Five Things You Must Do When in Morocco
by: Jennifer Sy
Good-looking and sporting a black leather jacket, he cheerfully introduced himself, “Hi! My name is Sa-eed” and settled into the vacant seat facing me. After taking a good look at us, he welcomed us to Morocco. And for the next 4 hours, our new friend enthusiastically exchanged more than just pleasantries with us, apologizing every now and then for his “bad” English.
A local of Fez, Said is married with 3 kids. He offered useful tips and facts on Morocco. He says he works for his father, and they are one of the biggest exporters of ceramics. “All kinds of ceramics, but the quality is better than in the market”, he tells us proudly. At the end of the train ride, he handed us each a business card with a different name on it. “It is my brother’s”, he said, because he ran out.
It turns out that we were not the only ones Said had befriended on the train. With the same story, a guest staying at our Riad in Fez paid his factory a visit to find out that Said is not what he presented himself to be. He merely earns a commission for every shopper he sends their way. Yes, he was definitely not truthful, but it amused rather than annoyed me how people can be “creative” to make a few bucks (or perhaps in this case, a lot of bucks). The guidebooks and people we meet along the way were not remiss in cautioning, but the likes of Said are not reason enough to discourage anyone from wandering through this enchanting corner of the world.
Exotic. It’s the best way to describe Morocco. Situated at the northwestern corner of the African continent, but African it is not. Morocco faces Europe across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar and stretches from the Mediterranean coast to the sands of the Sahara, but neither is it European nor exactly Mediterranean. It is a country of extravagant architecture and labyrinthine walled cities; of souk filled with vibrant traditional crafts and laced with scents of spices; of captivating landscapes and breathtaking mountains; of warm and giving people; of distinct flavors and refined cuisine; of multiple cultures fluidly fused into one fascinating nation. The diversity of Morocco renders it impossible to be covered entirely on limited vacation time.
To get a taste of the friendliness, vibrancy and flavor of this melting pot of a nation, here’s highlighting some of the must-dos outside of the mandatory sightseeing activities Morocco has to offer.
(1) Stay in a Riad
Distinctly Moroccan, there is nothing more exotic than staying in a traditional courtyard home restored to become boutique hotels and guesthouses. The medieval old town is a melange of these types of home tucked away in most corners. Behind the bland exterior lies a wonderland of fine architectural details and intricate furnishings. With fewer rooms, the service is much more personal, some even offering home-cooked meals upon request. A few nights in a riad allow you to mingle with locals up close, get to know them better, become their friend even. It is a great way to assimilate the Moroccan vibe.
(2) Feast in their Cuisine
Influenced by the Berbers, Moors, Arabs, Jews, and even the French, Moroccan cuisine has developed and refined over the centuries. The use of fragrant spices such as cinnamon, cumin, ginger, turmeric, saffron and other key ingredients such as olives, figs, lemon, dates and almonds gave rise to complex and exciting flavors. With so much culture in it, Moroccan cuisine is known as one of the most sophisticated in the world, and rightly so.
Meals in Morocco are usually an event. They are usually served in earthenware dishes at the center of the table for everyone to share. It typically begins with an assortment of hot and cold salads. The main course follows after, which generally consist of a tagine (a slow cooked stew marrying meat and vegetables with spices and garnished with dried fruits and almonds) served with couscous or flat bread. A simple plate of prepared fresh fruit or traditional dessert served with sweet mint tea right after marks the end of the meal.
Essentially the homeland of tagines and pastillas, elaborate dishes that require meticulous preparation and most likely handed down from mother to daughter. If, however, such lavishness becomes too much, grilled meats (also called kebab) and fish are great respites. And the best ones are usually found in hole-in-the-walls, in some corner of the medina. Or better yet, head out to Essaouira (a 2-hour drive from Marrakech) and check out their fish market. There you get to pick your fish (or whatever seafood that takes your fancy), find your table, order your beer and enjoy the sun and wind while you wait for your food to grill. Now that’s the way to vacation.
(3) Get Lost in the Souks
Whether or not you are a significant shopper, going to the market or what they call a souk is a cultural event. They are a major feature of Moroccan life. The narrow corridors of the medina are shared with donkeys, wheelbarrows, motorbikes, merchandises, and people all going about their daily grind. If you have not gotten lost in a souk, if teenagers (sometimes even adults) have not offered to help you find your way out and then hassle you for a (big) tip, or if you have not been greeted and lured by jovial merchants in five different languages, you have not experienced Morocco.
Morocco is carpet haven. In fact, an unforgettable part of your souk experience will be a visit to the rug merchant, but be warned that they can be very persuasive. You will be given several glasses of mint tea while you get to know the different types of carpets – the Berbers, Touaregs, flat weaves, and kilims… “Just look, but you will help the women of the town if you will get, but no pressure to get”, the merchant will tell you reassuringly. Expect this to go on for perhaps a good hour or so, and if your defenses are down, you might indeed be helping a Moroccan tribe.
(4) Shop Till You Drop
Now, if you are a shopper then the souk is paradise. Each town has its special souk quarter displaying some of the finest Moroccan ornaments and crafts. In larger cities like Fez and Marrakech, there are labyrinthine of “specialty” souks of all kinds – the spice souk, the blacksmith souk, the leather souk, and the slipper souk… all within a bigger souk. A lot of haggling takes place here so be prepared to bargain. With its long trading history, the medinas are like ancient shopping malls bursting with articles big and small, from expensive Berber rugs and precious Argan oils to colorful ceramics and intricately crafted silver jewelries, all these will tempt and seduce the weak in spirit.
(5) Bathe in a Hammam
And go get yourself a massage while you’re at it. Hammams originated from the Roman baths and modeled after Turkish baths. It is an important part of the Moroccan culture, and a visit to a Hammam is an experience worth trying. Moroccans go to soak, scrub and socialize in a Hammam at least once a week. The multi-step cleansing technique requires hot and cold rinses, sweating in a hot room with steaming faucets, scrubbing every inch of your body with olive oil soap. You can do it yourself and have the locals help scrub your back, or if that is too intimidating, pay an attendant to do the entire drill with you. For an additional fee, she can also give you a massage. More than the body rub, it is the bathing and scrubbing that leaves you rejuvenated. You’ll leave the Hammam with skin amazingly soft and glowing.
These unforgettable experiences will certainly enrich your soul and feed your appetite for culture and adventure. This is how to get to the heart of Morocco. Truth be told, the likes of Said are more the exception. With the little time spent in Morocco, we’ve only met kind, wonderful and accommodating people. We’ve had people go out of their way and buy us bus and train tickets, book us a hotel when our plans changed, made sure we got picked up at the station, and even accompany us on an out of town trip just because the driver doesn’t speak English. They’ve certainly earned a slot on my list of nicest people in the world.
Published: May 21, 2013
Images by: Jennifer Sy