Morocco: Know before you go

They say “You’re welcome,” even before you’ve said thank you.

Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Bhaiyya, Namaste, the clichés follow you.

But I hope it wouldn’t be too much of a cliché to say Morocco was unlike any other country I’ve visited before.

The mayhem of the medinas with its spice sellers, craftsmen, auctioneers, and (I kid you not) snake charmers, and the feeling of being transported to an ancient world within its fortified walls; the men in the long striped robes and peaked caps upfront about what they want to say to you (or ask of you); the women in hijab-hardly discernible; the gorgeous Islamic/ Moorish/ Berber designs ready as a backdrop to any photo; the arid landscapes with the sudden bursts of vegetation; the endless sun-washed Sahara desert; the looming, hard Atlas mountains you sigh at as you lean out of your 4WD’s window…

A sweet assault on the senses; that’s what it was.

A seller of spice at the Marrakesh Medina
A few things to know, before you go:

Medina: Every city in Morocco has a Medina (Think of them like old town areas in Europe). Typically these are within towering walls with multiple entry gates (bab), with narrow, maze-like streets, a bustling marketplace, and err…loads of people who’d want to ‘help’ you in exchange for money. The word Medina means city in Arabic. But often a medina is adjacent to a French-built new town (such as Gueliz in Marrakech), so in effect, there are two parts to a city – old and new.

In the narrow lanes of the Kasbah of the Udayas, Rabat
The typical Moroccan single minaret mosque
A bab to enter the Medina
To knock on the dungeon-like doors
Aerial view: Central square of the Marrakesh Medina
The blue lanes of Chefchaouen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez,” Paul Bowles wrote in an essay on the medina and as quoted in this New York Times article. “The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through, and you have to back up or step quickly into a doorway while they pass, the drivers intoning, ‘Balak, balak, balak …’” (“Watch out, watch out watch out!”)

Well, after all, the Fes Medina has over 9400 lanes!

Ouarzazate Kasbah

Kasbah: (What we gathered was) these are living quarters within a Medina. In the earlier days, African migrant labourers set up camp here. The Arabic word translates to the central part of a town or citadel.

An interesting incident happened while at the Kasbah des Oudaias in Rabat. First day in Morocco, and we had been forewarned about unsolicited ‘guides’.  So ducking a few we managed to walk through unharmed through the Kasbah, taking in the patchy blue and white walls, the view over the Bou Regreg River, clicking pictures, revelling in the first-day travel happiness.

On our way back we turned to a corner and exchanged smiles with the lady of a house dusting outside. She spoke good English and we got talking. She told us about her family, her children, her husband, her neighbours. She invited us inside. She had a lovely house. It was located at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River overlooking it. Beautiful, ornate upholstery, many pictures of her family, a small kitchen cooking couscous (it was a Friday, she explained, and she cooked couscous on holy days), the mandatory portrait of King Mohammed VI. I thought to myself then, how lovely are these people. How warm and friendly. She invited us to her house. She is now offering us tea…

But we had to leave. We didn’t have much time. So at the door, I took a picture with her. As a souvenir. All smiles.

Then just as we were turning to go…

Ah, well, she asked for money.

For her children, she said.

My heart broke into a million pieces.

The view from her house

Riads: Traditional homes and palaces in Morocco (and usually located inside a Medina) are called Riads. Typically, they have a courtyard in the centre, with windows from surrounding rooms opening out to it. Courtyards are often decorated with a fountain and orange or lemon trees. Depending on the family’s wealth, the Riad may also be decorated with zellige (Moroccan mosaic tilework made from individually chiselled geometric tiles set into a plaster base and stucco work).

Riad bathrooms, one more ornate than the next
A Riad Courtyard
Breakfast spread
A Riad courtyard at night

Book a room in a riad. It is a great experience. But be sure to get the directions right. Call the riad before to have someone guide you on the first day. Else, you’re sure to get lost. As we did. Every single time.

Souks: In Arabic, it translates to an open-air marketplace. In the Medina, a souk refers to a patch of the market specializing in a particular good. For example, there is a spice souk with shops that sell spices, or a leather souk, or a souk for household goods, or silver etc. Frequently, first and second-hand merchandises are auctioned in these souks and that is quite a sight to watch.

Tajine or tagine is a local cuisine (and pronounced to rhyme) which is named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. It is a slow-cooked dish with savoury stews, made with sliced meat, poultry or fish together with vegetables or fruit. All in one wholesome, though often too bland for the Indian palate. Kefta Tajine with Omelet Berber was our favourite. We also had a Tajine with slow cooked lamb with pomegranate seeds and almonds at Riad 72 (Marrakesh) which was delicious.

A meal for two (A Tajine or Couscous dish, Moroccan pastries or fruits as dessert, mint tea, complimentary bread, complimentary pickled olive starters) costs 100-120 Moroccan dirhams or 11-14 dollars. Cheap, eh?

Inside a Tajine – Health in a plate
A typical Tajine
More olives than I could eat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kefta Tajine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of our most interesting eating experiences was in Chefchaouen, at a restaurant that cannot be named. The owner, who cannot be named either, wearing a T-shirt that screamed ‘Cannabis’ was serving us, and so the companion asked him for some. Which was eagerly provided. They smoked together some. The rest of the trip was less stressful after that.

A lot many people offered to sell us hash. Apparently, cannabis is smoked quite widely in Morocco, and all of the production can be found in the Rif Mountains, which stretch from the Mediterranean Sea to the port city of Tangier. Morocco produces anywhere from one third to almost half of all hashish sold around the world. Chefchaouen’s proximity to the epicentre of hash production in Morocco makes the drug readily available and dealers abound. More here

Kif in the Rif

Berber or Amazighs are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa and have apparently been around since 10,000 BC. The community has its own language and culture which they continue to retain and propagate. They used to be pagans before the Muslims came in and then the French. Eventually, they adopted Islam as their religion (Sunni) and French as their second language.  The Berber identity is usually wider than language and ethnicity and encompasses the entire history and geography of North Africa

Drinking: Very few restaurants offer alcoholic drinks. The numbers were a bit more at Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakesh. Wine and local beer are available in fine dining places and also on request at the riads. Else, if you’re travelling, best to carry your own poison. Or drink the mint tea, also known as Berber whiskey.

By the way, the pulp laden orange juice totally rocks, and I replaced both coffee and wine often with it, which if you know me, is quite uncharacteristic.

Cafe culture is quite strong. You’ll see rows and rows of cafes with Moroccan men (never women) sitting outside, together or alone, puffing on a cigarette (which you can smoke bloody anywhere) and sipping from a glass of coffee, watching the world go by. Very relaxing, even seeing that.

A cafe at Rabat

Language: Everyone speaks French, which is the language of official business. I jumped out of my skin when a garbage collector riding a donkey came galloping by my side and then acknowledging me said softly, “Pardon.” (Pronounced the French way)

The Berber flag
Berber alphabets

Taxis and getting around: Uber works in Casablanca and Rabat but is very patchy. In Rabat, there have been instances of Uber drivers getting beaten up by the local taxi guys, so their car numbers are masked. Local taxis rarely run by meter, so haggle hard or insist on the meter. The best way is to ask your riad to get you a taxi or know the actual rate before you head out. The rates are about 5 dirhams per km for the petit taxi. More for the big taxis.

When a taxi slows down, be sure there is a police checkpoint ahead, which are quite a lot. Wear your seatbelt at all times.

Currency: Most places accept Euro, so that is the best currency to take along on your visit. Exchange rates were the best in the hotels and riads we stayed. Remember to keep some euro/ Dirhams handy to pay the city tax every time you check out of a riad

Tour guides: There’s really not much difference in the tour operators in Morocco. We had much better luck taking local guides for walking tours. The multi-day tour operators coordinate with each other and are interchangeable. I’d say they are more like a taxi service – stopping at a few important landmarks along the way, and occasionally asking if you were enjoying yourself. Most don’t even speak good English. Remember to clarify all the nuances of the trip before you take one – is it a shared or private trip, what are the stops, what are the inclusions and exclusions. Insist on no shopping, else you’ll land up going to places (restaurants, stores) where the tour operators get commissions from.

Shopping: What is typically Moroccan and useful to take back as gifts? Traditional Berber jewellery and merchandise like bags, locally handcrafted Kilims, Argan oil, and leather goodies. we made the mistake of initially buying a lot of stuff from Fez and the occasional pit stops, but Marrakesh seemed to have a lot of options, inexpensive too, though the quality was often suspect. While the main shopping street in the Medina at Marrakesh was well stocked, the side lanes were cheaper (The main shopping street branches out like a fishbone; come back to the main lane to again branch out to another souk) Gueliz or the French part of Marrakesh had more fashionable options, albeit expensive.

Ouarzazate was another good shopping spot – a lot of good stuff in one place.

Cute stuff at Ouarzazate

Bargain hard. Start with half the price. Don’t feel bad about it. The locals enjoy (and expect) it.

I found Journey Beyond Travel to be a fantastic source for trip ideas and to learn more about the country.

Next – get the perfect Morocco itinerary.

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