Morocco: where old and new worlds collide

It’s 6am and we’re trudging though the labyrinth known as the Fez medina. We’re looking for the exit – we have an early bus to catch – and we’re lost in one of 9,000 streets which all look the same. We were given directions and a small map on arrival, but pointers can only go so far… Fez is the world’s largest car-free urban area and we aren’t the first tourists to lose our bearings here. After backtracking numerous times and arriving at a three-way intersection, an old man suddenly rounds the corner on the back of a donkey and stops. Spotting our over-sized suitcases, he nonchalantly points us towards the exit before he and the other two donkeys he’s moving disappear down the street. A short time later we’re sitting in the air-conditioned bus terminal watching highlights of the World Cup on one of two high-end plasmas. In just fifteen minutes we’ve seen the old and new Morocco up close and it’s quite a sight…
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L: Dusk falls on Fez. R: Football in El Hedim Square, Meknes.

Our route
Our eight-day visit to Morocco began north of Africa in Tarifa, Spain where we caught a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to the northern port city of Tangier. From there we headed to Chefchaouen, Meknes, Fez and Marrakech, before venturing up to Tangier again and then back to Spain.
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L: Where we went (click for a bigger version). R: Arriving in Tangier on the ferry.

What we loved
Chefchaouen, or ‘the blue town’. Chaouen – as the locals call it – is a little Greek-like oasis high in the Rif Mountains. Although it’s hard to walk anywhere without someone trying to sell you ‘good quality hashish’, there’s an undeniable charm to the place. We did most of our shopping here before hitting the major cities and we’re glad we did… The Chefchaouen souk is nowhere near as cutthroat as in other places so bargaining wasn’t too difficult. We also tried some amazing local cuisine here too. Hands down our favourite part of Morocco.
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Chefchaouen: a photographer’s dream.

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L: A metal shop inside the souk. C: Moroccan threads. R: While the kids play, the grown-ups wash by hand.

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L: Enjoying some harira. R: Meatballs of some sort (the owner wouldn’t tell us what meat we ate).

Call to prayer. It’s loud, frequent and disrupts your sleep, but it’s an unmissable experience. Islam penetrates almost every facet of life here and whether it’s an overflowing mosque in the city centre, a specially built prayer room at the train station or a makeshift straw mat thrown on the ground, we saw people everywhere taking time out of their day to pray.
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Meknes: The Great Mosque and the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.

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Marrakech mosques: Kasbah and Koutoubia.

Riads. We’re glad we chose to stay in traditional Moroccan houses instead of hotels. These buildings look purposely understated from the street, but step inside one and you’re greeted by a lovely airy space with charming interior gardens and beautifully decorated balconies.
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Our riads in Marrakech and Chefchaouen.

What we didn’t love
Dodgy operators. As soon as we left the ferry in Tangier we were approached by numerous taxi drivers offering us the ‘best price’ and one guy who said he worked for the Moroccan Tourism Office (of course you do fine sir!) Faux guides and rip-off merchants are just one part of Morocco and we quickly learned how desperate some people are for money and the tactics they’ll use against unsuspecting tourists. The worst part of having your guard up all the time is inadvertently offending someone who’s actually trying to help you. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to differentiate between a phoney and someone who’s genuine and that’s frustrating.
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As the lifeblood of Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fna square, tourists are a prime target.

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Visiting the Fez tannery but deciding not to buy anything = unhappy traders! We soon discovered our guide was actually a covert middle-man whose job was to lead us to certain shops where they’d encourage us to buy goods we didn’t even want.

Ramadan. Eating is our favourite thing to do while travelling, so visiting Morocco during Ramadan was always going to be challenging. Many restaurants close during the holy month so our eating options were confined to the tourist spots, which were usually mediocre. Eating and drinking in front of people who are fasting is also a big no-no, so we snuck our fair share of cookies in the corner whenever we could. And on the days when we couldn’t find anything decent to eat, we ended up fasting like everyone else!
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Looking for somewhere to eat but nothing is open!

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Sunset: the fast is broken and Marrakech is a ghost town

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Dinner underneath the stars in Fez.

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An amazing chicken and prune tagine.

I don’t think I’ve visited a place that’s enthralled, yet enraged me so much at the same time. We’ll be back for sure!
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Spotted from the train.

Stephen

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4 thoughts on “Morocco: where old and new worlds collide

  1. Travel is all about new and different experiences. Morocco has come a long way in tourism in the last 40 years. Good for you not restricting your travels to the tried and tested routes.

  2. Pengo you seriously need to get into travel writing! Loving the photos and the blog.

    Good to see you and Siobhan are having such a great time – we can’t wait to see you when you get back – but we hope the time travels slowly for you, so you can enjoy every moment.

    Take care xx

    • Too kind Em! Time is flying by and we’ll be back to visit you, Adam and baby before you know it…

      We’re actually heading to Krakow today so we’ll be sure to have some polish vodka in honour of you guys 🙂

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