Ever since I was a child, when I used to watch “Clone” with my grandmother – the story of a forbidden love between a Brazilian man and a Muslim woman – I have been strongly impressed by the Medina of Fez. That was the moment when a dream, that of walking the same streets as the protagonists of the movie, began to flourish in my imagination.
After a long time of thinking about it, and a long time of traveling exclusively through the European continent, in 2019 I armed myself with courage and reserved a place for a circuit in Morocco.
Morocco, officially the Kingdom of Morocco, is that country in North Africa, located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, whose territory almost touches the Iberian Peninsula at the Strait of Gibraltar. Morocco offers a special diversity and colorfulness, starting from the popular Atlas Mountains to the well-known dunes of the Sahara Desert, but also encompassing other epic landscapes such as plains, waterfalls and ancient cities..
In Fez, the former capital of Morocco, we can find tourist attractions such as the Royal Palace in Fez, the residence of King Muhammad IV (1859–1873), where you can see closely the signs of monarchical power, and Quaraouiyin University, founded in 859. Did you know that it is the oldest university in the world? The more prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the pillar of Sunni Islamic theology, was founded a century later, in 970. And the first European university was born in Bologna only in 1088 (Alma Mater Studiorum).
The point of interest of the day, at least for me, was the incursion into the Medina of Fez, the place where, as I said before, I dreamt of visiting since I was a child. In Arabic, medina means city, but in today’s Moroccan context this term refers to the historic center surrounded by the walls of cities in Northern Africa. It dates from somewhere in the ninth century, being the largest and oldest in North Africa, and precisely because of its historical and cultural importance has been included in the Unesco Heritage list since 1981
Wandering the winding and labyrinthic streets of the medina, you can find absolutely anything: “mountains” of spices, hammams (public baths), medicines and natural makeup in the old Berber pharmacies, tanneries, traditional craft workshops. At the pottery workshops, we discovered how the famous clay pots for tajine (a traditional Moroccan dish), Fatima’s hand, as well as many other handicrafts are produced; at the weaving workshops, we learnt the secret of traditionally woven scarves and rugs, and we had the opportunity to wrap our scarves in dozens of ways, just like the Berbers do. The famous Chouara Tannery gave us the opportunity to get to know the mystery of one of the oldest traditions in Morocco, the process of dyeing leather. However, be warned that the smell is quite strong! To tame it, the locals will try to offer you mint “for free”.
Another day began with a mesmerizing view of the city of Chefchaouen, also called the “blue pearl of Morocco”. Chefchaouen is known for the fact that all the buildings are painted blue. I bet once you get there, you’ll realize you didn’t even know that there were so many shades of blue!
And if you are wondering what’s the reason for this, no one knows for sure. Some assume it is a color that repels mosquitoes; others, more spiritual, that it symbolizes the sky or the water; and others, more pragmatic, say it was simply to attract tourists. It probably doesn’t even matter anymore, because through its nuances, the city radiates a special charm and is the most “Instagrammable” place in Morocco!
On our way to Essaouira, we made a stop at a women’s cooperative, where argan oil is made by hand. Argan oil is one of the main sources of export for Morocco, although nowadays the existence of argan trees is endangered by a large population of goats, which prevents their growth by climbing and eating the leaves and fruits. Essaouira, probably the most relaxed city in Morocco, is located on the Atlantic coast, which is why it is a point of interest for surfers around the world. The wind here is ubiquitous!
Here you will also have the opportunity to eat fresh fish, taken out straight from the ocean, but if you are not a big fan of fish and seafood, you can taste the famous tajines, the quintessential Moroccan food, a hot stew with a mixture of tender meat, vegetables and spices.
Casablanca is considered the economic capital of Morocco, even if the political capital is Rabat. Here you can visit the second largest mosque in the world, after the one in Mecca, a true architectural marvel. The mosque, whose construction has been widely criticized by certain sectors of society due to its high costs, has 30,000 m2, and was built over eight years by 10,000 people who worked on it without interruption. It was finally open in 1993, with such a large capacity that 100,000 people can pray here simultaneously, 25,000 indoors and about 80,000 on the outdoor esplanade.
Of course, while in Morocco you cannot miss a camel riding tour, through the vastness of the Sahara Desert. In the evening we made a big campfire and sat and told stories and danced until midnight, with a pleasant view of the starry sky. Two things you need to know about the desert: the night there is very cool, so I recommend thick clothes, and no matter how hard you try, you’ll be covered with sand all over your body, on your clothes, and in your shoes!
We spent our last day in Marrakesh, or the “Red City”, a name that comes from the clay houses, which are still kept in their original form. We set off early in the morning to the Majorelle Gardens, which cover an area of 9,000 m2 and where we found hundreds of exotic botanical specimens from all over the world. This place was built in 40 years by the French artist Jacques Majorelle, and in 1980 it was purchased by the famous designer Yves Saint Laurent, to save it from destruction at the hands of hotel developers.
A must visit here is the famous Souk Djemaa el Fna. You cannot say that you’ve seen Marrakesh if you haven’t been here! In the evening, Djemaa el Fna comes to life with music, animal shows, lots of people and endless aromas. Here you will find snake trainers, monkeys, acrobats, and many other street artists. If you are a woman, you must try a henna tattoo, but try to be careful, because people are very insistent. I myself have been approached by a Moroccan woman for a tattoo and I ended up losing myself from the group. Now I remember it like a funny story, but I admit that at that time I was a little scared, because after more than an hour of walking through the market, I still had not found anyone from my group, so be prepared to get lost in Morocco no matter what.
Morocco has a lot of other things to offer. Unfortunately, I have not been able to cover them all in this article, but I would like to mention briefly the archaeological site of Volubilis, Ait Ben Haddou, listed on the Unesco Heritage List, where a part of Games of Thrones was filmed, the Atlas film studios in Ouzarzate, Gorges du Dades, a mountainous landscape, which reminds us of the Romanian Transfăgărășan.
Morocco was not the destination I expected, but that was certainly because I did not document myself enough before the trip. For me, it was a place full of contrasts: a contrast of enticing and repulsive odors, of cleanliness and filth, of new and old, of safety and fear, depending on the places I passed. In short, a contrast between wealth and poverty, but also a true carnival of the senses, which makes Morocco a country worth visiting, at least once in a lifetime.
In retrospect, after waking up from the dizziness of smells and colors, I can say that my Moroccan experience determined me to step out of my comfort zone. I did this by traveling with unknown people, with whom I came to discover and get acquainted with another culture, which is why for me it was an absolutely necessary and welcome adventure. Dreams do come true!
Written and translated by Raluca Deac