For Westerners, Morocco has an exotic flair, maybe even a bit of a romantic touch, given the influence of Humphrey Bogart’s blasé gaze in “Casablanca”. I think, for Middle Easterners, it has the taste of a place that is known and, yet, unexpectedly unknown, with hidden spells cast mostly by Moroccan women towards unsuspecting male visitors.
There is indeed magic in Morocco, though I am not sure about the validity of the “love spell” rumor. The country itself is full of exciting places to visit and things to do and, based on my recent multi-activity adventure there, I am sharing below my personal Top-10 list.
1. Hike in the Atlas Mountains, hopefully summiting Mt Toubkal as well
Since I love hiking, this might seem like a biased point. However, there is more to my suggestion. A hike on a mountain is always unique; it takes away any potential touristic moments that may be included in a trip, turning the expedition into a venture towards the unknown. Besides, the unceasingly changing scenery, the different lodges along the way, the contact with the villagers, the picnic lunches on the mountain slopes and the final moment of awe while standing on the tallest peak of West Africa and of the Arab World are enough to satisfy even the most demanding traveler.
2. Get “lost” in the Old Medina of Fes
There are several Imperial Cities in Morocco, but none compares to the beauty of Fes. Maybe because this old town is still alive and does not stand solely as a touristic attraction. Its narrow alleys – often the width of just one person – are vibrant with a daily life that seems to be projecting unaltered from the past. Transportation is allowed only on foot or with the help of donkeys, and ancient guilds continue to conduct business as usual, generation after generation. The tannery section, the fruits and vegetable section, the pharmacies section, the textile section, the manually whetting section, and the brass section are some of the significant neighborhoods worth visiting. The traveler should be warned though that entering any store kicks off an educational visit that invariably rounds up into a sales pitch from which it is not so easy to break free. Still, it is worth the experience.
3. Spend a night in a traditional, renovated riad
Riads are old houses (similar to small manors), with a central covered courtyard and rooms tucked into the surrounding walls. Many have been wonderfully renovated, offering a luxurious, yet cultural and warm taste of Moroccan hospitality.
4. Enjoy a traditional Moroccan hammam
There are several hammams in Morocco, some public ones (which I did not visit and, I guess, are not recommended for a tourist) and others that hide either inside a beautiful riad or in an alley of an old medina, dating back hundreds of years ago. It is not just a marvelous treat for the body; it takes you back to another era, and this is priceless.
5. Try the Moroccan pastilla with dove meat
Moroccan cuisine is famous and needs no additional praise here. However, I fell in love with the original pastilla, a small round meat pie (chicken or, even more traditionally, dove meat), cooked with spices, sprinkled with powder sugar and cinnamon. Just divine!
6. Stock up in Argan oil and Prickly Pear Oil
It is only recently that Argan oil has gained importance in the cosmetics industry, despite the fact that Moroccans have been using it for ages for its medicinal qualities. The increased consumption led to the creation of numerous co-ops, operated by women only, especially those in dire need (widows, orphans, etc.). Offering the opportunity of independent revenue to local women is, by itself, a valid incentive for visiting one of the co-op shops or an old traditional pharmacy and buy a few bottles – the prices are so good, anyway! What I found even more striking though is the intensified use of the prickly pears out of which Moroccan women produce another cosmetic oil, comparable (I was told) to the Argan one. Coming from Greece, another Mediterranean country full of prickly pear trees, this was a product I did not know it could exist.
7. Try some boiled snails sold at the stand of an itinerant merchant
To be honest, I was not the one from our group to venture on this culinary attempt. I have tried snails before, and I am not a big fan. However, for someone who has not tried them yet, this is a good place to start: it combines well with an amazing taste of local culture and a sense of adventure.
8. Stand by the snake charmers and the storytellers at Djemaa el-Fna, in Marrakesh
The Djemaa el-Fna square and the old town of Marrakesh seem to be surfacing out of an Indiana Jones movie. Despite the heavily touristic flair, it is a destination not to be missed. Warning though: the visitor should be aware that even if he or she just stares at a snake, a musician or a traditionally-dressed person – let alone take a photo – he or she will be asked to pay, and negotiations are quite long and aggressive. Still, I should confess that I did show a touristic face and could not resist taking a photo with a snake around my neck.
9. Explore the textiles and the carpet markets
Traditional carpets in Morocco are loom-weaved by tribal women and exhibit some unusual designs. What I found though most intriguing was the silky textiles made out of cactus threads. Yes, cactus! Given that Moroccans did not have access to silk, they created their local version of shiny textiles using thin threads that are peeled off the cactus leaves. Admittedly, I had never heard of that, and I was mesmerized by the process and the artistic creativity of this business.
10. Walk (or ride) along the old caravan routes
Riding a camel should not be considered a unique thing to do in Morocco, especially since I have been living in the UAE for several years. Yet, it was on the Moroccan dunes that I was meant to ride a camel for the first time. What makes it so memorable though is the fact that, unavoidably, one steps on old caravan roads, the feeling further reinforced while visiting the remnants of caravan cities and recalling the history of the lucrative trade that took place along the paths of West Africa. It always feels special when, even for a few moments, the past, present and future connect, and we retrace steps already trodden, while drawing new footsteps for others to follow.
Chief Initiator – Transformational Journeys