Let’s play a game. If you were to describe a country in three words, what would they be?
When it comes to Morocco, these three words are actually the three elements that take over your senses; spices in the very air you breathe, all shades of brown scattered over the typical buildings you pass by- a color palette identical to the landscape itself- and a constant symphony of murmuring, a composition made of children running, market people showing off their products and the muezzin, proclaiming the call to prayer for the public worship.
If you find yourself among those capable of vivid imagery, you’ll have already got the point made above. Morocco is a feast for your eyes, ears, nose- perhaps not your mouth, though, but we’ll come to that one later. For now, just read along and we’ll take you to what has been our first stepping onto (the northernmost edge of) Africa.
Our journey begins in the beautiful city of Marrakech. After checking into our riad (traditional guesthouse) we rushed for a midday walk in the medina (ancient city center), where we found ourselves greeted with a rather weird situation. Every little shop was closed· neither any products, nor any of the famous salesmen where to be seen. As for the main square, it was a vast empty place. It truly felt like we were walking in a ghost town. It was only a matter of time, though, for as the sun fell, people started rushing in the streets, filling the atmosphere with sounds, smells and colors. People navigating through the narrow alleys, local merchants trying to talk us into buying their products and snake charmers attracting tourists in the main square were some of the highlights of our stroll. Walking back home, after our first bites of Moroccan tajine (traditional dish), we observed something truly unique. Kids were playing football in the streets at 11:30pm like it was Saturday morning. It really felt like the city woke up after the sun has set.
The next day we set sail for the sea of sand that is said to hold all the secrets of Africa- we began our journey towards the Sahara desert. Little did we know of the two-day trip that was ahead of us. The long hours you need to spend in the car can only be compensated by the thrills of the scenery, which might not be impressive, but certainly has much to offer. Along the road, between olive trees and dusty village houses, we noticed locals sleeping literally anywhere. You could see people sleeping on rocks, in carton boxes, on stairways, doorsteps and so on.
Perhaps the most thrilling of the stops during our first day on the road was that in Αϊt Ben Haddou, a traditional pre-Sahara habitat known as “ksar” that is an UNESCO world heritage site but has also been used as a movie set for several films (The Gladiator is perhaps the most known of them). Walking through the ksar, crossing narrow alleys between houses made of earth and hay, climbing on the terrace of the Mosque in the middle and watching over the clay walls that set the limit between human presence and nature’s playground.
The night found us in the Dades Gorge, between the Atlas mountains, where we witnessed a starry night framed by the Moroccan mountain-lines. Next day we got on the minibus at dawn and in the same afternoon we finally reached the attraction that made us visit Morocco on the first place; the immeasurable Sahara desert. The vast landscape, full of sand dunes, the extreme heat and the roaring of the camels made for an unforgettable and unique set of first impressions. But the desert proved to be an enchanting place, and little credit did the trailer pay to the vivid, beyond imagination film we were stepping into.
Speaking of camels, riding one in the desert can prove to be alone an experience worth travelling. This was probably the highlight of all our trip; gazing at this unearthly surrounding, riding an animal we’d only seen in pictures before. Eventually, after dancing for a while on the edge of many sand-hills riding our camels, we arrived at Erg Chebbi (large dune) and watched the sunset, which due to the extremely dusty air looked like one you would probably witness on planet Mars.
Upon return to the camp, we had a lovely dinner with our friends from all around the globe, shared stories around the fire and reflected on our journey so far. After listening to some Moroccan music under the night sky and trying some astrophotography, we found out that the comfiest place to sleep was… a dining table. To defend this choice of ours, only two points need to be made; the unbearable heat in our tent built by the locals using rugs, plus some scorpions casually chilling where we were supposed to rest.
In the morning we rushed again to climb some more sand-hills to witness the desert sunrise which is truly like no other and stare at this out-of-this-world landscape for one last time. Finally, we got in a car to start our final journey to the city of Fez. On our way there, the Moroccan nature surprised us with yet another unexpected acquaintance; there were some monkey families that apparently had loved the idea of taking their little ones for a walk. The scenes we witnessed watching them play, fight, run and climb up and down trees were of immense beauty. Charmed by their view, we went back in the car to continue our journey.
Fez proved to be the more tidy, organized and restrained sister of Marrakech. Walking through the alleyways and passages, we could trace a similar, yet more refined vibe of people chatting, children running, smells filling the air and that palette of Moroccan colors we now knew well-spread over all of the architecture around. After walking through the Aladdin-like Gate of the medina walls and crossing an open market bustling with locals, we enjoyed some sips of the famous mint tea and waved goodnight to the city- and goodbye to Morocco.
If you find yourself willing to take this trip, we have a number of tips we think that might prove rather useful.
1. Upon arrival, it would prove wise to withdraw the amount of money you think you will spend in the span of your itinerary. The ATMs charge 3 euro fee per withdrawal.
2. In Marrakech, you will almost certainly think you are lost in the alleyways of the medina at some point. When this happens, do not by all means look lost or check your phone in public. Either enter a shop and ask the owner for advice, or follow the larger alleys and you’ll soon find yourself in the main square.
3. Don’t get intimidated by locals pushing you to purchase things or willing to “help” you. Most likely, it’s a tourist trap. In case you want to buy something, stick with your own mind and don’t be afraid to bargain.
4. In case you want to go to the Sahara, choose the private tour to Sahara over the shared one, if you can afford it. This will save you from unfortunate situations like fighting with your driver to use the a/c. Also, it will allow you to plan where you want to stop and skip the tourist traps. From our own experience, joining a shared tour gives one little to no freedom on where to eat, explore or relax.
5. Buy enough water for your stay in the desert. You will need it.
6. Relax and enjoy your trip. People there work in their own pace, just take your time and appreciate where you are.