Journeying across Morocco

“They make a desert and call it peace” – Tacitus

On the morning of our excursion to the Atlas Mountains, I woke up as the sun was rising. Instead of lying in bed listening to the soft stores of the strangers around me, I grabbed my jacket and headphones and went to the terrace on the roof of the hostel. It was so peaceful up there. There were two fellow travellers wrapped in thick furs fast asleep on the cold terrace, silent and unmoving. Marrakech looked beautiful at dawn, the silence was only broken by the sound of a worker sweeping the streets with a straw brush down below. Whoosh, whoosh. I sat there for a while watching the world slowly wake up from my perch above the ancient city.

It was my grandfather’s funeral that day. But rather than allowing myself to be enveloped in sadness in this beautiful place, which I know Howard wouldn’t have wanted, I got up, popped my headphones in and played Gloria by Laura Branigan (Howard’s favourite song) and then I danced. I danced like no one was watching.

After a few more songs, I wandered downstairs to find my friends slowly waking up. So we all got ready, had breakfast and climbed in the car of our curly-haired guide – Iddir. None of us really knew what to expect. We hadn’t been to Africa. We didn’t do much research. We had never taken a tour guide. We didn’t even really know where we were going. But there are a few times when ignorance truly is bliss without harm, and this was one of them. Morocco blew our minds.

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Our journey on day one of the tour

At first there was Iddir getting to know us and giving us all nicknames. Denmark. Spain. Poland. Hannah (I was the one who’d booked the tour, probably the reason he could remember my name). Then we left Marrakech far behind us as we climbed up to the High Atlas Mountains in the 4×4. The scenery changed from red to brown to grey and then to a shocking green as far as the eye could see. The windy roads certainly weren’t appeasing for any of our stomachs, but the snaking climb was worth it for the view at the top of the mountain. There was a vast stretch of grassland that was dramatically framed by the tall, dark mountains, only disturbed by the river jolting through the centre of it, carving a small valley of itself in the otherwise flat foreground. The clouds tickled the top of the mountains and blanketed the ones behind in a soft mist, creating the illusion of an infinite mountain range.

We then crawled back down through tiny Berber villages clinging onto the edge of the mountain and vast expanses of roads to Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou, a place in which numerous movies and series have been filmed, including Indiana Jones, Gladiator and Game of Thrones, because of it’s unique beauty. I know I certainly felt like a lost princess in a fairytale climbing up the ancient steps of the Kasbah, despite wearing baggy trousers and an old t-shirt that certainly was very un-princessy!

After, we continued through the Hollywood of Morocco where there was film studios scattered about. Our stomachs were all rumbling by the time we reached the restaurant. A small place with a terrace on the side of a rather busy road with tables clustered together to meet the high demand of people eating there. We were squished together on a small table next to a family who we learnt, through our Spanish friend’s broken French, were Moroccans who lived part-time in France. The vegetarian food was absolutely delicious. The meat apparently wasn’t so good. But it was cheap and filling, so certainly no complaints from us.

Then it was the Dadés Gorges, otherwise known as ‘Monkey Toes’ because of the cliff faces sheer and fascinating rounded appearance, one of those weird and wonderful results of weathering. We then reached our final stop at around 5pm, our hotel submerged in the Dadés Valley, an entire hotel (La Gazelle Du Dadés) that only ourselves and a German couple shared. We were greeted by delicious mint tea and a wonderful meal of soup, tagine and sweet fruit later on.

The next day, after a good nights sleep in our own hotel room, we woke early to a hearty breakfast of pancakes, fruit and bread. We were all excited about going to the desert that evening and chose the appropriate camel-wearing clothes – leggings under baggy trousers and long sleeved tops that certainly did the trick – and off we went!

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Day Two 

At first we went through the Todgha Gorge on foot which was immensely impressive, I also had some interesting and extremely funny comments on my “botty” from some Berben men and finally got the hang of the hole-in-the-floor toilets. We then stopped for a cup of mint tea right by the largest oasis in Morocco, Tafilalt. We were then treated to a wonderful surprise in Rissani – lunch with our lovely guide’s sister, Fatima, a very kind lady who never stopped smiling. And a great cook. The food that I had at Fatima’s house was the best I had in my whole time in Morocco. We started with sweet biscuits, and then onto ‘Berber pizza’, next we had a wonderful cous cous with so much flavour and to finish we ate fresh fruit as we passed around the gorgeous Berber baby, one of their neighbours children. It was nice to get to talk to Moroccan women for the first time in our journey and it was interesting to find out that one of Fatima’s daughters studied psychology at university. We’re not so different after all!

It wasn’t long after lunch that we pulled Merzouga, The Sahara Desert. Oh my. It took my breath away. Seeing the desert on pictures and movies don’t do justice to the feeling you get of being so small within the all-encompassing dunes. Merzouga itself was eerily beautiful; being low season it was silent and it felt like we’d stepped back in time with ancient ruins and derelict dust roads, only disturbed by our own 4x4s engine and the Berber music that Iddir was blasting out of the stereo. We stopped by four camels waiting for us and we were each allocated a camel; I was at the front. I was completely taken with the sweet camels’ big doe eyes, gawky features and laid back demeanor. Even though riding a camel was completely different to riding a horse, there were no stirrups and no connection the camel’s mouth, I settled into the camel’s long strides with ease.

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We arrived close to camp and jumped off our camels, thanked our kindly guides and were pointed towards a dune where a few other people had gathered. It was sand-boarding time. My Danish and Spanish did pretty well gliding down the dunes, but I chose to bum-shuffle down on the board into camel poo, which wasn’t the daintiest, but fun anyhow! We then walked through the hard sand to our camp, feeling very sorry for our camel guides having to tackle this terrain for over an hour. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to the camp, it had showers, flushing toilets, thick, soft bedding on comfy good-sized beds, lights and beautifully decorated in bright colours. That night, we drank tea, cuddled camels, watched the stars, smoked shisha, played charades with the people we met there, shared riddles with one another, laughed a lot, ate delicious food and we all were completely enchanted with the soulful sounds of the desert men and their drums by the fire.

The next morning we woke at 6am to watch the sun rise above Erg Chebbi, at first it was somewhat unimpressive and we were all cold from the biting wind, but then the wind settled and the clouds moved past slowly to reveal a glorious sunrise. Then, we were called for breakfast by Iddir’s cousin and soon enough after our ride back to Merzouga in the bright sunshine, we were back on the road and on the way to Fes.

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In my last post I mentioned an uncomfortable situation with a Moroccan man, but let me tell you now that nearly every other Moroccan that I came across was not only wonderfully sarcastic and refreshingly hilarious, but kind and respectful. With the recent terrorist attack in London being just one of many that have taken place recently and Trump ‘banning Muslims’, it is easy to group a religion together and label them as ‘bad’, but this is awfully sad and hurtfully narrow minded. The people I met couldn’t have been kinder, particularly those in the desert, where we all had a good laugh together and wished each other well in everything, despite being from different cultures.

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Day Three

On our way to Fes, we passed through Midelt, which is known for it’s apples and has it’s own apple festival; here the women were selling beautiful scarves and tapestry. Then we drove onto Ifran, which was a strange city to be found in Morocco. It looked as though it had just been cut out of Europe and placed in Africa, not only were the buildings European styled, but so was the university, all the way down to the Swiss forest just beyond the town, strangely combined with Arabian horses and greedy monkeys.

Morocco wasn’t a traditional holiday. It wasn’t hot when we went, nor was it a place where you would swim or sunbathe, or even sip wine on a roof terrace. If that’s what you’re looking for, than Morocco isn’t necessarily the place for you. But if you want to be excited every morning, the kind of excitement that wakes you up at 6am with butterflies in your stomach and a feeling rearing to go to see what will be uncovered throughout the day, if you want your mind to be challenged by all the new sights and smells and you don’t mind going with certain amenities for a while, then Morocco is for you.

It certainly blew my expectations.

Discovering Marrakech

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go” – T. S. Eliot

Morocco has been a wave of wonderful emotions, I’m not sure that words can describe this mind-altering trip, but I shall make my best attempt. From the beginning I have felt excitement, uncertainty, grief, amazement, inspiration, loss, wonder and hope. But most of all Africa gave me peace.

An utter sensation of peace has washed over my soul.

But that didn’t come straight away. This post is about my first night and day in Marrakech. The first night I barely slept out of apprehension and excitement. We arrived in Marrakech at 22.15 and the city was enveloped in darkness, we were the last ones out the airport and as the four of jumped into the large taxi from our hostel, we had our first glimpse of Africa. Motorbikes rushing past one anther, lit by the full moon and white street lights. Some of their owners had their groceries hanging over the edge, others with their shoes flying behind them and a couple of bikes with many people crammed onto one seat. It was nothing like I had ever seen before, and already I was excited of what was to come.

You may wonder why I had decided to go to Morocco, well, it’s a country I hadn’t really heard of before moving to Spain and when I constantly saw cheap flights going there from Madrid – it caught my interest. I read a little about it, and ever since October last year I have wanted to visit and luckily I found people like me that wanted to go too! My decision to go to Morocco was met with some concern, but although it is undoubtedly a place where you have to take care, I’m glad it didn’t hinder my decision.

As we arrived in the hostel, Dream Kasbah, we were informed that they only had two of the four beds we were due, and we could either move elsewhere or they would sort something out for us there. As tired as we were and as late it had become, me and my friend said we would share, one would take the floor, and another of us on the top bunk. It was a nice hostel afterall. As soon as our beds were sorted in the cramped hostel room, we went to fill our rumbling bellies. We stumbled out onto the windy lanes of Marrakech and on to the main street closest to us where we had spotted some ‘hole-in-the-wall’ type restaurants during the taxi ride. We ordered four sandwiches with chips and wandered back to the hostel. However, we kept walking down the wrong streets and inevitably, a group of men waiting like vultures for this very moment came up to us. Although we tried desperately to shake them off, they lead us into the night, even though we had just spotted the sign for our hostel.

I have only felt uncomfortable in Morocco twice, and this was one of them. As my friends continued walking, I had fallen behind just a couple of steps, but during this time one of the men put his arms around me. I pushed him away as my other friend shouted at him in her karate-trained manner. He left pretty hastily. But the other followed us all the way to our hostel door and asked for money to which we politely declined and went to eat. I will just say that these men were not good representatives of Moroccans and I was otherwise overwhelmed by the kindness of these people.

Around 8am, we awoke having slept very little and begun our day with the free-breakfast at the hostel. Although the food wasn’t to be desired, the spiced coffee was something special. Then, we went to see Marrakech in the daylight.

To four students who had never stepped foot in Africa before, it was like a whole new world. Men perched on the side of mules on the main roads, scooters weaved in out of one another and donkeys clattered down the streets laden with tons of bags. And, as we soon found out, zebra crossings didn’t work. So as we hopped, skipped and jumped across the roads in awe of the beautiful buildings and people alike, and soon realised we had no idea where we going and that we needed a map. Pronto.

So off we went to the first store we could see and asked the man where we could buy a map and he produced a whole book of Morocco.

“Take it!” he uttered

We tried to explain we didn’t really want to pay for a whole book, just a small map.

“No, no, for free. Please, have it.”

We groveled our thanks and offered the little change we had on us, to which he denied and went on our way to the large plaza featured in the book.

It was bizarrely surreal. Monkeys walked around with chains round their necks doing back flips; snake charmers sat in the middle nose-to-nose with a hissing python; women came over and grabbed your hand trying to sell henna tattoos; horses proudly trotted past with a carriage of tourists trailing behind; stalls sold their fresh fruit juices and people crowded round the buskers. It was hard to know where to look or what to think of this strange spectacle.

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Plaza in Marrakech

So, we decided to divert to the more peaceful area of the mosque before tackling the markets again. It was hurtful to see the beggars dotted around the beautiful building, with their kind eyes and pleading expressions trying to sell their hand stitched rugs or cookies, none of them got angry if we turned down their items, instead they simply smiled and said “maybe tomorrow?” before walking on. We realised we weren’t allowed to enter, as we came to find with most of the mosques, so we moved onto the souks.

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Mosque in Marrakech

If the plaza was crazy, the souks were something else. But they were incredible. Fresh fruits, piles of herbs and spices, different kinds of olives, juices, fish, meat and animals in tiny crates. Then there would be a jewellery section full of different golds and silvers gleaming in the late morning sun. After that, leather bags, colourful shoes, embroided dresses and exquisite scarves. It’s fair to say we all spent a little more than expected during our time in Morocco, everything was amazing.

Time had been passing very slowly and at around two in the afternoon, we decided we should find somewhere to rest and eat, so we went to the closest place that had a vegetarian friendly menu. It wasn’t anything special from the outside, but upstairs it had a beautiful terrace with an incredible view over the city. The food was delicious and we topped it off with some mint tea. We somehow sat there for hours, talking a little, but mainly just enjoying the warmth and the calm buzz of the city down below. At sometime after five, we decided we should walk back to the hostel via the palace, which was closed. So back to the hostel it was as the sun began to set behind the clouds.

We spent the evening chatting to a lovely German couple who were travelling through Morocco on their study break and another inspiring girl who is a freelance writer/blogger travelling long-term with her partner, as well as the lovely hostel workers before retiring to bed ready for our early start in the morning.

Tomorrow we would embark on a journey across the Atlas Mountains, through Berber villages and onto the Sahara desert before finishing in Fes.

Our adventure in Morocco had only just begun.