For some reason, whenever I thought about travelling in Morocco I imagined the Disney version of Aladdin – tiny alleyways, little monkeys, snake charmers, beggars, lots of people selling rugs and very shiny things, and castles in the desert. Amazingly, the reality isn’t all that far away, minus the crowds bursting into song and flying carpets. There’s something so fairytale about it all and yet it’s only three hours away – awesome! If you’re looking for something different from home, it’s as different as you’re ever going to get without having to incur jetlag.
We spent two weeks driving around Morocco, beginning and ending in Agadir. We went from the windswept coast town of Essaouira to mental-and-wonderful Marrakesh, then into the desert to sleep out under the stars (or we would have done if we weren’t hit by a sandstorm) before exploring the Dades Valley and Todra Gorge. Let’s just say that we covered quite a bit of ground. It didn’t actually feel too fast or hectic though and it opened my eyes to the massive variety that Morocco has to offer in terms of experiences and landscapes. At the end of it all, I really felt as though I had been on a journey rather than a holiday, and I’m already itching to go back.
I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account of the trip, because it would be a little bit like going for a drink with someone who doesn’t stop talking at you, but here are my favourite 5 highlights of my Morocco trip:
1. The people
Hands down, the best thing about Morocco. This, I’m ashamed to say now, surprised me a little bit because I had heard so many reports of people feeling harangued and even ripped off. Yet I felt entirely the opposite during my Morocco trip – very welcomed and very respected. And almost all of the Moroccan people I met were very funny – they had a really cheeky and silly sense of humour that was completely infectious. It’s also a seriously peaceful nation, so there’s a real openness and gentleness about the people too. Basically, I’m a fan. A superfan even. And the moral is – don’t believe the hype (except mine, that is)! Go see for yourselves.
2. The hammam
Crikey. What an experience. During our Morocco travels, we went to a private hammam in Marrakesh, where you’re saunaed, showered, scrubbed and massaged over an hour and a half. And when I say scrubbed, I mean really scrubbed. I felt like I’d been through a human car wash. The women in charge of getting us so stupidly clean were wonderful – kind of like mischievous, kind, grandmothers. I felt completely at ease. They oiled me up so much I had to grip the edges of the bed to stay still while I was getting massaged! Next time, I’ll be less shy about being unclothed and head for the public hammam where the locals go in a frankly far more communal way. That must be pretty unforgettable.
3. The road trip
Wow, what an epic drive. There’s something about hiring a car a hitting the road that makes you feel as though you’re really discovering a place for yourself, and Morocco ticks every road trip box going – beaches, mountains, deserts, kasbahs, gorges and.. wait for it… goats in trees! Yes. that’s right – goats in argon trees munching the nuts at the side of the road. At times, driving through Morocco is like being in a Dr. Seuss book – the landscape can be so surreal. There’s even a spot in the desert where a fruity Belgian man had a stroke of inspiration-slash-insanity in the 1970s and decided to paint the rocks bright pink and blue. It’s pretty mind-blowing.
When you’re driving you can also stop whenever you like, and we paused to visit women’s co-ops (enterprises run independently to empower local women) making healing argon oils and honey and got out to look at roadside rug stalls. I bought a rug and every time I look at it, it makes me smile. Driving somewhere so different can seem a scary prospect, but trust me, the roads are in great condition and the added freedom is totally worth it.
4. The accommodation
Morocco does accommodation with a very generous helping of flair. The places that we stayed in during our Morocco holiday were so packed with Moroccan atmosphere and the hospitality was second to none. Riads are definitely the way to go, with colourful and quirky local decor as well as shady peaceful atriums and rooftop chill out areas. They are such a pleasure to return to after exploring cities that can sometimes be sensory overloads.
During our desert camping trip we stayed in simple but brilliant accommodation, with sturdy and cosy tents nestled amidst the sand dunes. Sitting around the campfire looking up at the stars whilst trying (and failing) to play the djembe drums, is a memory that will stay with me for a long time. Imlil, up in the mountains near Marrakesh, is a massively romantic place, perched on a hill above a valley of rivers and cherry trees, surrounded by views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The accommodation here may not be luxury, but it has bags of romance. When you’re travelling in Morocco, the places that you stay will become a highlight of your Morocco trip – take my word for it.
5. The food
Mmmmmmmmm. Take me back. If you’re a nut for, well, nuts, Morocco is a real treat. The same applies for dried fruit and all kinds of delicious meat. The tagines come in all kinds of guises, with apricots or dates or almonds or vegetables. If you get a chance, try a mesqui, a whole lamb cooked in a pit in the ground. It’s eaten very simply with cumin and salt and, even for a modest meat-eater like me, it was hard to beat. The local tungia in Marrakesh is also delicious, stewed lamb with vegetables. Having said all that, the pastilla is my stand out favourite. On paper, chicken with cinnamon in filo pastry topped with icing sugar really doesn’t seem like a great idea, but trust me, it really works.
In Essaouira, seafood is the done thing, and you can get amazing an seafood pastilla cooked with wine, fennel and tomato in a restaurant called Patio. The Djemma el Fna in Marrakesh is famous for coming alive at night, with over 100 food stalls all serving their own speciality. I can understand why tourists can be nervous about this kind of local al fresco kind of dining, as Morocco has been fighting a reputation for food poisoning for years, but I firmly believe this is the only way to eat in Marrakesh. It’s such an experience. We recommend Stall 94, because people from our company have been going there for years, and I can confidently confirm that the food here was hygienic and cooked to perfection. I’ll stop now because I’m getting hungry just writing this, but you get my drift – the food is most tasty indeed.