Updated: Jan 28, 2020
If you imagine Morocco as the Sahara Desert with Berbers living in remote villages, people of Arabic heritage wearing djellabas and kaftans, and lively and colorful souks offering a variety of fine products, your vision would not be wrong; but you would be missing 90% of the magic of Morocco. If you imagine it as pushy shopkeepers, spicy food, narrow-minded or even backward-thinking people whose religion creates a sense of fear, your vision would be dead wrong. I admit that my adult children were skeptical when I floated the idea of a family trip to Morocco. But by day two of our trip we all knew we couldn’t have been more “off” in our preconceived vision of what Morocco had to offer.
Most Moroccans, especially in urban areas, easily fit into the modern world of luxury cars, cell phones, Wi-Fi, fancy restaurants, nice hotels, and satellite TV. Even in the villages cell phones, Wi-Fi and TV are prevalent, even if the common mode of transport is by donkey. People seem very aware and knowledgeable about world affairs. While largely Muslim, the European influence in Morocco, particularly French and Spanish, is significant in this North African country. While most of the younger people sport western dress, they still embrace family values, heritage, devotion to one God, daily prayers, charity and humanity to all. It’s common for Moroccans to be tolerant of others’ beliefs, dress, and opinions.
Since King Hassan II, a 57-year-old heir to the throne, became King in 1999, he has significantly changed oppressive attitudes, particularly toward women and foreigners. His reign has also brought innovative new industries, such as solar power plants in the deserts that may someday provide energy throughout the world. The country seems stable and its citizens generally very happy. Tourism, agriculture, metalworks, leather and woven materials such as carpets drive the core industries. Olive, apple, apricot, fig and cork orchards cover the mostly green landscape of rolling hills and valleys. Cattle and sheep farms support beef and lamb exports to Europe.
The landscape provides incredible views and photographic opportunities. The gardens of Marrakech are not to be missed. There is an incredibly beautiful garden devoted to the memory of Yves St. Laurent just a short horse carriage ride away from the Medina and Old City. Fes is also a very “green city” with parks and city vistas surrounding the old city walls. The High Atlas mountains are snow-covered year round, forming a beautiful backdrop to the cities of Marrakech, Ourazazate, and Erfoud, and the deserts that surround these cities. There are myriad hiking and biking opportunities for both advanced and moderate hikers, and both the High Atlas and the Mid Atlas attract mountain climbers. The red sand dunes in the Sahara are breathtaking at any time of day, and provide endless fun with quad biking adventures, camel trekking, dune buggy experiences and sand surfing. Local bars offer spectator sports, the most common of which, of course, is the beloved Moroccan and European fotbol.
Visitors can stay in a variety of accommodations including international brand hotels; culturally rich and artistically decorated Kasbahs and Riads of varying sizes (mostly small and intimate), and beautifully appointed and comfortable desert camps. Of particular note is Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot located in the High Atlas that offers luxury accommodation and service, with spectacular views and a variety of activities. Moroccan food (other than at the Tamadot!) is basic but delicious (in my opinion) — beef, lamb, chicken tangines and steamed vegetables, cooked with a variety of mild spices such as cumin, saffron, cinnamon and olive oil. The Tamadot is a true foodie paradise with an international offering influenced by French and Moroccan flavors.
Our family particularly enjoyed the visit to the Roman Ruins of Volubilis located between Fes and Rabat. This ancient Roman city that is believed to have housed 15,000 residents was excavated just 100 years ago and presents an unbelievably preserved city, in what was Rome’s most southern conquest. Indeed, the Coliseum in Rome was built with the stones of Morocco and the lions fought by the gladiators were brought from Morocco as well.
Morocco is steeped in religious rituals, history, culture and art where craftsmen still create beautiful works in rugs, tapestries, fabrics, metals, leather and ceramics by hand. While many of the souks now contain cheap Asian knock-offs, a private guide can lead you to the real deal. Daily markets support local trade, particularly agricultural products. All the surrounding communities gather at the traditional daily market, which varies by day based on location. For example, the village of Ansi has a Saturday Market. The villages of the Ourika Valley have a Monday market.
These daily markets enable locals to barter and trade among many products offered by local producers, including fish, eggs, chicken, fruits, vegetables, sheep heads, and essential home goods. The local markets are also a social event for the villages. Even the souks, shopkeepers and market vendors are essentially “low key” and do not put pressure on visitors to buy their goods.
Experiences such as quad dune biking, photography, shopping, camel treks, hiking, food and history beckon one to exotic Morocco, but one will surely be rewarded by the warmth of its people and their unique position in the world — they are devoted followers of the five pillars of Islam, which emphasizes charity and tolerance and acceptance of others; and a modern society that has chosen to preserve its past, honor its heritage and roll out a welcome mat to the rest of the world.