I grew up thinking that Morocco was the most exotic place in the world. I imagined snake charmers, flying carpets and oasis in the desert. When my sister Marce visited Marrakesh I was still a teenager, and spent days reading over and over again a book she brought back for my dad. It was decided, Morocco would be the first African country I’d visit.
And so it was. I’m all about traveling solo, but I was a bit skeptical after all the warnings I’ve read online. “Women on their own could be attacked”, “don’t show your knees”, “wear a fake wedding ring to dissuade men”, “don’t make eye contact with anyone”… It felt like I was going back to the middle ages! At that moment I was living in London and I managed to convince two of my friends to join, so I was feeling really confident.
To be honest, I loved Morocco, but some of the thing I’ve read turned out to be quite accurate. We were there during a really hot week in the middle of Ramadan, so we thought it might have been because people were on edge without being able to drink or eat during the day. We were harassed on the streets, even with our knees covered, we were told we’d be going to hell for showing part of our legs, and an old man even hit one of my friends with his walking stick, only because he could.
I’m sorry to start on a negative note, but I’m going through all of this because I just read a CN Traveler article including Morocco in a list of “the best places for your first trip abroad” and as much as I like Conde Nast, I think they’re mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, Morocco is wonderful, but you need to have a thick skin and a bit of travel experience to fully enjoy it.
The snake charmers were the worst thing to witness. The poor snakes (and every other animal, like little monkeys chained by their necks) we carried in potato sacks and left in the heat during the day. Just horrible! But once I got over the heartbreak of knowing there’s nothing I could do for the animals (other than not take a photo to at least try to discourage the practice), I started to see the real charm. There were no magic carpets. Not even one. But there was the amazing Palais Bahia. The “Palace of the Brilliant” is a 19th century masterpiece of Moroccan architecture. The amount of details left me speechless.
The Ben Youssef Madrasa was another beauty. It was founded in the 14th century as a Quranic college, reconstructed in the mid 1500s, and turned into a museum in 1960. On its entry there’s an inscription that reads “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded”. This welcomed its students, and fully applies today to its visitors. Because, really, expectations are exceeded.
The spiritual core of the Medina is the Koutoubia Mosque, the largest one in Marrakech and a trend setter for buildings in Spain and Rabat. Life in the city is seen in its souks, markets where you can find everything, from spices, to gold, to silk, to lamps, to the most incredible argan oil. But the heart of the city is Djemaa el-Fna, the main square of the old town. Come for a perfect cup (well, glass) of mint tea, and visit any of the dozens of restaurants around to try one of Morocco’s specialities –Tagine– a dish consisting of slow-cooked stew named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. A paradise for vegetarians!
The last main stop in town should be the Majorelle Garden, a two and half acre oasis in the middle of the desert. It’s the perfect break from the hectic Medina.
Was it worth a spot in the list?
Yes, yes, yes! The city is overwhelming, but if you’re respectful to the local culture and traditions (as you should be everywhere you go), your experience will be great. The city is magical once you overcome the initial shock. Dress appropriately and don’t be afraid to explore. Please drink the tea and eat the local food. Thank me later. When you’re ready, keep exploring the country. There’s a lot to include in every Morocco itinerary. To this trip I added a few days in Essaouira, a lovely town by the sea.