What are the first things that arise in your mind when someone mentions traveling to Morocco? If you’re like me, and most Americans, you probably think of scenes in Rick’s Cafe from the movie Casablanca, or “Marrakesh Express” by CSN. Neither of these pop culture notions even begins to capture the wonderful people, deep history or expansive geography of this grand country.
Present-day Morocco covers the northwestern portion of Africa, called the Maghreb region, with a population around 37 million. Humans have lived here over 90,000 years, growing into a powerful regional state during the 11th century when it controlled most of Iberia (present day Portugal & southern Spain) as well as the Maghreb. The Berber tribes became the dominant force, merging with the Moors when they were forced back south out of Iberia. Arabic and Ottoman cultures also influenced Morocco in many ways, although the Ottoman Empire never fully conquered Morocco. France, and to a lesser degree, Spain occupied the country during the first half of the 20th century, and the French influence is still in evidence in most cities. Independence was gained in 1956, and the “Kingdom of Morocco” was formed. Spain withdrew as well, but still maintains control of two Mediterranean cities: Ceuta & Melilla.
Today it is a thriving and vibrant culture, melding all these disparate influences. Education through university is free to all citizens. The Covid vaccination rate is very high. Arabic and Berber are the official languages, while most also speak French and many speak some English. Religious tolerance is a keystone of Moroccan philosophy, with the vast majority being Muslims. Unlike most Islamic mosques to the east, the spires at the tops of the minarets of the mosques in Morocco have three gilded copper balls signifying Islam, Judaism and Christianity. A significant Jewish population existed in several areas of Morocco, but the majority have emigrated to Israel in the late 20th century.
Flying into Casablanca from Lisbon we had a view of the large city along the Atlantic coast, with the beautiful Mohammad Mosque rising from the water’s edge. Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco, named after the large, whitewashed buildings visible to sailors cruising the coast. It is the biggest commercial center with a busy harbor. It is not a particularly beautiful city, so we decided to spend time in Marrakech while Skylar was still with us, hiring a car for the 3 hour drive south.
Arriving in Marrakech our car maneuvered through the busy traffic of the 4th largest city, and into the medina, where we got our first real taste of local culture. (a medina is the old part of town, typical walled) Cars, motorbikes, bicycles, carts, and people everywhere, moving through impossibly narrow streets. When our car could go no farther, we loaded our luggage into a 2 wheeled cart pushed by a guy who took us to Riad Ghali in Souk Laksour. Susie had booked the Suite Superieure which was a beautiful 2nd floor room looking out on the courtyard. After unpacking we walked a short way back through the medina to L'Amazigh Café, the associated rooftop restaurant, for a slow and mediocre dinner. But the weather was perfect for dining under the stars!
A riad in Morocco is a multi-story house with a courtyard garden in the center, open to the sky, usually including a pond or pool. They have existed here since the 12th century as the city homes for wealthy families. The exterior facing the medina is typically drab so as not to advertise the wealth inside, although some have beautiful exterior doors. In recent years many have been repurposed as vacation rentals for tourists, renting out the rooms around the balconies.
The Riad Ghali was beautiful with mosaic patterns in the floors and walls contrasting with polished wood and brass, and French & Moroccan paintings on the walls.
Sunday morning we’re back at L'Amazigh Café for a typical Moroccan breakfast. Three different types of fresh bread – one that was like a light crepe or pancake. Bread is served with every meal! Two types of jam, honey and butter. One hot boiled egg and lots of spicy olives. Coffee, orange juice and of course – mint tea. Very good – much better than the dinner. Now off to go exploring.
The medina is a maze of winding streets and skinny alleys – some open and other closed and dark – with mysterious doors hiding an unknown number of passages & rooms behind them. Some souks (market areas) may have an assortment of shops and vendors while others have mostly spices or clothing or jewelers. Coming around each corner your senses are assaulted on every front: bright colors of produce, scarves & clothing greet your eyes; sharp odors of spices, incense, cat pee & motorbike exhaust tickle your olfactory nerves; the sounds of merchants yelling to get everyone’s attention over the cacophony of pedestrians, bikes & music; and constantly being jostled in narrow lanes when the busy locals try to edge past the gawking tourists.
We made it through the medina to Jemaa el-Fna, the main square, attempting to memorize certain shops and doorways to find our way back. Almost immediately we were accosted by men who wanted to be our personal guide. We made the rookie mistake of speaking with one and he followed us for 15 minutes until we finally relented, when he reduced his price from 150 dirhams (16USD) to free!
He actually was informative and knowledgeable, guiding us through several different souks in the medina, to a couple of large shops with a wide variety of goods. (probably owned by his brother-in-law) I bought a white djellaba (men’s hooded robe) and the ladies picked up some wooden bowls. We saw many small stalls where men were using tiny lathes to make wooden objects and weavers with small looms.
He finally brought us back to Jemaa el-Fna, the big square. Susie had expressed interest in some henna but read that the women selling it in Jemaa el-Fna used inferior product. Our guide said he knew someone that did it correctly and led us over to one old woman sitting on a stool with her design books laid out. Before Susie could say anything the woman had her arm in a death grip and had started applying henna to her hand already. After a bit of a struggle she shook her off and we fled to a safe distance! She felt that the henna was burning her skin and wiped it off as well as possible.
Bidding adieu to “our guide” we scooted on over to L’Address, a nice French-Moroccan restaurant overlooking the activity in the square where Susie thoroughly washed her hand. After that we retreated to our riad for some downtown, before venturing back out to eat dinner at M-Rooftop with a fabulous view of the surrounding medina and minarets, reflecting a flaming sunset.
Continuing our walk to Jemaa el-Fna we discovered the square was considerably more crowded by night, with locals & tourists. Rows of juice bars had their lights turned on with the vendors yelling at passers-by, and smoke billowed from an array of tents on one side where kitchens had started up, serving customers on plastic benches. Jugglers, hawkers, tourists and snake charmers filled the open spaces, and it was impossible to walk a dozen steps without someone getting in your face to sell something. The gals were feeling uncomfortable, so we called it a night, retreating back to Riad Ghali. Grabbing a deck of cards we climbed to the rooftop and enjoyed a lovely time playing Spades under the stars.
Monday October 4th we walked out of the medina and into Gueliz, “new” Marrakech to get a Covid test for Skylar, which was done quickly and professionally. Moving on we arrived at the Jardin Majorelle, a small botanical garden and estate build by the French painter Jacques Majorelle. It features a special shade of cobalt blue that was named after him. The garden & villa were later restored by Yves Saint-Laurent. Majorelle’s studio is now a small Berber museum, displaying objects and clothing of Amazigh (Berber) culture.
Skylar had to return home soon, so after breakfast the next day we packed up and got to the train station, for the 3 hour ride back to Casablanca. Our large rental condo was a very cool space, with quirky objects d’art and decorations. One large wall frame had several hundred Bic pens glued to it, with some framed ink squiggle drawings opposite. The large tub had an old movie projector, several brass portholes from a ship and a twisted piece of driftwood. The shower had a steering wheel from a sports car. The floor of the guest batch, kitchen sink and coffee table all had many coins arranged in patterns, covered in acrylic. A smaller variation of Lady Liberty guarded the bathroom door, beneath a lighted walk/don’t walk sign. Tres chic!
Strolling towards the waterfront we had an early al fresco dinner at La Sqala, a lovely garden restaurant that used to be a primary fortification protecting the harbor. Old cannons are still sitting outside, facing the ocean. Afterwards we continued on the wide sidewalk along the oceanfront, arriving at the magnificent Hassan II Mosque just in time for the last entrance.
One of only two Moroccan mosques allowing non-Muslim visitors, this huge building holds 25,000 worshipers inside and 80,000 outside. Thankfully there were only a dozen people there at the time. Gigantic marble and granite columns line the main hall, and the huge, carved wooded ceiling is retractable, opening the room to the heavens. A fairly new building, it was completed in 1993 on earth built out into the sea, with its minaret standing 60 stories tall. At night a laser beams out of the minaret, aimed towards Mecca.
We finished our tour just in time for a colorful sunset over the Atlantic. Afterwards we spent our last evening with Skylar playing cards, when she finally lost a game! Next day we all took the train to the airport where we grabbed lunch and put our daughter on her flight back to Miami. Returning home to the condo felt kind of empty, and we just relaxed and watched TV.
Susie had booked a free walking tour Thursday morning, so after breakfast in the train station we walked a short way to meet our guide. The young man was personable and fun, showing us around while explaining about the history and current affairs of Casablanca. We toured the local medina where I got my djellaba hemmed in 10 minutes for about $1, so I wouldn’t keep tripping on it! The Velcro on my sandals had accumulated a lot of white fuzzy threads. Winding up our tour, he suggested we could find some food in the market – just ahead and to the left. All we found were many fishy smelling stalls that were closing down – pretty dirty and stinky. So, instead we walked back to the train station and Oasis Juice, a little café that had a nice variety of local food at cheap prices.
OK. We are in Casablanca so we might as well try Rick’s Café, even though there was no such place here when the movie was made. Just a Hollywood set. But it is ingrained in our culture, and most reviews said it was a decent representation of French Colonial establishments of the time. We were worried at first, as some people said it took months to get a table, and they had a strict dress code. I guess that was pre-Covid, because we walked right in with our “best” clothes (I have one pair of hiking shoes!). It was never more than half full that evening.
Rick’s Café was wonderful! The atmosphere was elegant with beautiful décor. Service was impeccable and the food was delicious. Goat cheese & figs for starters, followed by monkfish and duck confit. For dessert - roasted pineapple w/coconut parfait, and they brought Susie a complimentary Kir Royale. Issam Chabaa, the piano player (and manager) set the mood with timeless classics, and of course As Time Goes By. He also played a nice rendition of Imagine for Susie. A beautiful, romantic evening to remember.
Saturday we just took it slow. Found Les Fleurs, a nice café for lunch and enjoyed something new – mustard & mushroom chicken. Tasty. Tomorrow we start our 13 day tour with Intrepid Travel – a company geared towards adventurous small groups. Something new for us. Yay!
Morocco – to be continued….