Glenda Winders and her husband, Phil Allen, recently traveled to Morocco. This is their first-person account along with travel tips and must-dos.
By Glenda Winders // Photography submitted by Phil Allen
In a country and landscape seemingly trapped in time, the common denominators my husband and I noticed in Morocco were this: variety and beauty. Sitting as it does in the far northwest corner of Africa, just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, the small country of 37 million people can boast of an Atlantic seacoast, the Atlas and Rif mountains and the Sahara — which means desert in Arabic. The architecture — partly Moorish, partly French, after the occupation of the country starting in 1912 — is nothing short of exquisite. Palaces, mosques and private homes are outfitted with tiled floors and walls, elaborate doors in the horseshoe arch shape and designs hand-carved into the plaster called “yeseria.”
Old cities are enclosed by walls with cemeteries outside them because the people no longer require protection. Storks’ nests, stray cats and olive trees are everywhere. Beyond these similarities, however, each place we visited had its own personality.
What to do
Worth a visit, filled with many architectural wonders we would see over the next two weeks, including the mausoleum of Mohamed V, the current king’s grandfather. Across a wide plaza is the Hassan Tower, the minaret of a 12th-century mosque that was intended to be the largest in the world. However, when the caliph who ordered its building died, the project was abandoned. The tower, however, remains a national landmark. The Museum of Moroccan History and Civilization and the National Archaeological Museum reveal even more about the nation’s rich history.
One of our best finds was the Mohammed VI Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, where we discovered colorful and dramatic paintings by Moroccan artists. Another worthwhile stop was the Museum of the Bank of Morocco, where there are more paintings to see, but the main event there is a collection of 30,000 coins the bank has gathered since 1947 that tell the history of money all over the world. The exhibit ends with a demonstration of how money is minted today.
Where to eat
Lunch one day was at the ornate Villa Sbihi in Salé, just across the Bou Regreg River from Rabat. The first home built outside the city walls by then-governor Sbihi, in 1936. It overlooks the river and provides panoramic views of both cities. Here we enjoyed vegetables and meat cooked in traditional Moroccan tagines and discovered the glasses of mint tea that was offered as a gesture of welcome everywhere we went. Our favorite dinner spot was Dinarjat, a traditional Moroccan restaurant where we listened to local music and danced in addition to enjoying our meal.
Where to stay
In a city of this size, hotels abound. We stayed at La Tour Hassan, where we enjoyed the traditional décor and the patio, and where we had dinner one evening and breakfast the next morning.
Fes (or Fez)
What to do
This vibrant city, the capital before French occupiers moved it to Rabat to be close to the seacoast, is known as the “Athens of Africa” because of its wealth of cultural opportunities. One of the most memorable was the Chouara Tannery, where we walked through shops filled with leather jackets, shoes and bags and out onto a balcony to watch people work in huge vats of color.
Fes is famous for its pottery, particularly mosaics and pieces painted with cobalt oxide to produce a bright blue when they are fired. We were able to watch as craftspeople created everything from teapots to tables, fountains and much more in brilliant shades and patterns.
Every city has a medina, an old walled city complex that is as hard to describe as it is to navigate. The one here began in the ninth century and has grown over the years to encompass more than 540 acres and some 156,000 residents. The streets are more like wide hallways where donkey carts and motorcycles depend on visitors to get out of the way. The complex is a labyrinth, where you might come across a mosque next door to a home, next door to a restaurant, next door to a store, and so on — all basically under one roof.
We entered this spectacle by way of the famous Blue Gate. Once inside, we watched various types of artisans practice their crafts — metalworkers, woodworkers, dressmakers and the like. Walls stacked high with fabrics and threads in bright hues share space with mannequins wearing ready-made caftans and djellabas — long hooded garments worn by both men and women. One area houses workers who dye yarn, another spice merchants and another wedding planners.
Also inside, is a kindergarten where the 5-year-olds recited part of the Koran for us, the Al Karaouine Medieval Theological University, a baker who knelt on the floor to scoop fresh bread from his wood-fired oven, and a rug store where salesmen showed us room after room of elegant carpets in more patterns and colors than we could have imagined.
Since the creation of Israel, Fes no longer has a large Jewish population, but many remnants of earlier times remain in the city’s Mellah — the Jewish quarter. We walked past the home of philosopher Maimonides, visited a 17th-century synagogue and toured a Jewish cemetery.
What to eat
A delightful lunch surprise tucked away in the Fez medina is Gayza at Riad Fes, a Relais & Chateaux hotel. Lunch in the medina at Meknes was at Palais Didi.
Where to stay
Hotel Sahrai has a gorgeous view of the city and two excellent restaurants where we had dinner the nights we were in town — one evening outside by the pool.
On the Road
What to do
Our journey to Marrakech took us inland and through the Atlas Mountains and lasted three days because we had so many adventures along the way. In a cedar forest, we were lucky enough to see and be able to interact with Barbary apes, which are actually macaques. A few coins purchased peanuts that the animals — conditioned by years of travelers — eagerly took from our hands. While I fed a mother, her babies tugged at my pant legs until I shared what I had with them.
We stopped at the narrow Todra Gorge — an eye-popping spot that is much like seeing the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains at the same time. In Rissani, once the embarkation point for camel caravans leaving to cross the desert with goods to sell, we visited a fossil quarry and purchased the turbans we would later wear when we rode camels in Sahara dunes to keep the sand out of our hair and faces.
We passed through the “route of a thousand kasbahs” — red-clay forts where people still live — overnighted in Erfoud and spent an afternoon at Ouarzazate, where actor Michael Douglas established a movie studio to film “Romancing the Stone” there. In the museum, we saw costumes and props that ranged from chariots to warplanes and settings for prison scenes and throne-room encounters.
Along the way, we stopped at the mostly uninhabited Ait Ben-haddou, a World Heritage Site filled with kasbahs where “Gladiator” was filmed. We traveled on through the Pass of the Pastures at 7,415 feet, where we encountered nomadic Berber people with tattooed faces, who were following their sheep and reconstructing their village as they went.
Where to eat — and stay
This trip passed through miles of uninhabited space and small towns with few options for dining. We stayed at Le Palais du Desert Hotel and Le Berbere Palace and ate our dinners there — except for the night of the camel ride when we had dinner under a tent in the desert.
What to do
Morocco’s fourth-largest city is also its most cosmopolitan, with modern architecture sitting beside an ancient walled medina. Our first morning here started with a horse-and-carriage ride to the Majorelle Gardens, a spectacular cactus garden right in the middle of the city that is also home to 15 species of native North African birds. The centerpiece of the gardens, designed by Jacques Majorelle in 1924, is a cobalt-blue structure that now houses a Berber museum and the gift shop. Directly adjacent is Villa Oasis, home of the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Lauren, also available for touring.
We spent an afternoon looking through the ruins of the 360-room Palais El Badi, built in the 16th century in the style of
the Alhambra in Granada. It took 15
years to construct, and was lavishly
decorated with Italian gold and marble; hence, its name, which means “the incomparable palace.”
A Marrakech highlight is visiting the souks, or markets. The heart is Djemaa El Fna, where snake-charmers, acrobats and musicians entertain. The place is bright and lively until late at night, and each evening tables and chairs fill the plaza, where local cooks provide substantial meals at low prices.
Where to eat
Whatever else you do, be sure to have dinner at Dar Moha. The exotic dining room is situated around an indoor lighted swimming pool with mosaics at its bottom. We enjoyed great Moroccan food, music and dancing and a visit from Chef Moha. Only later, when we saw his face on a billboard, did we realize that he is one of the country’s most famous celebrity chefs. At the Majorelle Gardens, take time for a lemonade at the café, and at the El Badi Palace restaurant, try the Tarte Tatin.
Where to stay
Our hotel was the Sofitel Marrakech Lounge and Spa, but we took a walk to La Mamounia since it was nearby. This high-end luxury hotel and casino is where the rich and famous stay when they’re in town, and it was worth popping in just to see the opulent interior and immaculate gardens.
What to do
We only had one day here before it was time to leave for home, so we crammed as much into it as we could. Our first stop was Notre Dame de Lourdes, a modernist Catholic Church built in 1954. It is noteworthy because of the stained glass by Gabriel Loire that wraps around the building and tells stories from the Bible.
Also here, is the palatial Grand Mosque of Hassan II, Africa’s second-largest mosque and the only one in the country where non-Muslims are welcome inside. Its setting on the Atlantic shore is stunning, its minaret is 656 feet tall, and its prayer hall is three times the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It is outfitted with polished marble floors, Venetian chandeliers, Moorish arches and 70 cedar-paneled cupolas. On a level beneath the prayer hall, are flower-shaped marble fountains where worshippers perform the purification ritual of washing their faces, arms, legs and feet before beginning to pray.
Where to eat
Since the people in our group had all seen the movie “Casablanca”, we were naturally curious about Rick’s Café, the bar where much of the action takes place. Alas, we learned that the movie was all filmed in Hollywood and no such place existed in real life. But when visitors were repeatedly disappointed, Kathy Kriger, a former diplomat and commercial attaché in Morocco, cleverly developed a restaurant to replicate the one in the film. It has good food, live music and an atmospheric bar, just as you would expect. Our guide told us we’d have a farewell banquet, but he was evasive when we asked where it would be. Imagine how delighted we all were when our van pulled up in front of — you guessed it! — Rick’s Café.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Casablanca because of its proximity to the airport, but it had another advantage, too. It was across the street from markets that stay open until late at night, so we had one last chance to grab up more Moroccan gifts and treasures.
Tip: When we go to countries where we don’t know the language, we always join a tour, often with Smithsonian Journeys because of their emphasis on learning. In addition to providing guides and drivers to deal with road signs and translations, tours enable travelers to see and do as much as possible in a short time, while staying at nice hotels and eating at good restaurants since tour operators get group rates. They can also plan activities that individual travelers wouldn’t know about or might have difficulty accessing, such as having tea and entertainment in private homes. Our magical night in the desert is just one example of the advantages of joining a tour.