First off, it feels a bit silly putting Morocco under the African umbrella because it is far from the Africa I know. It was clearly a trip to the Arab world, but I won’t argue with geography, so here is where you will find it.
Morocco was….interesting. I don’t really know how else to describe it because I still don’t know how I feel about it. It’s funny because so many of the things I loved about it, I also hated.
It was beautiful and chaotic and strange and exotic and well, a bit of crazy mixed in. From the moment I got there it was like an assault on all of my senses. I should also add that I went during the hottest time of the year (43 degrees on my first day…at 9am) and in the midst of Ramadan, which made things even more…interesting.
Thankfully, Morocco has a highly efficient and cheap rail system, which allowed me to hop around the country and see the specific cities and sites that I wanted to. Aside from a bit of unwanted male attention on the trains, I felt safe and in control at all times, made even easier by my knowledge of French.
I spent my first day in Meknes, a small-ish city in the northern part of the country, which is much less-travelled than nearby Fez. However, the amazing ancient Roman ruins site of Volubilis is about a half an hour away and I had been dying to see it since forever, so I made the 4-hour train ride from Casablanca to ‘nowheresville’ just to get there. My riad (which is a traditional Moroccan B&B) was beautiful and had amazing food, so I didn’t venture out too much other than the few things I wanted to visit.
Volubilis is a partly excavated Roman city dating back to 3rd century BC. The town fell to local tribes around 285 and by the 11th century was all but abandoned. Not surprisingly, today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and exceptionally well preserved. What I loved most about it was there were no tourists when I went. When I say no tourists, I ain’t lyin’…I mean NOT ONE TOURIST. I paid the piddily 5$ entrance fee to the sleepy guard at the entrance gate and walked around, snapped pictures and took it all in completely alone. It was fabulous.
The next few days I spent in Marrakech. Pardon my French, but holy shit. It was a zoo. No, actually, it was more like a circus. Just like a circus. The main square, Djemaa el-Fna, was the most fascinating (and overwhelming) place I’ve ever seen, a people watcher’s paradise. While having a coffee on a terrace, I watched musicians, dancers, acrobats, beggers, snake charmers, henna artists, pick pocketers, and street touts go about their business like it was nobody’s bidnis.
There were a ton of things to do and see and buy, but you have to be prepared to do it all with about 10 locals up your arse every step of the way. I was warned by a friend prior to going that the key to navigating Marrakech and actually enjoying it was to never make eye contact with anyone you didn’t want to buy something from. Pretty spot on.
Marrakech’s medina is a historic winding maze of small streets and alleyways with tons of shops and people and donkeys and scooters and wild cats and garbage and food. Every Middle Eastern place has one, and I thought I was prepared having been to Zanzibar and just the day before in Meknes, but Marrakech’s medina is epic. It’s kind of assumed you’ll get lost at some point, but you can’t help but venture in, knowing that within an hour you’ll be pulling your hair out from the heat and hassles.
Even though I had a guide take me around the first day, I was still screwed when I went in by myself on the second day. And then like a masochist I went in the Medina again on the third day. I realized then that I kind of deserved to get lost.
The history, food and shopping were probably the most redeeming qualities of Marrakech…they’re all fabulous and unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Unfortunately, booze was damn near impossible to find, which you need desperately to take the edge off after a day out and about. There’s only so many hot mint teas one can have in the run of a day there, let me tell ya.
From Marrakech, I bused it west to the small beach town of Essaouira which sits right on the Mediterranean. In the 1960s, Essaouira became something of a hippie hangout after it was believed to be the subject of Jimi Hendrix’s song “Castles Made of Sand” which ironically was actually written two years before he ever even visited the castles of Essaouira. However, you wouldn’t know it by the Jimi Hendrix-laden shops and restaurants that adorn its streets and add to the notoriety as hippie and hashish central.
Overall, Essaouira was quaint and quiet and a welcomed change of pace from Marrakech. Walking it was easy, and even the medina was manageable, which allows you to actually relax and wander around as opposed to walking with your eyes in the back of your head. I didn’t partake in a ton of the activities that it boasts as it was the end of a two-month Africa blitz but I did take my first (and last) camel ride.
I wrapped up my overwhelming trip in underwhelming Casablanca and was happy not to spend more than a day there. On the whole, I loved Morocco. It’s big; it’s loud, and it’s brash and requires a lot of mental stamina, especially for a solo female traveller. I couldn’t wait to get there and yes, I couldn’t wait to leave. But in an even stranger way, I would go back in a heartbeat.