Northern Africa is a fascinating place, culturally diverse with a tinge of European influence. The native Moroccans are berber by birth, but modern at heart. Al-Maghrib as the early rulers called Morocco, each part of the country is fascinating in its own way. I travelled across Morocco for a week and half starting in Marrakesh, headed East towards the Sahara and then North towards the Blue City before concluding the road trip in Casablanca.
Some of the early rulers from the Middle East who led conquests to the west arrived in Morocco and named this land – Al Maghrib, which meant the land of the setting sun and more precisely it meant the end of the land on the western side of the Kingdom. At that time, the existence of Americas weren’t known and they thought that Morocco was the end and there was nothing beyond.
To travel to Morocco was a long delayed project. Every time I planned the trip, something would hinder in going forward. In late 2019, friends from school were admitted to colleges in the UK and I planned to visit them and spend Christmas and New Year there. There was no better time to plan Morocco as London was 2 hours away from either Casablanca or Marrakesh. I applied for a visa to the UK and started planning Morocco. I read a lot of blogs and constantly kept looking at the map to better understand how to route the entire trip. Finally, Malvika Srivastava and Sangeetha Prasad from Chalo Africa helped fine tune the plan and handled all the ground arrangements.
Soon after New Year in London, I flew out of the Gatwick Airport into Marrakesh and my Grandmom and cousin were to join me from India the next day. In this blog, I am writing more about the Eastern side of Morocco and not the entire trip to keep it short and concise. The trip began in Marrakesh, followed by a day in Ait ben Haddou enroute to the Sahara.
After a 5.5 hour drive from Ait ben Haddou, we arrived in Merzouga and had to either travel on Camel back or by a Land Cruiser to get to the desert camp as our van we came in wasn’t capable of negotiating the dunes. There was an option to ride ATVs on the dunes to get to some vantage points and then head over to Camp. Put on a sweater, got a camera and lens in a back pack, put on my helmet and was off into the desert with a guide. It took a while to get used to ride the quad bike particularly while climbing high dunes. I was glad that I opted out to ride a bit before reaching camp as I saw the endless beauty of the Sahara desert which would have otherwise not been possible. After about 2 hours out in the desert, arrived at camp. The luxury camp set in the midst of the Dunes was beautiful. The sun had just about set and they commenced dinner services at the dining tent.
Dinner was a mix of Moroccan and continental dishes – Grilled Chicken, rice, alfredo pasta, Berber Pizza (was very good) and fries accompanied by a glass of wine. Post dinner, the campfire was lit and all the guests circled around and danced under the star lit sky singing songs from their countries. Winters in Morocco are cold and in fact the Sahara was the coldest place in the entire trip next to Ifrane. The tent heaters weren’t working, which didn’t seem to bad when I settled down at night. But waking up in the morning and getting ready at -4 degrees centigrade in a tent was not the easiest task. On the way back to our van after breakfast, I hoped on a camel. Our next stop was in Ifrane. Ifrane is a skiing town in Morocco and the Swiss-like architecture around the city is beautiful. The highlight in this place was the Michlifen Golf Resort. The resort was too good that I didn’t feel like going out to explore the city.
From Ifrane, we came to Fes, the epic highlight of our stay in the country. Driving through the High Atlas Mountains from Ifrane, the scenic beauty along the way will take your breathe away. It is a paradise for street photography and which ever corner you turn to, the contrast of colours is amazing. The labyrinth of paths inside the Medina (Old Town) is a place you’re sure to get lost in if you don’t have a local guide. Google Maps won’t come to your rescue in some parts of the Medina. Some streets are so narrow that people can walk in only one direction at a time.
Being the earlier capital of Morocco, Fes is filled with Madarsas (places of Islamic learning and Quranic Study) old schools, universities, Mosques and tombs. All of the architecture is in a unique style. The early traders who settled in Morocco were mainly Jewish; but now most have migrated out to other parts of the country.
Fes is very famous for Leather and the Tanneries. It houses the largest Tannery in the whole of North Africa. Scenic and colourful as photos from the place maybe, it doesn’t have the pleasantest of odours. Our guide handed out scented tissues and Basil leaves. I wondered why and she said, you’ll need it! Only when I got close to the Tannery did I realise how helpful the tissue was. The tanks on the right is where the hide is soaked in ammonia before being processed into leather and dyed on the right side. The whole process takes over a month and sometimes even longer. We spent the night in the rooftop of a Riad (traditional Moroccan House) feasting on pastilla – a dish filled with Chicken or Beef in a puff pastry and topped with powdered sugar.
Driving further North from Fes, arrived in the Blue City of Chefchaouen. The entire city is on a hill and all streets, houses and buildings are painted Blue. There are hardly any motorable roads inside the town and the only way to get around is to walk. The town square is filled with cafes and eateries. A cobbled path with a few hundred steps leads to a church on a hill on the opposite side of the Blue City. The panoramic view from the top is not worth missing. There is a specific reason why Chefchaouen was painted all Blue. Apparently the blue colour of the city repels some insects. The main motive of painting the city blue was to keep away insects, but over time, it became more of a fashion and iconic city drawing travellers from across the globe.
The ancient city of Volubilis was built in the 3rd century B.C. and became an important outpost of the Roman Empire. Volubilis is said to demonstrate one of the most authentic evidences of the Empire in the region as the area was not occupied for over 10 centuries. It currently lies near the City of Meknes. It also served as the capital of Idris Dynasty founded by Idris I, who is laid to rest at the nearby site of Moulay Idris. A UNESCO world heritage site, the ruins of Volubilis stands as a testimony to time of the ancient romans who ruled this land. It is fascinating of how perfectly they chose Volubilis to build the city around rich alluvial soil, good water sources and on a plateau near a hill to guard against attacks.
Morocco is famous for fountains made of mosaic. The intricate hand cut designs blow your mind away. Local artisans and craftsman still continue this art and fountains are custom made and shipped all over the world. Through the trip, I enjoyed some of the local Moroccan dishes like the Tajine which is a puree with vegetables, chicken, beef or camel meet and spiced with local ingredients. The name however refers to the earthenware pot used to cook the dish. A major part of their diet consists of olives and bread. In some places particularly between Marrakesh and Sahara, the highway had few choices for vegetarian dishes. The cities offer a wide variety of cuisines to choose from.
In Marrakesh and Fes, we were staying in Riads which are the traditional Moroccan homes. All rooms have windows opening into the courtyard and not to the outside of the buildings. That is one of the iconic styles of Moroccan Architecture. Our last stops in the trip were at Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca. Following a night’s stay in each of the places, I flew out of Casablanca to Paris where I continued my trip for another 2 weeks in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Poland and Finland before getting home.
Matters regarding the virus were just coming into limelight and I had no clue through out my trip of what was happening. Only when I landed back in Delhi in late January, I read the news and also saw bulletins in the International arrivals warning passengers of the virus. May we hope and pray that things will return to normalcy in the near future. Stay home! Stay safe!
Author: Gaurav Ramnarayanan