It all began rather whimsically – a text with the words ‘Meet me in Morocco?’ Fingers crossed, I hoped my friend would be up for a madcap adventure, road tripping in a faraway place that had long been calling my name. And meet we did, in Casablanca, a city that exudes history and romance. There we picked up our rather tinny, rather tiny green car, lugged our bags into the boot, wound down the windows to breath in the North African fumes, and set off into the unknown.
It all began rather whimsically – a text with the words ‘Meet me in Morocco?’
All that, an excellent playlist, and a literal kilogram of fudge my mother had sent as padkos. Honestly, could two girls driving Morocco be better prepared?
But, back to the beginning. There we were in Casablanca on day one and after a walk along the Atlantic seaboard we visited the country’s largest mosque, Hassan II, which overlooks the water and which can accommodate 25 000 people. It is intricately detailed with a minaret that rises 210 m into the sky. It was there that we abandoned conventional timekeeping and aimed to have our days marked out by the melodic calls to prayer of the muezzin.
Before hitting the road for the three-hour drive to Marrakesh we took a delicious high-end lunch at Rick’s Café, known unequivocally as the best gin joint in town. It included their signature goats cheese and fig salad as well as an aromatic savoury and sweet Moroccan stuffed red pepper. Designed to recreate the bar made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the legendary 1942 movie, it has passion and political espionage imprinted on the beautifully restored courtyard-style mansion that hugs Casablanca’s old medina wall.With the scene set, our mission was in clear sight.
Off we went into a world of constant hooting, ignored road markings, and a rude awakening that the prevailing style of driving was that ‘rules are guidelines’. There is no place for sissies as you navigate highways and squeeze between livestock laden trucks and other surprise obstacles, gear down for endless dirt track hairpin bends and to dodge road workers, avoid heavily laden donkeys and children jumping out to sell herbs and crystals, and swerve to miss camels crossing the road. And as you go, be sure to keep an eye out for mad goats feeding in the upper branches of Argan trees.
There were Europeans in oversized camper vans, ancient scooters and convoys of motorcycles weaving between the traffic, not to mention the wobbly bicycles that seemed to appear from nowhere. Police roadblocks were regular and tricky things too, and it appears a bribe is what the officers have in mind, but by simply smiling broadly and saying ‘Afrique du Sud’, ‘Bafana Bafana’ and ‘Mandela’ we were always greeted warmly and sent on our way with a touch of camaraderie.
We arrived in Marrakesh after dark, something every sensible guidebook warns you not to do. And for good reason, since the setting sun causes the roads to regress to full blown madness. Nevertheless, we arrived at our gorgeous Airbnb with its intricately carved wooden furniture, arched doorways and plush colourful embroidered cushions
and bedspreads. Right on Avenue Mohammed VI in the centre of town, we could watch the world go by from the balcony.After settling in, we hit Café Kif Kif’s rooftop bar down the road for a view of the square mixed with virgin mojitos. Yes, bear in mind that even though you may find alcohol at some of the international hotels and restaurants, this is very much virgin cocktail and sweet mint tea territory.
Each evening in Marrakesh we lingered on Jemaa el-Fnaa Square to witness it coming to life with hundreds of food kiosks, musicians and vendors. It was here that I fell for an age-old trick, allowing one of the henna artists to fleetingly hold my hand. Before I knew it the paintbrush was out and I was being decorated in patterned twirls and flowers, which left me feeling even more like I belonged.We visited the newly opened Yves Saint Laurent Museum, which pays homage to the work of the great French fashion designer and his passion for Morocco, as well as the adjacent Jardin Majorelle. Today one of the most visited places in Marrakesh, it took French painter Jacques Majorelle 40 years to create this enchanting garden in the heart of the city. It was later bought and preserved by Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.
On the sublime drive that took us towards Ouarzazate south of the High Atlas Mountains we stopped to capture the views of remote villages with their modestly tilled land, to enjoy ink-black coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice in the company of ginger kittens and hardworking donkeys and to speak to as many strangers as would indulge us.What we discovered in and around Ouarzazate were evocative kasbahs, city- fortresses, the most famous of which is the UNESCO-recognised Aït Benhaddou.
In the middle of a barren and rocky wasteland, a valley opens in the desert and weary travellers are welcomed to an oasis of palm trees and streams and the mud-brick towers of the kasbah. Established in 757, this traditional fortified village was established on an ancient caravan route between the Sahara Desert and Marrakesh. It is also where loads of movies have been shot – from Gladiator and Alexander to Game of Thrones – so it’s oddly familiar.
Our next stop was Essaouira, a North Atlantic port with 18th-century city walls. There we stayed with Hamid and Naima, a young couple with two sons whose families have lived in the heart of the medina for generations. Beautiful Naima welcomed us as old friends.Our rooms opened onto a courtyard and on the table she’d set out oranges to juice, mint for our tea, local olives and freshly baked bread. We sat with her and shared stories about the place of her birth and she recommended restaurants and activities to enjoy during our stay. They could not do enough for us, and exuded the warmth and generosity we experienced from all the Moroccan people we engaged with.
We met local artists, drank mint tea with the owner of a jewellery store where we were heartily negotiated with, shopped for baskets, fabrics and more than our fair share of Fatima’s hands.As we reluctantly headed back to Casablanca for our last night, we drove in silence, taking in the bare beauty of endless barren landscapes, the occasional scattering of cows and rural homes, getting a glimpse of how the majority of people here live. Dusty, sun- kissed, window down and wind in our hair, we reflected on how this land of imperial cities, ancient villages and welcoming people had crept into our hearts. We had arrived anticipating a road tripping gung-ho adventure; we had instead been offered a sense of timeless wonder.
Beyond the Tagine
Morocco is a place of culinary indulgence and delight. Traditionally Moroccan cooking combines the desert nomad’s diet of mutton, vegetables and dairy produce, but over the centuries it has incorporated southern European, sub-Saharan African and French influences. I recommend the briouats, deep-fried parcels of flaky pastry containing spiced meat, fish or cheese.A favourite chicken dish is djej mqualli, with preserved lemons and green olives. Harira, a thick, creamy soup based on lamb and pulses that is often served as a starter. Feast on fish when at the coast and the delicious kefta meatballs flavoured with coriander and cumin. And to top it all, the flat, round traditional khubz bread is totally addictive.
Morocco is very safe – aside from the potential wedding proposals and declarations of undying love you may receive from the beautiful Berber men you encounter along the way, the only thing you really need to be careful about is a pickpocket in the cities and at crowded markets. If you’re shopping, you will need to haggle. I advise that you decide on the price you’re happy to pay, and stick to that, or work up to it.
Morocco is the fifth largest economy in Africa and a nation of 36 million people. The official languages are Arabic and French – even some basic school-level French will be an advantage. The Moroccan dialect – Darija – and Berber are most widely spoken by multilingual Moroccans, with smatterings of English in the cities and at tourist sites.
The Essential Details
I chose to fly with Qatar Airlines from Cape Town to Doha, and from there Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca. We picked up a rental at the Casablanca airport, it was small and compact, with more than a fair share of rattles, but served us well. It is important to carry cash, not only for the markets you’ll visit along the way, but for eating at roadside stands and refuelling, which is self-service. Credit cards are not widely used.Most hotels and Airbnb’s offer WIFI, although a local sim card with data and airtime is affordable and the smart option while travelling anywhere. For accommodation, we stayed in an Airbnb in Marrakech, in Essaouira with the Drissi Family who offer excursions and tours too. For the last night we enjoyed Le Casablanca Hotel for some real spoils. NOTE: South Africans need visas to visit Morocco, I got mine through https://visapak.net/.
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