In preparing for our trip to Morocco, I wanted to learn as much about the country and the two cities we would visit to fully prepare for our journey. My only image of Casablanca was from the 1942 movie, which I quickly learned was filmed entirely on a Hollywood movie set. Even the movie’s cafe (Rick’s Cafe) was a fictional place in the movie, but has since been duplicated as a real tourist stop in Casablanca. So, here’s lookin’ at you kid…
About 3 weeks before we were to visit Morocco, the country had been hit with terrible flooding, and I had some concern that our trip to the interior city of Marrakesh may be canceled as a result. Luckily, our trip was still on, as this was our 2nd attempt to visit Africa, after our 1st attempt fell short earlier in 2014 due to bad winds not allowing our ship to dock in Tunis.
- Located in the northwest corner of Africa bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, the countries of Algeria & Mauritania, and the Western Sahara.
- Capital is the city of Rabat. Largest city is Casablanca (population 3.4 million)
- The full Arabic name is al-Mamlakah al-Maghribiyyah (المملكة المغربية) translates to “Kingdom of the West” (i.e., the most western Arab kingdom)
- The English name “Morocco” originates from the Spanish and Portuguese names “Marruecos” and “Marrocos”
- Land Area is about 172,000 square miles (roughly the size of North & South Carolina + Georgia + Virginia in the US)
- Population is about 33 million (roughly the same as the same referenced 4 states)
- Early prehistoric settlers from 200,000 to 90,000 BC followed by Berber tribes within northern Africa, Phoenicians from the Mediterranean, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Portuguese, Spanish, & French.
- Independence from France in the 1950s and today Morocco has a democratic government ruled by the current King Mohammed VI
- 5th largest economy in Africa & ranked #1 in quality of life for African countries
- Industries are mining, construction, textiles, and tourism with 10% unemployment
- Official languages: Arabic, Berber, and French
- Population is 99% Islam & 1% Christian/Other
- Interesting fact: Morocco was the first country to recognize the new independent United States in 1777.
With the facts out of the way, I personally had a stereotype about Morocco that the country was a desert area and that most modern conveniences were not present. And, like most stereotypes, I was COMPLETELY wrong! The area around Casablanca is in a very fertile region of Morocco. Just outside of the city are large, flat stretches of very green land with various crops being grown. The highways we traveled were extremely modern and in very nice conditions (I would dare say better than a lot of places in the States). And, in both Casablanca and Marrakesh, the common site of construction areas and cranes are visible everywhere, which demonstrates a growing economy in the region.
However, with this being said, the further inland we drove to Marrakesh, the scenery slowly does change to a more arid experience as the lush green fields give way to brown, dry landscapes. If we would have kept driving further south, we would have eventually come upon the Western Sahara Desert with its rolling sand dunes, the likes of which everyone thinks of regarding the deserts of northern Africa.
In starting out our drive, the area around the port in Casablanca is very nice, as most cruise ports are with lots of palm trees, tourist shops, and cafes. As you drive through the city, most of the buildings in Casablanca are tall and made from cement that are dingy aged, whitewashed structures situated very close together. Traffic becomes more congested with all the modern cars, yellow Mercedes taxis, buses, and random mopeds flowing in different directions of the city.
After about 15 minutes, you start to leave the city behind and venture out into the Moroccan countryside filled with flat green farm lands between the Atlas Mountains in the interior to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the tall apartment and office buildings are replaced by small farming villages. The cars are replaced with donkeys pulling small trailers with random large, green John Deere tractors here and there. You can sense the clash of the old farming systems with some of the modern technologies with the tractors and irrigation systems seen.
Our road to Marrakesh was an extremely well maintained 4-lane toll highway that I did not see one pothole or any roadside debris along the way. There are several large gas stations (like we are accustomed to in the US) and rest areas along the way to stop as needed.
It is a 3 hour drive to Marrakesh, and 2 hours outside of Casablanca, the landscape begins to change as we approached the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The green is replaced by brown. Tractors are replaced by donkeys in the field. The villages are fewer and farther between. But the one constant was the mid-day traffic continuing to travel to and from Casablanca.
After 3 hours, we began to enter the ‘new town’ section of Marrakesh with its hotels, restaurants, shops, and soccer stadium. All the structures here were built within the last 10 years with a tremendous amount of construction still underway. The building materials were concrete that had a brownish-red hue to match the surrounding landscape. The first indication that Marrakesh is a tourist destination were the camels and the signs saying ‘Camel Rides’ that were found around the palace area.
Our first stop in Marrakesh was to visit the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Koutoubia Mosque). Here is where I quickly learned that if you take a picture of a person in costume that they will want 1 Euro. The mosque was very beautiful. The weather was simply gorgeous for the end of December with clear skies, temperatures in the high 60s and no humidity. After spending about an hour here admiring the splendor of the mosque with its intricate detailed mosaics we left to go have lunch.
Our Guide took us to a restaurant for our lunch. To tell you where this was would be a lie, because there were so many twists and turns in the streets that it is very easy to get lost. We were treated to a very festive, traditional Moroccan lunch. Three men using different guitars, drums, and shakers played Moroccan music while dancers and belly dancers went by all the tables. The food was served in what we would call in the States as ‘family style’. We did not order from a menu, and different courses were brought out to us: salad, then grilled chicken with various vegetable (carrots, potatoes, onions), and couscous. Then, the server asked if we were ready for dessert? Our dessert were plates of fresh Clementine’s….so fresh, in fact, that they still had leaves sticking off the tops. These had to be the sweetest, best tasting oranges/Clementine’s ever!! Talk about a ‘healthy’ dessert!!
After lunch, our next stop was to the old section (Medina) of Marrakesh to experience the ‘true’ Marrakesh. To Westerners, the marketplace of the Souks can be very intimidating as various merchants selling their food, crafts, and items will approach you to buy from them. There is a lot of competition between all of the merchants so they do their best to get your attention and to make you look at their stuff. If you are not use to this, it comes across as being very pushy or aggressive in getting your attention. However, a firm ‘NO’ and continuing to walk past will work. Even though we feel this as being ‘rude’ this is just how you make it through the market.
But, if you are interested in buying something….the saying goes…if you touch it, you will buy it, meaning the merchant will make every single attempt to sell to you what you touched or something else in their store. “My friend, I make you the best offer here!”. In Morocco, and especially in the Souks, bargaining is expected. So, if you do want to buy something, when the merchant gives their price, offer 50% of their price and settle at about 30% less than the original offer. The local currency is the Moroccan Dirham (1 Dirham is about 10 Euros or 8 US Dollars). If a merchant states a price in Euros or Dollars, just beware of what the current exchange rate is to make sure you are not being taken advantage of.
And, the markets are just like we have seen on TV and in the movies. Narrow walkways around old, stone buildings. Back room shops off the main walking paths. Our guide took us to a leather store that in no way could anyone find this place unless you had been there countless times before. It is a very crowded area, with so many vivid colors and smells coming from the spice stands. Truly, it is an experience walking through these areas.
In Marrakesh there is a very large market square area, where street performers with their dancing monkeys, snake charmers and handlers, dancers, etc attract hundreds of people to watch and partake. Here, the recommendation is to take pictures with a zoom lens in order to take pictures without being asked to give 1 Euro. This is one way they make extra money, but if you are like me and want to take a hundred pictures, this really can become a hassle. But, when you do want to take the picture of the performer you just watched, then the courtesy is to pay (but this is similar in most tourist areas I have been around the world).
Also, if you have seen the American television show ‘The Amazing Race’, this last season (2014), Marrakesh was one of their stops along the race. We saw the area where the food stands are and the area where the Moroccan carpets are hung, both which were activities performed on the show. But, from our experience and the number of people present, this show must be filmed very early in the morning and under controlled conditions because there are people everywhere!
After about 2 hours spent in Marrakesh walking the Souks in the Medina, attending demonstrations at a Moroccan carpet store and an oil & spice store; it was time to start our 3 hour drive back to Casablanca for our cruise departure at 10pm that night. We had a very, very long day.
We were told to be ‘travelers’ and not ‘tourists’ on this stop, meaning to expect to be out of our comfort zone. And, this advice worked, as we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Morocco and our experience that was magical.