1990 Morocco

Mixed feelings…


Originally my Swiss friend Christoph and myself had planned a trip to Jordan and Israel but with the growing tensions in the region leading to the 1st Gulf war and the uncertainty of how this was going to develop we decided against it. Egypt was another place to close to theater for our liking so we ended up in Morocco for what initially was supposed to be a five week trip.

We met at my place and together we travelled to Amsterdam where we boarded a Royal Air Maroc plane for our flight to Casablanca, the white city. Casablanca, one of Morocco’s more modern cities was a brilliant introduction to the Arabian atmosphere of our Northern African destination. We strolled though the medina and were totally amazed by the total different world we encountered at less than 4 hours flying from Amsterdam.

As much as we enjoyed Casablanca we decided to travel on to Marrakech, the red city. A truly magical place with interesting medina’s, palaces and mosques, enough for us to explore a couple of days.

We strolled around for hours through the narrow alleys of the souks and we certainly got the impression that time had stood still.

Our favorite place without doubt was place Jemaa el Fna. During day time an ordinary large square which in the evening turned out to become a large outdoor market and food court with snake charmers and other local entertainment. We absolutely loved and as our hotel was located not far away we ended up here each evening for dinner and enjoying the buzz that filled Jemaa el Fna. A true Arabian treasure.

Hidden away by a winding alley we finally found the Saadian tombs. About 70 royal tombs from the Saadian dynasty could be seen surrounded by beautiful tiled mosaics and arch work. It wasn’t a very big site but stunning indeed.

Later on that day we ended up in the Medina where we just wandered around without a fixed plan and soaked the local atmosphere. 

And like every evening we ended up again at place Jemaa el Fna again for some al fresco dining, enjoying the market and a cup of Moroccan coffee at one of the local cafe’s .

The 19th century Bahia Palace was a tranquil place to visit, a great break from the hustle and bustle outside. It was well preserved and we enjoyed the typical mix of Berber, French and Arabian architecture. A great place indeed although we had some problems shaking of the illegal guides and touts who were constantly following us, something we should have got used to after a couple of days in Morocco.

We could have stayed much longer in Marrakech but there was still so much to discover we decided to move on. We rented a Renault 4 and started our adventurous trip further south into the Atlas Mountains.

Roads were not to well maintained so it turned out to become a very bumpy ride. Not that we bothered much about that as nature around us was in one word breathtaking. The fresh greens of the sparse vegetation stood in big contrast to the lovely reds and browns of the rocks.

Every now and then we saw a fort which was strategically placed on a hill and at one point we ended up at a berber camp site where we could not avoid having a cup of Moroccan mint tea, got dressed in traditional Touareg clothes and ended up with some highly praised and unwanted souvenirs. Ow well, it was a fun experience and that mattered most.

As already mentioned nature was absolutely breathtaking! It’s a miracle Christoph managed to stay on the road as there was so much to be seen it was not difficult to get distracted.

Crossing the Atlas mountains was even more spectacular. The layers of rock seemed to be stapled up to each other, an almost surreal sight

Even more surreal were the tree climbing goats. With hardly any vegetation growing at ground level these goats had trained themselves to climb trees and feed themselves on the sparse leaves growing on them.

Traveling not far from the Sahara a camel market could never be far away so we were not surprised to come across one, a welcome change to the natural beauty we had experienced so far.

After a long but beautiful journey we finally made it to Agadir, and it was maybe because of the sheer beauty we had just left behind us we were not impressed a lot by this coastal city. We were a bit bored and after we could not come up with anything but “Lass uns doch nach Agadir fahren” (Let’s drive to Agadir) we decided to leave the city behind and fly north to Rabat to explore a different part of the country.

Rabat, Morocco’s coastal capital since 1912 proved to be far more interesting. Our first stop for sightseeing was the Mausoleum of Mohammad V, a beautiful tomb with decorations in white marble.

Best however was simply wandering through the small but picturesque alleys and enjoy the unexpected. Soft pastel blue and white tones created a tranquil and peaceful atmosphere which was completely different from the buzz we witnessed in Casablanca and Marrakech.

In the evening we made another walk through Rabat, all important monuments like the city wall, the mausoleum and the Hassan tower were fabulously lit, ideally for a photographic safari.

Next stop was Fez, the third largest city in Morocco which used to be the capital. Without doubt the most interesting place to visit in Fez is it’s famous medina, a labyrinth of small streets, narrow alleys, shops, mosques and small leather factories.

As soon as you pass the gate it feels like stepping back in time 300-400 years and not knowing where to start we decided to get the help of a guide to show us the souks which are even bigger than the grand bazar in Istanbul.

One of the highlights to visit in the medina are the small factories in the centre of the medina where leather is treated and painted in the open air. The smell was horrific and we could not believe how the people could work here in the presence of what must have been millions of flies. An overwhelming experience to say the least.

There was so much to be seen, to be heard and to smell (especially at the leather factory), it turned out to be a mind-blowing experience. Our guide showed us numerous interesting places, the nice ones, but also the not so nice area’s. The views over the medina, the numerous shops. Absolutely stunning!

As we loved the medina so much we decided to return the next day on our own and breath the atmosphere. Going on our own was a wrong decision as we were instantly being approached by illegal guides who wanted to show us around. Not only were they quite aggressive and kept on pestering us, at one point we were actually being threatened and that was the turning point. We blew out like there was no tomorrow and in spite of that being very effective as our touts rapidly disappeared after our aggressive reaction the fun was over. It took us a while to calm down and once that was done we returned to our hotel and decided to leave Morocco as soon as possible. We had had enough…

The next available flight home was in a couple of days so we left Fez and continued on to Meknes. Originating from the 17th century there were enough monuments to be visited so we started at the great wall surrounding the city.

The Mausoleum of Mouley Ismail was rather interesting and the ruins were located in a beautiful garden. There were some very picturesque places indeed but somehow the both had lost our interest after the aggressive encounter with touts in Fez. Our heart was not completely with our visit anymore.

We still had one day left so we decided to rent a taxi for the morning and visit Volubilis, the only ancient roman ruins in Morocco. It certainly was worth the effort as besides the ruins of old temples beautiful mosaics were to be admired. 

It was a fantastic place and after having visited the site of the ruins we still wanted to visit Volubilis itself, in spite of our taxi driver getting visibly impatient and wanting to return to Meknes. From the little French I spoke I understood the driver wanted to go for lunch. Monsieur, manger, manger, sil vous plait….

Christoph and I discussed the situation and decided to pay Volubilis a short visit anyway and invite the driver for lunch afterwards….

On our way back to Meknes the driver took a detour and brought us to a very domestic area, not a place typical for tourists. Instead of bringing us to a restaurant he brought us to his home where his whole family was waiting for him to return for lunch. How embarrassing for us arrogant tourists who thought we could easily pay for our extended visit and not keeping our drivers plans in mind.

It turned out to be a fantastic lunch and a most wonderful experience. It also made clear to us that because of the constant harassment of touts, illegal guides and eager salesman who were a bit to forceful in their sales tactics we no longer could open ourselves to enjoy the beauty that Morocco had to offer.

Next day we flew home, a week earlier than planned and full of mixed feelings. We had seen beautiful places indeed, tasted wonderful food and had undertaken a breathtaking trip through the Atlas mountains, but that was only one side of the mirror. We did not know whether it was part of the slightly anti-Western feelings at that time because of the tensions in the middle east, whether we had just been unlucky meeting the wrong people, or whether Morocco simply wasn’t our thing… One way or another, we were glad to fly home where we spent the final week of our holiday before Christoph drove back to Switzerland.