Morocco is the complete package in an exotic setting, plain and simple. Famously known for Marrakesh, made even more famous because of Hollywood, Morocco caught us rather off guard that it actually consists of even more layers than we initially imagined. Far from a one-trick pony, this North African country deserves to be visited more than once.
A journey to Morocco would typically start out in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city. First and foremost, we would advise anyone who visits Casablanca to leave any preconceptions that Hollywood might have instilled on you and start fresh. Forget Bogart’s distinctive voice, forget the romanticized atmosphere of Casablanca in the 40s, Casablanca is a whole different beast from what you would imagine from the fiction it owes its reputation to.
To name a few things to do in Casablanca, there’s the Hassan II Mosque which by all means was spectacular. Casablanca also had a couple of great seafood restaurants by its docks. And for those who still can’t shrug off the fact that this city is in reality a very different city than in Bogart’s world, there’s the aptly named Rick’s Café, in which the owner of the café designed the interior to make it look exactly like the infamous bar in the movie Casablanca. After seeing all that, then move on to the next destination whether it be Fes, Rabbat, Tangiers, or like me, Marrakesh.
Here we have Morocco’s prized jewel: Marrakesh, the city that have inspired thousands the world over to flock to this pulsating city. Once a capital of the Moroccan Sultanate, Marrakesh is embellished by grand palaces, a lively bazaar within its old city, and flanked by the Atlas Mountains with some of the highest peaks in all of Africa.
Look at the pictures on the web, read up on the atmosphere of the medina, and you’ll probably get what you would expect the minute you set foot inside its walled city. Marrakesh as a city overall is sprawling, but its old medina is like a time capsule. Though not as old as Fes’ old city, Marrakesh can still hold its own and without exaggerating, give visitors that eerie feeling of being transported back into time. You’ve probably had this imagination of how a medieval Moorish culture would look and feel, and Marrakesh will take you there seamlessly. The old medina is dazzling and occasionally disorienting. There is so much going on within its narrow cobbled streets. It’s like a labyrinth in which if you’re not careful you’ll end up on the wrong end of the city. But that’s part of the joy in exploring Marrakesh. You get the undiluted sensation of actually being in the middle of an adventure through exploration of the unknown.
With luck or perhaps help of local people, you’ll end up in Marrakesh’s most famous site, the Jemaa el-Fna, the main square of Marrakesh, also probably the most photographed landmark in the city. From above, the sight of the square is mesmerizing. At ground level, the experience is very vibrant and at times overwhelming. The square is filled with locals and tourists alike, many navigating the numerous food stalls that set up shop after the sun goes down. From seafood, to grilled meat, to delicious cooked goat’s head, the sight and aromas are like a siren’s call, one that is very hard to resist.
You could explore Marrakesh for days and not get bored, but that’s unfair because of other places nearby that are also worth your time. Take for example the old fortified coastal city of Essaouira. This particular city slipped under our radar as we were planning the trip, and sneaked up into our attention only when we got to Casablanca. The city is unusually known for its musical scene and a reputation with hippies – yes, we saw actual real life breathing hippies. It gained this reputation because back in the 60s when it was all love and peace, Jimi Hendrix visited the town and they now even have a Hendrix Café which sort of acts as a shrine to the rock legend.
Hippies aside, Essaouira is a city doused in blue and white, in contrast to Marrakesh’s predominant pinkish-brown. The city was once an important Portuguese trading port and remnants of the old fortification still remain around the city. Indicative of its history, there are more European-styled buildings than say in Marrakesh.
In concluding this brief writing about Morocco we shall offer a couple of tips for those who are interested in visiting the country:
Do visit Casablanca and take in the sight and food, but not to overstay. One or two full days in Casablanca would be enough.
Although Marrakesh is the centerpiece of Morocco, do take time to explore other parts of Morocco. Do visit Fes, a city north of Casablanca that’s probably the Sufi capital of the world and one of the oldest settlements in the country with an old medina that’s more “authentic” than Marrakesh’s. Do visit Volubilis to see a fine example of an excavated Roman city in North Africa. Do visit Imlil, a city in the High Atlas Mountains that can be visited through a full day trip from Marrakesh. Visit Ouarzazate, Morocco’s Hollywood and gateway to the Sahara Desert.
Marrakesh’s old medina is best experienced up close, therefore it would be ideal if you pick one of the many beautiful Riads within the medina to stay in.
And our last tip, also while in Marrakesh, by all means try one of the food stalls in the square. But if you’re looking for something more “local,” there are numerous restaurants set up like butcher shops in the streets that lead out of Jemaa el-Fna. These places had some of the best grilled meat we have tasted anywhere in the world. Look for the butcher-like glass displays on the side of the road and gauge the ratio of tourists and locals inside. If there are more locals, then you’ve found your spot and gateway to meat heaven.
Words and Photos by Hario Priambodho