What To Expect When Visiting Morocco
Cathy O'Connor | 26 October 2022
Offering year round sunshine, ancient medinas, cosmopolitan cities, barren desserts, impressive mountain ranges, rich cultural heritage and tasty cuisine, Morocco has something for every adventure seeker. Fashion stylist Cathy O'Connor recently embarked on our Explore Morocco Holiday and discovered many highlights of this remarkable country.
"My recent trip to Morocco was so much more than a holiday, it was an experience! In fact, it was a series of jaw dropping experiences that I will cherish forever. We're not talking about the usual lovely but forgettable holiday vistas, seen in the usual resort type places, with the usual familiar sounds and scents. No, this was different. An action packed week in a joyously diverse culture, where we were privileged to experience the out-of-the-ordinary on a daily basis. One of the first things you will notice about Morocco is the welcome; and that welcome started in an usual place, at the passport check area. There was a sincerity about the "Welcome to Morocco" and "Enjoy your visit “ from the officials that resonated. Our group of twenty adventurers also felt that same warmth of welcome when we met our TD active guides Saida, Ibrahim and Ismail. In the sweltering heat, we gladly boarded the two minibuses that were to take us some 1800 kilometres over the next week.
Guided Marrakech Tour
Entering Marrakech is a culture shock; it's a dynamic, chaotic city; traffic zooms left and right, three people to a moped, with a sound backdrop of lightly beeped horns and the streets alive with traders. Everything in motion and yet, it all works. When we reached our Riad style hotel, which was close to Jemaa el-Fnaa, (the main square), we were welcomed (again!) with the delicious drink of Morocco - sweetened peppermint tea. We sipped this refreshing tea in the central courtyard and admired the architecture and decoration of this traditional style house which had been converted into a hotel. Our group of strangers chatted to each other, swapping stories of travels and full of anticipation for the week ahead. Our guides talked us through the plan for that evening. They expressed their welcome with such care and kindness that we all felt secure in the knowledge that we were going to be well looked after. We headed out for dinner, zig zagging through narrow streets before reaching Jemaa el-Fnaa. It was a jaw dropping moment. The square itself is huge, it looked about the size of Croke Park and was packed with life. There was entertainment of every kind; snake charmers, crowds gathered around storytellers, monkey trainers, musicians with percussion instruments beating a pacy rhythm, the aroma of spices and herbs and traders pitching their products to the meandering families. The restaurant with its second floor open air terrace overlooked the square and offered us another perspective on the life buzzing below us. Our food arrived and I experienced a culinary first...tagine. This delicious mainstay dish is a slow cooked casserole of meat, vegetables, spices and dried nuts and very, very tasty. Our table was noisy with chatter which stopped almost instantly for Adhan, the call to prayer. A beautiful and lyrical voice was projected via tannoy to the crowds. The timbre and resonance of the voice of the Muadhdhin was haunting; it seemed to cut through the chaos and touch our souls. A calmness and stillness seemed to descend. Life had taken a pause. I felt so lucky to be there, to experience that moment, aware that another marvellous memory was forming. The next day we explored Marrakech. With its rich history, this is a city with many cultural attractions. We craned our necks to take in the height and magnificence of the Koutoubia Mosque, the highest building in Marrakech. From there, we walked through a maze of streets to reach Bahia Palace. Craftsmen from all over the country came to work on this mansion and so it is a feast for the eyes with exquisite artistry, vibrant colours and the striking patterns of mosaic tiles. The Dar Si Said, the oldest museum in the city, offered elegant patios, vivid stained glass and tranquil gardens. That morning tour gave us a real flavour of Marrakech.
It was time to get going as we were headed for the capital, Rabat, some 300 kilometres away. Morocco is a huge country, about six times the size of Ireland. The landscape is vast and diverse; there's lush, verdant green areas and boundless, barren scrubland. We passed through bustling villages and more structured towns. With a few stops along the way, we arrived at the modern and historic city of Rabat. Perched on the south bank of the Bu Regreg river and overlooking the city, the 12th century Hassan Tower is a minaret of what was to be the largest mosque in the western world. Although the mosque was not completed, it remains an imposing and impressive landmark. From there we went to The Kasbah of the Oudayas. Entry to this residential area is via enormous Almohad gate, called Bab Oudaia. There's an Andalusian influence here, with white washed houses painted with royal and sky blue details. We enjoyed the view of the Sale and Bu Regreg estuaries and enjoyed the balmy breeze all the more.
Discover Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca
After another delicious meal, we were back on the road, heading for Casablanca. One of the real pleasures of a trip like this is getting to know your fellow travellers. TD active holidays are the perfect option for those who like to explore and make the most of their time off; it's all the pleasure and none of the pain. All the pleasure of discovering new places and new vistas. None of the pain of organizing any of it! Our group was a varied one; all ages and all backgrounds and yet with one common thread, a love of travel and a love of adventure.It was in that spirit that we arrived at our next destination. Casablanca is the commercial and industrial hub of Morocco, a port city on the Atlantic. Less of a tourist destination than Marrakech or Fez, it's home to the magnificent Hassan II Mosque. This is the second largest Mosque in the world with the world's highest Minaret. I had another jaw dropping moment as I took in the scale of it all; it houses 25,000 worshippers and can accommodate another 80,000 in the courtyard outside. Our well informed guide talked us through the construction, the exquisite artistry that decorates every centimetre of surface and the daily rituals of this holy place. An invaluable insight into a very different culture. Dinner that night was full of stimulating conversations about what we had seen and of course, very tasty food!
Guided Meknes Tour
Another adventure awaited us the next day as we set off for the former capital of Morocco, Meknes (also known as The Imperial City). Founded in the 11th century as a military settlement on a hilltop, it's home to an enormous imperial complex, with a town wall spanning 120 kilometres. The intricate decoration is outstanding, created by an army of artisans, culminating in the monumental gate, Bab Mansur, a masterpiece of Hispano-Moorish art. Thanks to our guide Ibrahim, each of these historic sites unfolded another chapter in Morocco’s complex and fascinating history. Some 65km outside of Meknes lies the UNESCO site of Volubilis, an important outpost of the Roman empire dating back to the third century BC. Walking through the ruins of this city was captivating.
Guided Tour of Fes
After a welcome cup of coffee and ice cream, we were back on the road, headed for Fes. Arriving at our beautifully appointed hotel, we sipped peppermint tea before heading to the pool for an evening swim. The next day was to be a remarkable one as we were exploring Fes, known as the cultural capital of Morocco and deservedly so. Our local guide brought us to Morocco's largest and oldest Medina. It's a maze of almost 10,000 very narrow streets; atmospheric, bustling and wonderfully chaotic. Traders offer everything from iphones, spices, trainers, meat, wedding dresses, fresh fruit juice, rugs ; it's all there, all happening, all of the time! I felt really privileged to see this other world and what a wonderful way to see it. Despite the overwhelming nature of the medina, it was stress free. Our guides knew exactly where to take us, so we could relax and enjoy the experience. We didn't have to worry about how to get here and there, we had the freedom to just amble along and see this intimate slice of Moroccan life. Amidst the hubbub, they are spectacular sights. The oldest university in the world and UNESCO world heritage site, the Karaouiyne University is viewable from the outside to non-Muslims. We visited a tannery and were fascinated to see the arduous process of treating leather, all done by hand (and feet) in the scorching sun. In our high-tech world, it was a rare opportunity to appreciate the demand and craft of traditional crafts. As we weaved through those topsy turvy streets, there was any amount of good, humoured banter from the street traders. They have the mastery of engagement down to a fine art, with a keen ability to read potential customers that was very entertaining. Our charming guide gave us an insight into the lifestyle of those living in the Medina. Another wonderful aspect of this trip was the invaluable information we garnered from our guide, who was so patient with our endless questions. With every story, we understood a little more about a culture so different from our own. After such a busy, exciting morning, we welcomed the retreat of lunch at a nearby restaurant. Everywhere we ate, the food was just delicious, with its blend of Mediterranean, Andalusian and Berber influences. Sweet, savoury, and sour flavours are often seasoned with lemon, dried fruits and spices. Always interesting and always yummy! That afternoon we spent lazing around the pool, feeling very lucky to be there.
Camel Ride Through The Sahara Desert
Our destination the next day was the Sahara Desert, some 500km away. We travelled through extraordinary landscapes, weaving our way into the vast Middle Atlas Mountains and then into the contrasting abundance of the cedar forests at Azrou. After many enjoyable stops along the way, we reached the village of Merzouga . It was quite a sight to see our transport into the desert .. a herd of camels! Much laughter was had as we tried to mount these docile creatures, all of us looking like some strange extras for another adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia. Within no time we were off. Our camels moved at a slow and easy rhythm, although it took us some getting used to going up and down the soft dunes. The sun was setting as we arrived in our rather luxurious glamping tents in the isolated desert. Being there was an experience I'll never forget. All of my senses were heightened; there was calming stillness and silence that engendered a feeling of tranquility, as if time itself had stopped. The balmy breeze felt like velvet on my skin, the dry, sandy air had a distinctive scent and as I scanned the horizon, there was nothing, just undulating dunes as far as the eye can see. I had never been anywhere like it and felt truly blessed to see it. Dinner was a lively affair as we were entertained by the nomadic musicians. Sleeping under the stars was a magical treat. Even though I was somewhat weary from travelling, I rose to see the sunrise. There was something divine about welcoming that day; the landscape slowly changing colour as the bright sunlight emerged. A memory that remains with me to this day.
Having left the desert, our first stop was at the Todgha Gorge. The setting could not have been more dramatic as the gorge is enclosed by steep and sheer cliffs. Families were dotted everywhere around the river savouring the coolness of the water. Makeshift picnics were enjoyed, music was playing, children were squealing with delight as they splashed about. That sense of enjoyment was to be alive and kicking at our hotel in the spectacular Dades Valley. Our night was made particularly special by the manager of the hotel, Mohamed. He was both entertaining and charming. A group of very talented local musicians played for us into the wee hours. The joyous beat of their music has us dancing all night. Such great fun and such a memorable night.
It was time to return to Marrakech with plenty of worthwhile stops along the way, like Ouarzazate. Ait Benhhadou is a UNESCO listed heritage site. Formerly the caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech, it is renowned for its earthen clay architecture. Many films have valued the magic of this fortified village and surrounding areas; Game of Thrones, The Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia, to mention but a few. After the expanse of the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert, it was quite an adjustment to encounter the traffic and vibrant life of Marrakech! As it was our last evening, we all went out for a special dinner. Friendships were made, numbers were exchanged with much cheering and laughter around the table. Our lovely guides gave each of us a small gift which was a testimony to their kindness and welcome."
Join us on this unforgettable adventure holiday in Morocco, as we'll show you all the iconic sights and reveal the hidden delights. If you're looking for some suggestions for activities in Morocco, then check out our Top 10 Things To Do In Morocco blog post. We also offer a Morocco Photography Holiday; the perfect travel destination to learn and develop your documentary, street and landscape photography skills.
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