Morocco: Land of Enchantment

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Photos by the author

A land of enchantment, history, and grand vistas, Morocco has something to offer for almost every type of traveler. There are countless wonderful ways to experience Morocco. What follows is a brief glimpse into my Morocco experience. Since this was a solo trip and I had some flexibility in scheduling, I didn’t plan much and made arrangements as I went along.

The trip started at the Casablanca airport. A train to the main station, a quick look around town for a few hours, and I was on a train to Marrakesh. Although Marrakesh is a great and historic city, with numerous charms, I decided to spend just one evening here and get my medina fill in Fez. I also wanted to have some days to spend in less busy places.

Marrakesh medina at night

Aït Ben-Haddou

Early next morning, I boarded a tour bus towards the Sahara. Along the way, we stopped for views of the Atlas Mountains and then for a few hours in Aït Ben-Haddou, a UNESCO world heritage settlement of earthen homes still occupied by four families. It has featured in several major films and more recently in Game of Thrones.

A view of the High Atlas Mountains

The kasr of Aït Ben-Haddou, the site of numerous movies and TV shows

Aït Ben-Haddou kasr atop the hill

Dades Valley Gorge

Driving through the Atlas Mountains, we stopped at Ouarzazate, and then continued to our hotel in the Dades Valley gorge. To indulge my amateur interest in astronomy, I had planned this trip for the new moon, allowing for better views of the night sky, including the Milky Way (if this sounds interesting, I would highly recommend it).

 

The Milky Way viewed from the Dades Gorge

The Sahara

The next morning, we continued our long journey to the Sahara, arriving at Merzouga, the traditional launching point to the Erg Chebbi dunes. After a short rest and some refreshments, we got on camels in the late afternoon and rode, caravan style with two Berber guides, to our desert overnight camp, stopping along the way to view the sunset. This, along with the (somewhat cloudy) night views of the Milky Way, was a highlight of this trip.

A caravan heads into the Sahara

 

A caravan in the distance

The camp was fairly basic but perfectly adequate. Most tour companies offer camps of all levels, from basic to luxurious. I had planned to spend most of the night in the desert looking at the sky so accommodations were not of particular importance.

Camels resting for the night under the Milky Way

A pre-dawn (4:30 am!) caravan back to Merzouga allowed us to stop along the way to watch the sun rise over the Sahara. From there, it was a long day in a shared taxi to Fes.

Berber guides tending to their camels just after dawn

Fes

It’s hard to adequately describe Fes in words or pictures. Fes (or Fez) is essentially an experience. The Fes medina is the largest car free metropolitan area in the world. It has 150,000 residents, and has thousands of narrow winding alleys, some ending abruptly and others opening into hidden squares. It is home to the oldest continuously operating educational institution in the world, University of al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri. The last expansion of the medina was in the 13th century, and it essentially operates as it did centuries ago.

Workers at a tannery in Fes

A street musician in the Fes medina

A view of the Fes medina from the Merenid Tombs

Chefchaouen

A few hours on the bus from Fes, is Chefchaouen, a tourist town painted bright blue and lined with cafes, restaurants, and small shops. It is surrounded by the Rif Mountains, which provide opportunities for hikes from a few to several hours long. Due to the elevation, the cool weather in Chefchaouen was a pleasant contrast to the stifling heat of Fes. Here I spent a few days relaxing in the mountain air and enjoying a few hikes.

Up the steps in Chefchaouen medina

A shopkeeper in Chefchaouen patiently waiting for customers

Chefchaouen viewed from the path to the Spanish Mosque

From Chefchaouen, a few hours in a shared grand taxi brought me to my last Moroccan destination. Tangier felt like the seaside town it is, with some interesting museums and walks. However, it is also the only place in Morocco where I was frequently hassled by high-pressure scams artists, something for which the city has a reputation it’s trying hard to shake.

Having experienced a small slice of Morocco, from the vast and empty Sahara to the bustling alleys of the Fes medina, I left with a feeling that there are plenty of reasons to return soon.

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