I know we are not supposed to have favourites. When asked what the best country you ever travelled to is, we are supposed to be vague. We claim that beach XYZ in Thailand is the best, but the vintage shopping in Sydney and the steak in Buenos Aires. To come out with one clear favourite seems just not pc for travellers. But I don’t care about being pc and so I declare today: my favourite country I ever travelled to, my best trip, the place my heart longs to go back to like no other is Morocco. This may change and I thought it would when I went to Vietnam and Cambodia last year, but for some reason it didn’t. So till a new love comes along and blows me off my feet with a warm desert wind, Morocco it is.
I have always longed to go to Morocco…to hear the Adhan which always makes me feel oddly at home and sounds enticingly foreign at the same time. To go to the markets and make my credit card cry, to drink mint tea till my bladder bursts. Morocco that was Humphrey Bogart and Yves Saint Laurent, amazing food and sweeping djellabahs in my mind. I secretly dreamed of handsome dark eyed men clad in blue, could already smell the rose water on my skin, and taste the couscous in my mouth. It was where my dream of Arabian Nights was supposed to come true.
When I got there I was in for a surprise. The only man clad in blue was our caravan leader who was toothless and about 60. While he was incredibly friendly, he was no Sherif Ali. The couscous I ate was quite honestly a bit bland and there are only so many tagines one can eat. And the shopping, well, let’s just say about the shopping that I am just no Carrie Bradshaw.
Nevertheless I still fell in love with the country, but for reasons I never expected. So here are my top 10 reasons why Morocco is the One for me and which I didn’t even see coming:
The closest I had ever been to a desert was in Las Vegas. The dry heat made my eyes itch like crazy and only air-conditioning and free casino drinks could make it all better. While everybody else seems to be concerned about hair frizz I much prefer humidity to dry heat. So it came as a surprise to me that I immediately had a thing for the desert: The endless sea of dunes, the warm light, and the sounds that were audible but quiet at the same time.
The best part was the night I spent at the foot of the Erg Chebbi, a 150m high sand dune, an hour’s camel ride away from civilization. Out and under the stars we actually didn’t sleep much as ghost stories, farting camels, and general excitement kept us awake. Eventually though we got shushed by the nomad family we were staying with, our girlie giggles had echoed a bit too loudly over the dunes. And so we settled down, me still sleepless, but with stars above and a full moon too.
The next morning we climbed up the dune. Well, half way, sort of. There was a sunrise like no other and I realized that there is a good reason we all liked playing in a sandbox when we were little – they are just damn beautiful, dry heat or not.
I got offered 500 camels for my hand in marriage by a carpet seller. Not knowing the current going rate for hands in marriage, this still quite flattered and tempted. Camels are awesome for many reasons. A camel burger makes a great lunch for once. And yes, I did feel a little bad to make the acquaintance of what could have been my lunch’s brother the next day. But then I got on his back, managed not to fall off in the process, and forgot all about lunch. A few people apparently get seasick while on a camel and think it highly uncomfortable. I loved it. It was like meditation. And who needs the affections of a dark eyed man clad in blue when you have a white camel who shows his flirtation by nudging you lovingly in the leg?
Money can’t buy…
… shopping stamina. I mentioned that my shopping was highly unsuccessful as the souks were all a bit much for me. However I was utterly fascinated by the things money could buy; whether you wanted to was a whole other story. By far the most fascinating was a box of coloured chicks for 1 dirham each in Fez. Those live Tamagochis were high in demand with my friends when they saw the picture and it raised the question if chickens need to get their roots done too.
Sea view unlimited.
While I knew on paper that Morocco boasts a really long coast line, I didn’t quite realize that there were actual, proper coastal towns and sea views to have until I got to Essaouira. After the desert heat it was literally a breath of fresh air, a cool one at that as I needed a jersey in the evenings, a first during the Moroccan August.
Essaouria comes with a fishing harbour, a Jimi Hendrix café, and a beautiful medina with city walls overlooking the ocean. For me it meant heavenly swordfish Carpaccio, Berber massages as well as the best and somewhat hassle free shopping in all of Morocco.
Amlou is a Moroccan spread made out of argan oil, almonds, and honey. It is the best thing I ate in Morocco. Especially in Essaouira where they also make really nice crepes; put the two together and you got yourself the perfect breakfast/desert/afternoon snack/midnight snack. Unfortunately they never lasted long enough to take a picture.
I have never liked marble. I grew up in a house with marble floors and while that sounds fancy it also meant cold, slippery stairs and never being able to sneak in after curfew without being heard.
In Morocco marble is different. Marble is soft, carved, and intricate. Unlike anything I have seen or touched, it feels organic and warm and looks incredibly beautiful. The story the Moroccan tour guides love to tell is that back in the 16th century Europe was craving sugar. It was so valuable that a pound of sugar would be traded for a pound of Carrara marble. Italy has long used up all the sugar, but look, the marble Morocco got is still here, they will add with a proud giggle.
The hammam experience.
When I say hammam I mean a real hammam, not a fancy hotel spa that calls itself a hammam. In hindsight I think I wasn’t prepared properly, which made the whole experience a bit more unnerving than it should be. I will tell you all about it so you can be prepared. And in case your Berber, Arabic, French is as bad as mine, here is what you do in the hammam:
- Undress. Knickers are optional and may come off in any case during point 6.
- Fill your bucket with warm water and find a corner to sit. Yes, you sit on the floor.
- Pour water over yourself until your skin is soft then rub olive soap all over. Yes, it is black and yes, it is still soap.
- Wait for the hammam lady to point at you – it’s your turn to get scrubbed!
- Pretty much every part of your body will get scrubbed – don’t be shy, everybody else is just as naked as you are.
- Here your knickers may come off and definitely lots of skin (cells).
- Don’t scream, the lady will scold you if you do.
Yes, people pay for this and I think it is very worth it. Because remember that once you leave you will have had a real Moroccan experience and your skin will baby bum soft.
Forest of the apes.
There are two kinds of countries – countries where monkeys roam freely and countries where you can only see them in a zoo. If you are from a country where they roam freely, you have actually no good excuse to leave your snacks next to an ape and turn around. The Berber apes in the forests of the Middle Atlas Mountains are quite friendly and some even seem tame, never underestimate the appeal food has on a monkey. These pictures were taken one minute apart and no, the family didn’t get their container back, but luckily they didn’t seem to mind the sacrifice for the photo opportunity they had created.
Lights and action.
While not a single scene of Casablanca was actually filmed in Morocco, I learned with surprise that a whole lot of other movies were. Morocco the new L.A.
Essaouira’s Kashbah was turned into Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven and the Kalisi bought her army of slaves by the old city walls. But when you have lived in cities with a big production scene you are not easily impressed by film studios and sets. The Atlas Film Studios in Ouarzazate were no exception for me, but Aït Benhaddou on the other hand is anything but a fake façade. This town is made entirely out of mud bricks and worth a visit. What is good enough to be called UNESCO World Heritage site, is good enough for Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, and you.
Change of perspective.
I must admit I wasn’t smitten with Marrakesh. After coming from the cool and chilled coast, it was too loud, too hot, and too hectic for me. The souks overwhelmed me so much that I basically didn’t buy a thing. Can you imagine how people look at you when you tell them you have been to Marrakesh and didn’t buy a thing?! They think you may have as well stayed home. The circus that the Jamaa el Fna becomes at night actually scared me with its snake charmers and monkeys and there was no beer in sight to take the edge off.
On our last evening though we sat upstairs on the roof top of Café France, fresh orange juice in hand, and everything changed. The sun was setting and the mosques all around started their call to prayer. Not in unison, but in an odd and enchanting dissonance. The lights all over the square and the bazaar started to glow and compete with the sunset. And there was no uncheezier word than to call it magical.
Sometimes it seems to take just a few steps and a different angle to find the beauty in something you couldn’t see before. So if you don’t enjoy the thick of it, maybe you just need to find a view from above.