A journey through Morocco
Exploring Morocco’s rich culture on a tour of the country’s historic cities and countryside
Arlene & Thor A. Larsen
There is nothing we enjoy more than getting on a plane and being whisked away to a warm, sunny clime with an exotic culture. This is especially true when the expedition is a bargain, like our trip to Morocco. The tour was entitled “13 Day Kaleidoscope of Morocco” and included five major cities, beautiful natural wonders, most meals, and transportation—all for $1,700. How could we possibly pass up a deal like that? The trip turned out to be one of the most fascinating and enlightening tours we have ever taken.
The ancient Roman city of Volubilis, located between the cities of Rabat and Fez, was our favorite. In its prime, the Roman city had 20,000 residents. The ruins, which sit atop a high plateau surrounded by green farmlands, have been well preserved and continue to be excavated. The site contains fine mosaic floors, carved marble columns, and a range of other structures reflecting the size of the city.
The tour started in the bustling capital of Rabat, located between the Atlantic Ocean and the mouth of the Bou Regreg river. Our first stop was a visit to the Chellah, a necropolis for Marinid Dynasty notables from the 13th to 15th centuries. This same site was occupied by the very prosperous Roman city of Sala Colonia. These extensive ruins are enclosed by massive walls built in the 13th century.
While Morocco is located in northern Africa, its past goes back to Europe as well. It is this dichotomy in its heritage that continues to give Morocco a rich and divergent culture. As you travel through Rabat, Fez, Marrakesh, and Casablanca and their environs, you can’t help but notice that the architecture in these cities resembles the architecture of Andalusia, Spain. The reason, of course, is that when the Moors were defeated in Spain, they simply crossed the Mediterranean to Morocco to practice the religion of Islam, bringing their arts, crafts, and architecture with them.
Morocco’s nature is unbelievably varied, from the long, white, sandy beaches to the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas Mountains. The varied terrain allows tourists to go camel trekking on the sand dunes of the Sahara and skiing on the snows of the High Atlas Mountains. As we were driven around the countryside in a large modern bus, we were so relieved to have an experienced driver to handle the steep, winding roads. The Tizi n’Tichka pass that runs between Ouarzazate and Marrakesh was filled with hairpin turns and sheer cliffs on both sides.
Every sizable town or city had a medina, which is simply a group of adobe buildings enclosed by a high wall where the shops and markets are located. The medina is the heart of Arab towns and cities. One of the most admired 12th century villages in southern Morocco is the pinkish sandstone village of Aït Benhaddou. Here the kasbahs (fortified houses) are strategically located high on a hill and were originally built as a caravan stop to give aid and respite, for a price, to traveling African traders in ivory, gold, and spices.
The imperial city of Fez has some of the most significant and historical sights of Morocco. We were anxious to experience the old-world tanneries of Fez, where men slosh around in enormous vats of foul-smelling concoctions and dyes to tan and color the animal skins to produce the famous Moroccan leather. The historical star of Fez is the world-famous University of Al-Quaraouiyine and Mosque that was established in 859, making it one of the world’s oldest universities. It is truly a beautiful building, but we had a hard time focusing on its beauty and significance because it is in the middle of a frenzied and crowded medina. The donkey-wide winding alleyways chock-full of hordes engaged in selling, shopping, and touring in four or five different languages can be distracting.
Even though the French occupation ended more than 60 years ago, the French influence is still evident. Most Moroccans are still bilingual, and many of the big cities adapted French names for their parks, buildings, and public areas, such as Hivernage, Ville Nouvelle, and Jardin Majorelle.
Marrakesh is a perfect example of the Arab-French blend of cultures. We found Marrakesh to be the most beautiful city in Morocco. Its wide tree-lined boulevards, palisaded by modern hotels, integrate lovely gardens for the public to enjoy.
Located in the central part of the city is a beautiful and historic garden originally designed in the 1930s by the French painter Jacques Majorelle. A pleasant afternoon is to take a stroll in this French-inspired garden in the shade of the Majorelle Blue studio, surrounded by cascading magenta bougainvillea, palms, and cacti. You can always elect to take a break and sip a mint tea at the outdoor café or spend some time exploring the fascinating Berber museum next door.
One of Marrakesh’s pleasantries is to take a quaint horse-and-buggy ride from your hotel to visit Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square of the medina and one of the most talked-about experiences in Morocco. The square is a huge expanse of open space, stalls, and tents. It is here that the city presents its infamous evening spectacle of snake charmers, magicians, hawkers, musicians, and occasional pickpockets to entertain and challenge the tourists.
Every substantial Moroccan city has a mosque with a matching minaret that you can spot from afar. In Casablanca’s case, we would have to declare their mosque and minaret to be on steroids! It is the second largest structure in the world. The colossal Hassan II Mosque stands on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and actually sits partially out the over the sea. It took 35,000 craftsmen to complete this elaborate edifice with marble, mosaics, woodcarvings, and plastic carvings. The Venetian crystal chandeliers are dazzling, and it is a building you cannot forget!
If you head south, you find yourself on a road called the Corniche. This windblown coastal highway popular with surfers will lead you past many of Casablanca’s glitzy nightclubs. While we did not find Rick, we did find snappy ocean-side dining spots where the seafood was fresh and delicious. It was a perfect venue for our tour to end as we enjoyed a warm Moroccan evening with a pastel sunset.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.