This weekend, a few friends from school and I packed our bags and set off for an adventure in Northern Africa. Ever since ninth grade French class when we did a unit on Francophone countries, I’ve always wanted to go to Morocco. When the opportunity arose to go for a long weekend, I jumped at the opportunity!
Our plane landed Thursday afternoon in Casablanca, but instead of staying there, we boarded a train headed for Rabat. Rabat is the capital city, located a few hours north of Casablanca, right on the Atlantic Ocean. We had some trouble finding our hostel at first, but once we finally got checked in, we set off to explore the city. Our hostel was located just outside of the walled medina. Medina means town or city in Arabic, and today a medina is characterized as the ancient walled quarter of a city with narrow, zig-zagging streets closed off to cars. The streets were often built so narrow in order to slow down invaders.
The Medina in Rabat was filled with small shops selling everything from traditional robes and slippers, to pastries and kebabs, to decorative lanterns, to hand-woven rugs. It was fun to wander through the streets window shopping. We passed by several mosques right before evening prayer started and watched the men and women remove their shoes and disappear into the ornately decorated depths of the mosques. Soon the prayers were broadcast through speakers through the city, competing with each other to be heard.
Getting hungry, we found a nice sit-down restaurant for dinner. As excited as I was to be in Morocco, I was a little bummed to be missing Thanksgiving dinner with my host family. Luckily a personal pot of traditional mint tea and a steaming bowl full of fish tangine more than made up for a lack of turkey and sweet potatoes. The tangine was so warm, spicy, and comforting. I plan on trying to cook tangine when I’m back home.
After dinner we ventured back out into the Medina for more wandering. By this time, the food vendors were out in full force. One particular street was lined with men cooking kebabs over fiery grills, stuffing bread full of hot meat, vegetables, and spices. It did not look like the most sanitary food preparation I’ve ever seen, but from what we tried, it was all incredibly delicious!
Getting tired but not ready to call it a night, my friends and I found a restaurant up the street from our hostel to get some tea and relax. The restaurant itself was gorgeous and ornately decorated. It honestly looked like something off a post card. The doors were tall, arched, and brightly painted. There were lanterns twinkling everywhere. We sat at a long table with couches on either side. It was nice to sit down and enjoy more tea and pastries after a long day of traveling and walking.
The next day, we decided to make an excursion east to Fez. Overall, I liked Fez more than Rabat. The streets in Fez were much cleaner and there was more to see. Fez was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s medina is believed to be the largest car-free urban area in the world. Pretty impressive, isn’t it?
Our train left at 8:12 that morning, so we got an early start to the day. The train ride from Rabat to Fez is stunning. As you go farther inland, the land and vegetation changes and becomes dryer and more hilly. The landscape was like none I had ever seen.
Like in Rabat, it took us a while to get our bearings in Fez. I guess that’s to be expected when a group of six sets off in a new city without a map. We eventually found our way around the city, and I feel like we did a pretty good job of following directions in French.
It was very impressive just listening to all the languages spoken in Rabat. Arabic and French are most common, and everyone easily switches back and forth between both. On top of those two, many people we spoke to also spoke decent English.
Also, I noticed a large variety of clothes worn in Morocco. Some men were dressed in typical, western attire, while others wore long, brown cloaks with pointed hoods that resembled Jawas from Star Wars. The women, too, wore many different things. Some did not wear the veil at all, many wore a simple head scarf, others wore a niqab, and I only saw one wearing a burqa.
There is a large new district of Fez, which has beautiful, wide, green avenues. Several times during Morocco’s history, Fez served as the capital. However, when Morocco came under French control in 1912 the capital was moved to Rabat where it stayed even after Morocco became independent in 1956.
After hearing about the amazing size of Fez’s ancient medina, we had to check it out. Compared to Rabat’s medina, this one was more local and much less touristy. While there were many shops, you could feel that people actually lived there, whereas in Rabat, I forgot that we were in a residential area. As we meandered through, attracting many stares as we went, I noticed an excessive number of dentists and denture makers- practically one on every block. I’m still not sure what to make of this…
Our group stuck out like a sore thumb in Morocco. A few members of our troupe have blonde hair and blue eyes, so we tended to get a lot of stares. It generally was not a problem, but it was a little odd at first. No one harassed us or anything serious, but many men made comments in our direction. As long as we just ignored them and didn’t make eye contact, it was easy to move around the city. Every once in a while, someone would approach us and offer to give us a tour of the city or offer us protection. These people were a bit hard to shake at times as they followed us for a few blocks, continuing to offer us their services and demand payment.
We took advantage of more delicious food sold by street vendors. We passed one man with a cart full of honey-soaked pastries. Consequently the cart was also full of bees trying to get at the honey. I’m not really sure what we all ate, but it was sweet, fried, full of nuts, and quite tasty! What more could you want out of dessert?
Further wandering lead us to a large garden named Jnan Sbil. Like seemingly everything in Fez, this too was enclosed by high walls.
After that we headed out to the edge of town. Andrew was determined to get a panoramic shot of the city. Therefore, we set off in the direction of these hills, covered in little caves and ruins.
As we climbed to the top, we passed quite the assortment of animals. There was a very pathetic horse on the loose, an equally sad cow, a bunch of goats, and some noisy sheep.
The view from the top was stunning. The city stretched out in front of us across the rolling hills. The skyline was dotted with minarets, rising above the houses. The gorgeous weather we were graced with allowed us to see clearly off into the distance. Enjoying the views and the sunshine was the perfect way to spend the afternoon in Fez.
Saturday, our group split up- five of us moved on to Marrakech and one stayed behind for an extra day in Rabat. While the train ride from Rabat to Marrakech was again very, very beautiful, it was also stiflingly hot. Our private train compartment quickly got stuffy, but it really added to the stereotypical (and maybe romantic) idea of traveling across Northern Africa by train.
On the train, a man popped into our compartment to advertise his travel service. For 500 dirham, he offered to drive us to four sites around the city over a three hour period. Since the afternoon was already partly over, we took him up on his offer. For 100 dirham each (about $12) I think we got a great deal. We would never have been able to cover as much ground as we did had we tried to go on foot.
Our first stop on our personal tour was the Majorelle Garden. Although later owned by Yves Saint-Laurent, the gardens were originally built by a French expat by the name of Majorelle. He decided to paint the walls of the garden bright blue, believing that since the color is rarely found in nature it would attract fewer bugs. The color really pops against the bright green plants and is beautiful to look at.
From there, our driver drove to the edge of town to show us a great view of the Atlas Mountains. The highest peaks, at over 13,000 feet, were covered in snow; these were the tallest mountains I’ve ever seen! In the foreground, there was an oasis beside a small river.
From the oasis, we drove through a ritzy suburb. According to our driver, Marrakech has become a very popular vacation spot for middle easterners, so there is a lot of money pouring into certain parts of the city. The suburb we drove through was right on the edge of a huge, perfectly kept golf course. As wealthy as the suburbs are, the inner, older part of the city is much poorer.
Our tour also showed us the old Jewish district of the city (traditionally located beside the royal palace for protection,) a herb and spice shop, and an other garden.
Our final night in Rabat, we decided to do some shopping. We poked around one interesting shop that had antiques downstairs and handmade rugs upstairs. One member of our group tried her hand at bargaining. She was looking to buy a rug, and the merchant originally asked for over 2,000 dirham, but she got the price down to 600. We were all incredibly impressed!
We quickly learned there is a choreographed dance to follow when bargaining. First, the merchant quotes a price. Then you give your ridiculously low counter offer. Then the man replies, “Haha, you make good joke! You are funny! Now let’s be serious.” So you go again. At some point during the back and forth, you get up and pretend to leave. It’s at this point that the man gets scared and finally caves and lowers the price. It’s a very stressful experience, and I hate feeling like I’m cheating someone out of their money. I appreciate having set prices for things back home now so I don’t have to go through the ordeal everyday.
Our last stop in Marrakech was the Djemaa el Fna square in the center of the city. Every night, the square comes alive and food vendors set up their stalls. You can find everything to eat there- dried dates, yeasty bread, spicy soups, grilled kebabs, even snails! As we walked through the stalls, waiters came out and thrust menus in our face, trying to convince us to chose their restaurant over all the others. When we finally picked one, we got steaming plates of delicious foods. Tangine is my new favorite ethnic food.
I loved Morocco and feel so lucky to have had this opportunity to travel. Of all the places I’ve been so far, Morocco was by far the most exotic place I’ve been too. I felt so far away from home or anywhere familiar. The architecture, the language, the clothes, the landscape, the foods, the sounds were all so new and exciting. Walking through the medinas, it was was sometimes overwhelming to try to take in so many new things at once. Nowhere were cultural differences more apparent to me than when bartering over leather slippers while being stared at by local men in cloaks and women in niqabs.
This trip was a great experience. Thank you so much to my friends who went with me for making the trip wonderful! I would highly recommend a trip to Morocco if you can!