Prior to my trip to Morocco in 2007, my travels had exclusively consisted of family holidays, package tours and (usually boozy) European trips with friends. Ah, that time we were accosted in Berlin by a rabid anarchist in a genuinely terrifying New-Romantic-Decorated but Heavy-Metal-Playing bar – it looked and felt like Dracula’s opium den – sticks in the memory. But I digress. The point is I have nothing against any of these at all, but it’s fair to say that my Moroccan experience changed my approach to travel forever.
Adopting the classic backpacker approach made me confident that I could travel alone and out of my comfort zone, of course. But the sort of place Morocco is – friendly locals and romantic Arabian Nights sights and sounds on one hand, scrounging scam artists and crooked, nigh-on-unnavigable Medina backstreets on the other – ensured that I graduated from the school of backpacker hard knocks with, if not a gold-embossed certificate lovingly wrapped in glossy ribbon, then at least a metaphorical handshake from whoever the Buddha-equivalent Backpacker Guru is (any takers?).
So there I was, arriving in Casablanca, all saucer-eyed and excited…and the moment I set foot off the train that dropped me off from the airport I was seized upon by a man in a Rab C Nesbitt string vest asking me if I wanted to buy ‘DVDs, CDs or cigarette lighters’. That, I’m sad to say, was a premonition of things to come both here and elsewhere in the country. The taxi drivers weren’t much better, but worst of the lot had to be the carpet/antique/other crap-looking bric a brac salesman who were remarkably persistent in finding creative ways to part me from my Dirham.
But it’s a disservice to Morocco to focus on just the negatives. Casablanca – Hassan II Mosque aside – is a pretty forgettable place, and certainly not as romantic as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman made it seem. But on my first full day I did meet my first super-friendly local. Moroccan Arabic is the native tongue of almost all of the natives, and French is widely spoken too. But my rusty command of the latter meant that many, very gifted locals were obliged to put me to shame with their perfect English. The guy who I met and shared some mint tea (‘Moroccan Whiskey’) with even showed me how to write some Arabic, and fend off would be touts as well – ‘La Shukran’ is a phrase still embedded in my head.
Fes, home of the funny red hats, felt the most ‘real’ of all the Moroccan imperial cities I visited. All of them have a Medina, or ‘old town’ that are surrounded by a ‘new town’. The latter, with their wide, tree-flanked, Parisian-esque boulevards are decidedly European in feel and at first it can be tempting to spend time in them away from the suffocating crowds in the Medina. But you absolutely should not miss out on the Medina of Fes…
Here you can genuinely feel as though you are in another century. Donkeys are the exclusive mode of transport, and the narrow, twisting streets are presided over by unevenly stacked Arabic houses casting jagged shadows over the pedestrians below. The presence of shadows might explain how I managed to step straight in to some donkey dung: I didn’t notice for a while because the notoriously, er, ‘aromatic’ tanning pits were nearby, thus ‘achieving’ a higher level on the poo richter-scale than that under the sole of my sandal.
It is undeniably a wonderfully evocative experience to walk through such a place, and getting lost was actually one of the unexpected pleasures, so long as you’re careful who you allow to ‘extricate’ you (small children included). One particularly memorable moment involved wandering in to a market that was certifiably locals-only. It’s there I had my first proper haggling experience – the bananas looked damned tasty – and learnt that, with humour, patience and an understanding that a lot of us who visit are much better off than the person on the other side of the counter, it can be fun. Being of Oriental heritage, the guy initially thought I was Japanese; when I told him where I actually was from, he got a kick out of saying ‘easy peasy lemon squeezy’ over and over again while slapping his thigh and roaring with laughter. Trust me, it was more endearing than annoying!
From Fes, I do recommend a day trip to Meknes and then hiring a taxi for the day to take you to Volubilis, a UNESCO-listed, partly excavated Roman city that, as a collection of Ancient Ruins, is among the best of its sort anywhere in the world. From here you get some great views of Morocco’s landscape too; this is the land of rugged mountains and arid deserts as well as imperious cities. Add on Moulay Idriss too, if you can, which is a beautiful town strewn across a rolling hilltop setting.
Finally, I finished in the jewel of the Moroccan tourism crown, Marrakech. Further south than the places above, Marrakech can get brutally hot in the summer months; whether that explains why I saw far more tourists here than I did in anywhere else in Morocco I cannot say. With such sights as Palais El-Badi and the Jardin Majorelle, there are pretty specific places of interest to check out, but in all honesty, Marrakech would be a pretty ordinary place were it not for the atmospheric Djemma El-Fna.
Admittedly very little more than a big, dustbowl square – albeit with wandering orange juice salesmen and snake charmers dotted here and there – by day, it is when night falls that this place really comes alive. The stalls in the middle of the square cook up tantalising street food to get your taste buds going, and the number and variety of performers increase.
The dancers, jugglers and acrobats feel like they are there for the tourists – and don’t they know it, given how readily they demand coin when they spy someone with a camera – so if you want to get an authentic Moroccan experience, gather round one of the storytellers. Yes you won’t understand a word they’re saying, but it’s all about their OTT gesticulations and the entertaining audience participation. As the light fades further and the spellbound crowd are held in the palm of the storyteller’s hand, the effect can be quite magical.
So I left Morocco having felt as though I’d had more of an immersive experience – and yes, that included dealing with the grifters and the little boys who yelled ‘Monsiuer!’ and ran after me down the narrow streets – than I had anywhere else before. In short, I can thank Morocco for setting me on the travel path that I now take; and who knows, it might just do the same for some people reading this too.