharing its language, love of pastries and ornate interior design with France, one may think the northern African country identifies more with Western Europe than its nearby neighbors. Even with its French flare, Morocco is unlike anywhere else in the world.
Braced for an adventure, my sister and I spent six days
sweating, laughing and running through this captivating country.
Our travels began in Casablanca. An
international hub likened to New York City, Casablanca is an industrialized
city of more than 3 million people and sits on the Atlantic coastline. While there, we spent much
of our time in the old town central medina, or market. Not unlike the other
medinas we'd explore, Casablanca's market was a cobblestone maze of winding,
narrow alleys lined with shops and stands selling anything and everything from
jewelry and tunics, to spices, cooking pots, camel bone boxes and furniture.
A few other notable sites in the city include the Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca Cathedral and the Twin Towers Center.
Just a short two-hour drive north is the city of Kenitra
where I detoured for a quick work trip. Also a hub for industry, the city
recently embraced new visitors. Four-foot tall white and black winged storks, and their
massive nests, have taken over the town. It was impossible not to cast
your eyes on the nests looming atop roofs and electric poles and see the flocks flooding the sky. In addition to the enormous birds, while in Kenitra
I got my first taste of the local cuisine. At a traditional Moroccan restaurant
with wall murals and clanking jeweled curtains, perched atop colorful pillows,
my colleagues and I dined on kebabs, couscous and the ever-present national
delicacy tajine. Tajine is a meat and vegetable stew, sometimes spiced, cooked in
a triangular vented pot. To accompany our meal, we sipped on mint lavender tea
with just a touch of sugar. I looked on with awe as our host poured the tea
from five feet in the air learning that the dramatic gesture is a sign of
respect for guests.
A humming three-hour train ride took us from Casablanca
to the inland cultural epicenter of Marrakech. With the tropical vegetation of
Southeast Asia, the relentless, intrusive hawkers of India and the conservative
garb and ritual of the Middle East, Marrakech ignited all of our senses.
During our time in the loud and bustling city we found
our oasis in a cozy riad in the medina. A riad is a typical Moroccan home or palace with an interior courtyard or garden. Riad Itrane offers ten
rooms each meticulously decorated with hand-carved wooden doors, stained glass
windows, beautiful iron work, colorful decor and exquisitely carved ceramic
light fixtures. Daily breakfasts with locally-picked dates, figs and almonds,
as well as homemade breads and jams were delightful to enjoy in the open
courtyard or on the rooftop overlooking the city.
Our riad was centrally located right off Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square, so
that it was easy to explore old town Marrakech by foot. Walking through the
walled city center, elbow-to-elbow with locals and tourists alike, our hearts
raced with both excitement and fear. We stepped cautiously as snake charmers
from the Sahara Desert were scattered on carpets beating their drums and
blowing their flutes somehow mysteriously controlling the cobras and rattlers
that slithered at their feet. Men worked the crowd leading monkeys in diapers
while Muslim women with only eyes showing beckoned for the chance to paint
henna designs on our hands and feet. Set up throughout the square were vendor
stands selling fresh-squeezed juices, wooden carts peddling cactus fruit and
endless makeshift businesses displaying their handicrafts on carpets ... all
while motorbikes zipped by and horse-drawn buggies parted the crowds.
With thousands of souls wandering, selling, yelling,
haggling, charming, dancing, eating and gawking in the square it was almost
surreal to see the commotion come to a screeching halt as the Islamic prayer
bellowed over the loud speakers. Every day, five times a day, order would blanket
the square as the vast majority of men stopped whatever they were doing, lined
up orderly in rows, and repeated verses as part of the Islamic ritual.
The chaos and color of Marrakech was intoxicating, but we
knew there was more to Morocco than city life. Before too long, we escaped to
the countryside, bouncing from village to village over the ever-changing
terrain. Navigating the white-knuckle curves of the Atlas Mountains, we saw
goats grazing and thousand-year-old fossils for sale; over the hills and into
the valleys were cactus of all shapes and sizes, and oases of lush palm
trees; hijab wearing women were spotted carrying sacks atop of their heads and
men leading donkeys loaded with supplies traveled to and from the mud brick
houses that lined the roadways.
We climbed the steps of the village of Aït Benhaddou where Indiana
Jones, Gladiator and the television series Game of Thrones were filmed, and dipped our toes in the crystal clear waters
within Todgha Gorge, before heading to the red sand dunes of Merzouga for an
unforgettable night Camping in the Sahara Desert.
Morocco drew us in and put us under her spell. The
country was alive and all-consuming: the locals humble while cunning, the
scenery diverse, and the sensations hypnotic. Six days provided a satisfying
sampling of Morocco's flavor, and we just may go back again someday for another