Experiencing the ancient and admiring the new in Morocco
Located at the most northern tip of Africa, Morocco is a stone’s throw from Europe and both continents have been irrevocably marked by the other.
Morocco is a land bordered by water on two sides: to the north the Mediterranean Sea and to the west the Atlantic Ocean. It is also a land caught between two cultures, preserving its traditional, ancient ways while moving rapidly into the modern world.
This is a country of beautiful natural landscapes, from snow-capped mountains to fiery desert sands as well as stunning man-made art and architecture.
The arched doorways, artistically carved wooden doors and furniture, colorfully rich patterned fabrics, and mosaic tiles in geometric patterns that grace floors, walls, ceilings, and buildings, make Morocco an extraordinary and lovely country to visit—with eye-catching motifs at every turn.
During my recent visit, we traveled from city to city on high-speed modern highways to experience the ancient and admire the new—Casablanca, Rabat, Meknès, Fès, Marrakech, Essaouira, Safi/El Jadida—each with its own charm and historic places to see, and many with UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
It is said that Casablanca’s traditional name was Casa Branca, and when the 1942 movie “Casablanca” was released, the name was changed to cash in on the notoriety generated by the film. Be that as it may, Casablanca is perhaps the most westernized city in all of Morocco, with modern high-rise buildings, designer shops and luxury malls, and many gourmet restaurants serving international cuisine.
Of course, no trip to Casablanca is complete without a stroll through the medina, the ancient walled city. It’s a mélange of shops offering candies, spices, clothes, jewelry, and leather goods, all jumbled together into the winding twisting alleyways where you have to fight for passage with donkeys, carts, locals, and tourists.
There are a few items utterly unique to Morocco. At every meal and welcoming meeting, you are offered sweetened mint tea poured from on high in pitchers designed specifically for that purpose. It’s a good thing the tea is so delicious since I was hard-pressed to find a good cup of coffee.
Then there’s the fragrant scent that wafts through many hotels, restaurants, and public buildings and delights the senses. It’s known as rose water, which is a misnomer because this light, lovely fragrance is made from the blossoms of the sour orange tree. In the spring, the blossoms are collected and distilled in a three-pot system: one holds the blossoms, one holds steaming water to extract the essence, and the third collects the fragrant water. Almost every home makes the rose water in quantities that last all year long.
Argan trees, Marrakech
On the road from Marrakech to Essaouira, I was eagerly on the lookout for goats clinging to the delicate thorny branches of the argan tree that is endemic in Morocco. I saw three goats in one tree but by the time the car came to a stop, two had descended. It seems the goats love to eat the shells of the argan nut and climb the spiny branches en masse.
We stopped at Coopérative Marjana, a women’s cooperative, where we watched the process of argan oil extraction and to purchase the fruits of their labor. Argan trees have thorny branches so the fruit is left to ripen and drop to the ground when it is collected, dried, and processed.
As a special treat, we overnighted at riads, Morocco’s traditional hotels. They are elegantly restored private homes located in the medina of many cities.
Marrakech was the 16th-century’s imperial city, and its royal lineage is still apparent today. Its clean and modern tree-lined boulevards, beautiful rose-colored buildings, and fountains at major intersections are immensely appealing. Horse-drawn carriage rides, especially at dusk to catch the changing light, present a photo-op not to be missed.
Another major attraction in Marrakech is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Djemaa el Fna Place, a large square where you will find all manner of performers and every style of dress imaginable: drummers, dancers, snake charmers, as well as henna artists eager to grab your hand and start plying their craft.
Tip: Negotiate the price before you start, or there will be an argument over fees at the end. Also, don’t take photos of people without first asking permission, and expect to pay for the privilege.
For more information, visit www.visitmorocco.com
Barbara Angelakis is a seasoned international traveler and award-winning writer based in the New York City area. To read more of her articles and adventures visit LuxuryWeb Magazine at luxuryweb.com