The Ultimate Moroccan Destination Guide: Marrakech, Rabat & Fes
You will get lost. I don’t care how good your sense of direction. Even with a map (the maps are terrible) or a GPS system. You.will.get.lost. Your favorite word will be Bab (door or gate) because every direction will certainly involve a “Bab.”
With that said, grab your camera and get ready for the sights, smells, and sounds that will surely overload your senses.
Welcome to Morocco….have some mint tea! One of the first things you’ll encounter upon your arrival is the tradition of mint tea. Mint tea is the hallmark of Moroccan hospitality. Expect to drink at least 5 pots a day. (I’m not kidding!) For inside scoop on Moroccan mint tea check-out this post: http://bit.ly/feQWdK
You’ve heard about them, and you know you’re dying to try one…hammam. These public bathhouses are a great way to relax. There is a hammam on almost every street corner and a great place to get squeaky clean after gallivanting through the dirty streets of Morocco. Get ready to be scrubbed with savon noir (traditional Moroccan black exfoliating soap) and ghassoul—a natural clay that is only found in the Atlas Mountains. Complete your hammam experience with an Argan Oil massage. Apparently, this is a wonder drug with endless uses. You can read more about Argan Oil here: http://bit.ly/hIZgtH
If you’re tired of being hassled by locals and want to totally emerge yourself in the culture, head to the souks (markets) and buy yourself a jellaba: the traditional ankle-length flowing garment worn by both men and women. It has a pointy hood and silk buttons down the front and comes in a variety of materials and colors. If you wanna go crazy buy the hijab too—the scarf used to cover the head and face. You can purchase a decent quality jellaba for about 200 dh and a silk scarf for 55 dh. (Negotiate!) If you’re lucky, an older Moroccan woman will be around and will properly tie your hijab for you! (It is a learned skill.)
If you’re lucky enough to be in Morocco on a Friday, be sure to indulge in couscous. Of course you can eat couscous any old day at one of the touristy restaurants, but if you want the real deal, reserve dinner at your riad on Friday. Couscous is best served family-style and made to order. Try it with lamb, chicken or vegetarian style. The portions are huge and you will be happy you decided to share it with one or two friends. Trust me.
Don’t leave Morocco without experiencing the spices. Visit any “herboriste” to purchase your own supply of argan oil, mint tea, alum stone, saffron, curry, or the famous “Head of the Shop”, a special blend of 35 Moroccan Spices better known as Ras el Hanout.
If you’re in Marrakesh, and you should certainly make this a stop on your journey through Morocco, be sure to stop at Djemaa Al-Fna. This plaza was the site of public executions back in the day. Now it’s home to fortune tellers, snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, and jellaba wearing locals selling herbs. Don’t worry if you can’t find “the big square”, there will be dozens of young boys willing to show you the way—for a few dirhams, of course. Tip #1: Try to ignore them and find your way alone. It’s an adventure. But if you do lose patience, be sure to negotiate before you take one step with them. I guarantee you, upon your arrival at said destination, your offer of 20, 30, 50 dirhams will never be enough. (At press time 100 dirhams (MAD) was about $12 USD.)
After the hustle and bustle, and haggling in the souks of Marrakech, you may do well do rent a car and drive 3 hours northwest to the coast. Bypass Casablanca (it’s overrated) and drive north another hour on the Atlantic Ocean to Rabat. The capital of Morocco is quieter and has far less tourists. You’ll still experience the ancient walled medina and culture, but you’ll deal less with aggressive souk owners. You can easily walk outside the walled medina to see the “new city” and get a taste of life “outside the medina.” It’s a different world. Be sure to check out the Kasbah des Oudaia along the waterfront. And down at the beach there is even a surf club! And for an unforgettable authentic Moroccan dinner and experience, visit Dar Naji, right outside the medina walls.
Stop in Fes… if only to see the dye pits. They are an amazing sight! These Chouwara Tanneries are the most iconic sight and smell of the city. It’s not possible to get amongst the pits themselves, but for a few dirham (or a purchase) a shopkeeper will guide you to his terrace for a great view of the action. Did you know that pigeon poo and cow urine are used in the process? Indigo, saffron, and poppy are used for color. It’s a fascinating illustration of how some things haven’t changed since medieval times.
If you thought the medina of Marrakech was a labyrinth….you’ll definitely feel like “a mouse in a maze” in Fes. (The Fassi authorities introduced a series of signs a few years ago, they really don’t help.) The streets are narrower, steeper, and more crowded. It’s an amazing adventure—so much to see, so much to smell, so much to taste. Hello sensory overload! Be sure to visit the Clock Café and try a camel burger and stop by any souk stall for the famous Fes noughat!
Morocco is a mystical and mysterious place. You will feel overwhelmed your first day. It takes about five days to get used to the culture and the craziness. And then you will embrace it and go with the flow. Someone told me that you will never understand Morocco. I believe them. And that, my fellow jet-setters, is the appeal!