What comes to your mind if I say Morocco? Maybe the Sahara Desert, maybe the Medinas – the hearts of the cities, or maybe again the beautiful landscapes of the Atlas Mountains. Well, Morocco is all that and way more.
You can go from the windy Atlantic Coast, through the highest mountains, to the dry desert in a couple of days; you can get lost in the modern yet very traditional Medina of Marrakech; or again, you can endlessly wander in the tiny alleys of the blue town of Chefchaouen.
Here are a few tips to help you plan your visit to this amazing place.
what to know before you go
PLAN YOUR ITINERARY & DRIVE “HORNY”.
Unless you have unlimited time to travel, be sure to plan your itinerary in Morocco very well. If you feel adventurous, a good idea might be renting a car and driving around. Just keep in mind: places that look close to each other on the map might actually be hours apart; for example, it’s almost impossible to drive from Marrakech to the desert and back in only one day.
Something else you should know before renting a car is that, due to its tiny tiny streets, it’s practically impossible to drive inside the Medina, so check where your hotel is and if there’s a parking nearby.
Moroccan people drive like crazy, you’ll see cars or bikes passing you anywhere and without notice; there are no rules at roundabouts nor at traffic lights; no obvious lanes and people cross the street even in the middle of a highway – and sometimes they have cows or sheep with them!
And if they honk at you? Well, that might be a thank you, a curse or a hope to solve that horrible traffic jam (if only…) you’re stuck into. Who knows! The fact is, the use of the car horn is a pretty common practice in Morocco, so get your hand ready and do like the locals do.
Don’t be scared of what you just read, just keep your eyes well opened ’cause landscapes are amazing and having your own car gives you the chance to stop anytime you want to take stunning pictures.
If you’re not comfortable going solo, you can always arrange a tour with some local drivers (prices might vary according to how many days you’re spending in the country).
My friend and I booked a two-days desert tour with Abdul of authentic-berber-tours.com – which I recommend if you need a driver – and then got our own car, going from Marrakech to Tangier.
And yes, we’re still alive!
COUSCOUS & CO.
Moroccan food is really delicious, so don’t end up being “cous-coused out”, but try all their finger-licking-good meals, such as Tagine or even plain bread. In general, this type of cuisine is quite healthy, mostly based on vegetables and whole grains mixed with spices and sweet fruit. They, of course, eat meat especially lamb and chicken, but you can easily have fish or vegan dishes as well.
Influenced over thousands of years by the Berber, Jewish and Arab cultures, today’s Moroccan food is an exciting blend of spices and textures; you’ll find pickled lemons and olives mixed with dates and lamb all at the same time. But let me give you some tips to make your belly happy.
The first recommendation is to look for a spot filled with locals: they know where the food is good and cheap. You won’t be disappointed!
Start your meal with a “Moroccan Salad“: fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and onions all cut in small pieces.
Have a Tagine: Morocco’s defining national stew is Tagine which takes its name from the traditional clay ceramic dish it’s cooked in.
We had the tastiest chicken Tagine dinner of our trip when in the Sahara desert, and it’s amazing how Berbers can cook such a delicious dish in the middle of nowhere.
Definitely don’t leave Morocco without trying one.
Have Couscous: It’s typically served with meat or vegetables, and like Tagine it comes in a number of varieties. Berbers usually add raisins, but it can also come in a pyramid-shape with seven vegetables pressed into the sides. Either way, expect to be served a massive portion you won’t come close to finishing.
THE ART OF POURING MINT TEA.
After being to Morocco, the first thing that comes to my mind is Mint Tea: it’s basically impossible to visit this country without trying some of this addictive beverage.
It’s a green tea base with lots of mint leaves and sugar – a lot of – and it’s a welcome gesture you’ll be offered anytime you get to know someone in Morocco. Preparing the tea is some sort of sacred and private ritual, but pouring it is unequivocally art. In fact, once the tea is ready, it’s common for the host to pour a few initial glasses, then dump the liquid back into the pot, thoroughly mixing the sugar and mint flavours. After that, it’s ready to be served: your host will begin pouring it with the pot’s spout poised close to the tiny tea glasses and then increase the distance of the stream outward (the higher the teapot, the better) in a continuous motion.
According to a local saying “the first glass is a bitter as life, the second is as strong as love, the third one is as soothing as death“. One thing is for sure, whether you are in your riad in Marrakech or in the middle of the hot desert, you’ll crave for a cup of this tea.
A CALL TO PRAYER.
As you may know, Morocco is a Muslim country and even if it’s relatively “relaxed”, you’ll still have to respect their habits and culture. Wearing long sleeve shirts or under-the-knee skirts/trousers is always appreciated and won’t draw unpleasant and unwanted attention on you.
Then, wherever you are, you won’t need to set your alarm clocks in the morning, because the 5 a.m. call to prayer will give you the good day. You’ll see people flock to the Mosque or put their mat anywhere to pray (even in the middle of Marrakech souk).
We’ve been to Morocco during Ramadan, at the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca on the first Friday of Ramadan, to be more precise. And I have to admit I’ve never seen so many people praying together, in the Mosque, in the street, anywhere they could find a spot.
It was an experience that goes beyond words.
Little side note: Consider that the Hassan II is only the 5th largest mosque in the world, but it’s 210-meters tall minaret, towering above the Atlantic Ocean, is the largest one on earth so far. In a lighthouse-like position, it was constructed right on the Ocean on purpose, recalling a verse of the Qur’an stating that “The throne of Allah was built on water“. There’s nothing much in Casablanca to see, but even if only for this mosque, it’s worth a short visit.
not to miss
The crown of most eclectic and frenetic city of Morocco goes to Marrakech, where visitors will fall in and out of love hundreds of times a day: a minute you love its architecture and messy Medina, the next one you hate all that chaos. You won’t need your map, ’cause the old town is a real maze: let go of yourself and get lost, wander around all the beautiful handicraft shops (souks) and enjoy the jostle and the haggle. You’ll soon be able to find your bearings between the silver, the leather, the lamps or the shoe souks, only to get lost all over again.
Starting or ending point can always be the infamous Jemaa El-Fnaa square, the messy place everyone describes with magicians and snake charmers at day and street food stalls at night. To be honest, that was not my favourite spot in Marrakech, but it was nice seeing the sunset after dinner in one of the many rooftop restaurants overlooking the square.
Outside the walls of the old town, lies the new town, where you can find the Majorelle Gardens, a place very dear to Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent.
It took French painter Jacques Majorelle forty years of passion and dedication to create this enchanting garden in the heart of the “Ochre City”. He put marble pools, raised pathways, banana trees, groves of bamboo, coconut palms and bougainvillaeas. Many of the built features were painted in a dark blue – Majorelle Blue – which works very well with the soil, climate and plants. In fact, Majorelle’s gardens rather than his paintings were his masterpiece. The deep blue ocean garden was then taken over and restored by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, where they spent many years of their lives.
The Moroccan city inspired the art of the stylist, as he stated “a visit to Marrakech was a great shock to me. This city taught me colour. Before it, everything was black.”
The gardens opened to the public in 2001, while a museum dedicated to the fashion of YSL was inaugurated in 2017.
After a day spent walking up and down the streets of Marrakech, the only thing you need is to relax in your Riad. But what are Riads? Meaning “garden” in Arabic, basically, they’re guesthouses that on the outside all look the same in their sand colours, but once you open their doors you’ll be taken into a whole new world. They all have a central courtyard with a small pool or fountain, with guest rooms dotted around the various floors.
This spectacular and unique accommodation is definitely a cool place to rest in contrast to the crowded Medina of the city.
The blue pearl of Morocco has been one of the most Instagrammed spots lately, but no picture can describe how beautiful this little town is.
Lost in the middle of the Rif Mountains, Chaouen has a story to tell: in fact, it’s said it was painted blue by the Jewish refugees who lived in the Medina alongside the Moriscos since the 15th century; the Jewish wanted to mark their houses, so they started putting some blue paint on the walls.
Before Instagram, Chefchaouen was a popular destination amongst hippies and backpackers (but not only them) who were looking for its famous THC-concentrated-marijuana; nowadays, Morocco is still the world’s top supplier for Hashish. If you’re in the zone, you might be offered a farm tour, about an hour outside the city, to the marijuana farm fields where you can see how they produce hash from kif, THC crystals extracted from the plant.
Beware that also in Morocco producing, trading and smoking hash is illegal, even in Chefchaouen, and you might get in trouble with the police if spotted smoking.
Anyway, the beauty of this town makes it worth a visit. Stay at least one night, start exploring very early in the morning before the town wakes up and then again in the afternoon when the sun lights up the shining blue walls. Then reach the Spanish mosque for sunset and again back to the city centre to have dinner in one of the delicious local restaurants.
As I said before, we’ve been to Morocco during Ramadan and I assure you Chefchaouen lives it to the fullest! After sunset Muslims gather to have dinner together and then they party with music in the streets until morning. So it wasn’t hard for us to wander in the empty streets ’cause everyone else was still sleeping!!
THE SAHARA DESERT
is quite the same as when he came”
This quote perfectly enshrines what the desert meant to me, on top of my bucket list, something I wanted to do since I was a kid.
As I stood on a dune, overlooking the Sahara, one morning I realized my dream had come true. And it’s hard to explain it in words, but believe me when I say that when I left I was not the same person I was before.
The drive from Marrakech to the desert is quite long, you need to reach the Tizi n’ Tichka pass (2260mt) in the High Atlas mountains and then down again, towards Ourzazate. On the road, a must-see spot is Kasbah Aït Benhaddou, probably the most celebrated, filmed and photographed kasbah in Morocco; featured in numerous films (including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Game of Thrones), it is the best-preserved kasbah (meaning fortified house) in Morocco and has 10 families still inhabiting it.
But the real adventure starts when you reach the doors of the desert, where a road sign welcomes and warns you at the same time: you’re about to enter a vast area, beware of not getting lost!
Since I’m always kissed by fortune, the day we got to the Sahara was a very windy day and it was almost impossible to see a meter ahead. Thankfully we were with a local driver who – with the help of a camel guide – managed to get us safe to our camp. The sandstorm continued all night long (no sunset for us), but the Berbers at the camp took great care of us, making the tastiest dinner of our holiday and playing some local music until it was time to sleep.
The next morning, the sky was clear and there was no more wind, so we woke up before sunrise to enjoy a camel ride. Well, “enjoy” is not the best word to describe it, because riding a camel for the first time for a couple of hours can be pretty uncomfortable until you get used to it and learn some little tricks. Seeing the sun rise from the dunes was a mesmerizing experience, making you feel powerless in front of the strength and beauty of nature.
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs and gleams…”