Morocco, Unveiled

Marrakech and the snow-covered High Atlas 

I knew from the age of fifteen that I wanted to go to Morocco. The moment of realization came at Disney World, of all places, where I was on vacation with my family the summer following the tenth grade. At that age, of course, I would have much preferred to be just about anywhere but ogling Cinderella’s castle with my family, but the discovery that I could bypass cartoon characters entirely by hanging out at Epcot Center’s World Showcase made the whole thing infinitely more bearable. The World Showcase, in case you’ve never been, is a clever way of taking you on a trip around the world in an hour or two; it’s made up of a series of pavilions built around a large lake, each one offering a meticulously-detailed glimpse of a particular country. For each country represented (and there are eleven) there are a few buildings constructed in some kind of traditional style, a restaurant or two serving traditional food, a cultural exhibit or short film playing to educate and inform, and a plethora of souvenir shops selling whatever it is tourists might want to prove they had been to Disney’s versions of Norway or China. To complete the experience they’ve even imported the staff as well, who are of course friendly and helpful and tell you anything you want to know about life in said places. For someone who at that point hadn’t even so much as been to Canada yet, being given a glimpse of all these exotic places was wonderfully thrilling, but none of them had more of an effect on me than Morocco.

I still remember everything about that Moroccan pavilion. I remember that it was almost closing by the time I reached it, that the light had faded and the sky was turning purple; that ornate keyhole arches lured me into a twisting web of mud-walled passages lit by filigreed lanterns; that a beautiful tiled courtyard with a bubbling fountain lay hidden somewhere in its midst and the scent of incense hung heavy in the air. I also remember that the place was silent, like a sanctuary, save for the gentle tinkle of water; the other tourists had all left and even the tiny shops stocked with fez hats, lamps and slippers seemed unstaffed. I can’t tell you what exactly it was that enchanted me so completely, but I decided then and there that Morocco must be the most exotic, fascinating and beautiful country in the whole world, and I held that magical image of that evening in my mind for nearly fifteen years – until two weeks ago, when I finally stepped on a plane to go there.

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Of course when you’ve had so much time to daydream, the actual place can easily fall short of expectations. I was prepared for this, or at least I tried to be, but in the case of Morocco there was really no need. There were, nevertheless, many surprises; the images I had of Morocco were all there, but they were only a tiny piece in an infinitely more complex puzzle. I was most surprised by the contrasts everywhere. There were the obvious ones: barren desertscapes and lush gardens, the chaos of the streets and the serenity inside dwellings, uber-luxury and abject poverty, strict religiosity and unrestrained hedonism. What also surprised me was how much is hidden: behind walls, beneath veils. A visitor sees only a tiny fraction of Moroccan life, a ripple on the surface that left me more baffled than knowledgeable, and I really came to regret the fact that we had no local contact to shed light on some of the many mysteries. I think part of the problem as well may have been our choice of destinations; the places we visited were really dominated by the well-oiled machine of tourism, and this made it much more difficult to see beyond the glitz, glamour and touts to what Moroccan life is really all about. But that said, even being an observer here is an endlessly fascinating experience, a simultaneous feast and assault on all five senses that leaves you exhausted and exhilarated and always craving more.

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We began in Marrakech, the ancient imperial city situated just to the north of the snow-capped High Atlas and the interminable browns of the Sahara. Marrakech has probably been the most romanticized of all Moroccan cities since it rose to fame in the 1960s as a hippie paradise for pleasure-seeking Europeans, and it’s never dropped off the map since. These days, however, the typical tourists are a little better-heeled, and the huge influx of cash they have brought is on display everywhere, from luxury hotels to fine restaurants to exclusive boutiques with eye-popping price tags. There are in fact two parts to the city – the new town, full of wide boulevards, apartment blocks and French-style cafes, and the medina, a city-within-a-city, enclosed by high walls and containing a web of serpentine streets so confusing it has never been completely mapped. It’s in the medina where the real action happens, and the tiny streets are a constant throng of people, donkeys and motorcycles all trying to get somewhere fast. Though the streets are chaotic, sometimes a door opens as you pass and you catch a glimpse of another world, a serene interior courtyard with orange trees and jasmine, the clean austerity of a mosque, or the murky depths of a communal bread bakery. And of course here are the souks, or covered markets – an endless labyrinth of tiny shops staffed by men expert in luring you in to inspect their goods: silver, ceramics, woodwork, clothing, shoes, tapestries, food. It pays to be cautious, however, as they pounce on the slightest sign of interest and before you can say "it’s not quite my style", you’re mired in an energetic bargaining session. Better is just to keep moving, nodding and smiling, promising peut-être la prochaine fois – maybe next time – when they won’t take no for an answer.

Transport in the medina: pick your flavor

Although the medina itself is impossible to navigate, if you wander long enough you’ll eventually be carried downstream to where all the medina rivers eventually meet: the Djemaa el Fna, dead man’s square. The Djemaa is the nerve center of Marrakech and the largest square in Africa, the place where orange juice sellers rub shoulders with snake charmers; where beggars and shoeshiners and henna artists vie for your dirhams and the only escape is on the rooftop terraces of the restaurants surrounding the square, where you can observe the madness without being sucked in. The Djemaa, while teeming all day long, is also the scene for Marrakech’s famous night market, when the storytellers come out and a hundred food stalls
set up. This is when we liked it best, and we spent many evenings crammed in on benches at crowded one food stall or another, feeling like we had front-row seats to one of the greatest shows in the world.

The medina is an intoxicating place and one of the best ways to experience it is to stay in a riad, a house built in the traditional style around a central courtyard. Thanks to its up and coming status in the where’s where of hip destinations, Marrakech has more than its fair share of riad accommodation, ranging from no-frills backpacker lodging to thousand-dollar-a-night luxury palaces complete with swimming pools and in-house hamams. What they all have in common is a sense of tranquility, a beautiful open-air courtyard (or two) often decorated with exquisite craftsmanship, and a comfortable roof terrace upon which to gaze out at the skyline and listen to the many calls to prayer echo across the rooftops (which is something to be aware of if you’re a light sleeper – every quarter of the medina has its own mosque and you will be woken up every morning at five by the first call of the day, which seems to be longer and louder than any other!). But early-morning wake-up calls aside, we loved riad life. The other nice thing about staying in riads is that is gives you the chance to discover some of the quieter back streets of the medina, away from the souks and constant hassle, where you can see people going about their everyday lives: fathers pedaling their daughters to school on rickety bicycles, veiled women carting giant trays of bread to be baked in the neighborhood ovens, grandmothers leaning out of second-story windows to observe life on the streets below.

Essaouira, city by the sea 

Marrakech was our main destination for this trip, but we also managed to escape in order to spend a few days in the Atlantic coastal port of Essaouira. Where Marrakech is full of dusky desert reds and browns, Essaouira feels almost Mediterranean with its whitewashed buildings and blue-shuttered windows. It has a medina like Marrakech, but things feel a bit more low-key here – the shop owners are a little less persistent, and the vibe on the streets is a little less harried. Essaouira can get crowded when the wind is blowing – it’s a surfer’s paradise in the winter, apparently, but we felt like we had it mostly to ourselves. We loved it and spent our days poking around the medina’s backstreets for photos and souvenir bargains (prices tend to be a bit lower than in Marrakech, and I bought some beautiful Fassi ceramics), sipping mint tea on oceanview terraces and strolling along Essaouira’s endless windswept beaches. We also stayed at the nicest place of our trip, a gem of a riad called Casa Lila which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone headed there (we stayed in chambre l’Ivoire which was not only gorgeous but had its own private terrace).

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Morocco’s beauty lies in the details 

I’ll admit, I’ve had a hard time sorting out my impressions of Morocco. Partly, I think, that’s because I was hoping to be able to come home and write about it with some kind of authority. This is what Morocco is all about, I was hoping to say, which in retrospect is a bit silly to expect from ten days spent in any country, but least of all Morocco. I can say that the image Disney planted in me at fifteen was not exactly erroneous: it is an exotic, beautiful, and fascinating country, Moroccans are lovely and hospitable people, and dusk in a Moroccan courtyard is one of the most magical places you can ever hope to be. But there’s a lot more to it than that, and I think it will take several more trips before I can even begin to understand the complexities of this country. Not that you’ll have to twist my arm to make that happen – I’m already dreaming of my next trip.

But wait, I hear you protesting, how on earth was the food? I guess you’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out. 🙂

The Koutoubia, Marrakech’s largest mosque and
orientation-aid extraordinaire

p.s. All photos © Manuel Meyer. He’s got a full gallery up on his (new+improved!) website if you’d like to see some more.