Memories of Morocco
If you talk to anyone who has afforded Morocco nothing more than a day trip to Tangier, the prospect of touring around the country might not be an appealing one. But given a little more time, this unique country has something to offer for everyone. Memories of Morocco bring back images of sun-baked terracotta walls, tiled riads, bustling souks, windy cities, crashing surf, tall palm trees, winding alleyways, colourful spices, mouth-watering couscous and tagine and, of course, the world-famous mint tea...
I had heard mixed reviews on Morocco, namely from tourists who'd taken the ferry across to Tangiers from mainland Spain as an exotic day trip. I had done this myself a few years ago and enjoyed meandering round the narrow streets and alleyways to explore the plethora of craft shops and cafes, but I knew there was way more to Morocco than simply a novel day-trip that added some spice to a Spanish holiday. So I planned a return trip with an ambitious itinerary, allowing me to hop from one destination to another in just over a week.
How can you possibly try and describe Marrakesh? Quite simply, you can't! I have never been anywhere like it before and doubt I ever will. A frenetic city, there is something happening at every turn; from the vendors peddling their crafts to the street performers earning their crust, to the city-dwellers rushing about their daily business, to the hordes of tourists thronging the streets. For me, Djemaa el Fna Square was definitely a highlight. It's not to everyone's taste, but there is a type of energy you just won't find anywhere else. An edgy, raucous atmosphere truly comes into play once the sun starts setting and the performers come out - you can watch from one of the rooftop cafes or get in amongst the action. At the back of the square is the entrance to a myriad of souks - take your camera and enjoy getting lost in this maze. If the hectic nature of this part of the city is too much, then walking around the Kasbah area behind the old medina walls is a calmer way to experience the sights and sounds, where you can sit with a good book and a mint tea and watch the world go by. The Saadian Tombs are worth a visit and, although you may be queuing a while in the heat to await your turn, getting a glimpse of the famous tomb with its intricate gilded marble-and-tile interior is worth the wait. The Koutoubia Mosque is an impressive sight in the area bridging the Kasbah and Djemaa el Fna, and its surrounding grounds are another pleasant area to take a stroll around. I stayed in a riad called Riad Paradise, far away enough from the centre so as to avoid the noise but close enough to comfortably walk to the main attractions, and the staff here were very helpful in recommending where to go, what to do, and organising transport when it was time to move on.
My next stop was Essaouira, which was a laid-back port city that was a perfect counterbalance to my frantic encounter with Marrakesh. The port is famous for its impressive stone ramparts (which are of Games of Thrones fame) and strolling along the high walls that surround the old medina is a beautiful way to spend a day taking pictures. At the edge of the city is the port itself, where the local fishermen will be happy to show you around and proudly explain the ins and outs of their traditional way of life. The fish that arrives every day is cooked straight away at nearby street cafes and definitely needs to be sampled - you won't find fresher! I stayed in the Moga Hostel within the medina, which had a very friendly, easy-going vibe. One of the staff members even took some time out to accompany a couple of us to a tucked-away hammam that he personally recommended, translating for the staff to ensure that we would receive a typical local experience. I had never been to a traditional hammam before and was the only tourist in there - I found the way the local women welcomed me and kindly showed me the ropes without speaking one word of English to be really considerate. Wandering around the souks and the newer market area outside of the medina is another great way to spend an afternoon with the camera. Anyone who has been to Essaouira has nothing but praise for its quaint and enchanting atmosphere; this place was probably my favourite destination of the trip.
For the last part of the trip I was joined by my partner for a surf'n'stay package just north of Agadir. I had been originally looking at staying in Taghazout but heard some worrying stories about a problem with the local sewage works that were being released directly into the surrounding sea water, resulting in horrible sickness bugs amongst the local surfing community. New sewage pipes were in the process of being built but would not be completed by the time I arrived, so I thought the situation best avoided and chose to opt for the quieter, lesser known area of Tamraght. We stayed at Aloha Surf Camp Maroc, which was overlooking the beach with breath-taking views over the ocean. The staff here were just amazing and went the extra mile to make sure that we had a great time; Thami was a patient surf instructor and Abdellah was always on hand to arrange everything that we needed and couldn't have been more helpful. The buffet-style dinners in the evenings also constituted the best food during my trip, without question. The only downside was that planning a trip so far in advance means that you can't take into account the weather or surf report; it was a very windy few days and the swell was too powerful and choppy for our level of surfing to handle! Our first session had to finish early due to the wind kicking up a mini-sandstorm and we realised, with dismay, that we would be due much of the same for the next couple of days. So we decided to cut our losses with the surfing and explore the surrounding area instead, booking a trip to the aptly-named Paradise Valley.
This was definitely the highlight of the trip and a day I shall never forget. A group of us piled into a 7-seater jeep and drove to Paradise Valley, a section of the Tamraght River that is on the edge of the High Atlas mountains. The drive was along bumpy, winding roads that are almost impassably narrow in places, so the fact that we had an experienced driver made the journey a lot less nerve-wracking. There is a fairly challenging walk to get from the road to Paradise Valley itself, involving some steep uphill and downhill climbs in places, but once there you are rewarded with spectacular views and an abundance of rock pools with cobalt, crystalline waters. At weekends the valley is popular with families and groups of young people alike, but there is plenty of space for everyone to enjoy a picnic and cool off with a swim. This spot is also famous for cliff-jumping, with a few different spots of varying heights - some of which are definitely not for the faint-hearted! For those who dare (and if, like my partner, you can brave the climb to get up there in the first place!), a jump from the tallest spot will earn you a round of applause from the onlooking crowds, as well as some admiring hand-shakes from the local cliff-jumping masters.
After experiencing some of the delights offered by the above destinations, I have to say that Agadir was a bit of an anti-climax. Upon arrival it looked much like a typical European holiday destination - plush white hotel complexes, luxury yachts in the harbour, a sprawling promenade lined with expensive eateries. To be honest, we wished we had stayed in Tamraght for the final night! But we made the most of it and booked a little bit of luxury at the Bianca Beach resort, treating ourselves to a plush meal in a beachfront restaurant in the evening. The hillside did look pretty at night, emblazoned with Arabic lettering (apparently meaning 'God, country and king'), and if you wait to catch the bus from the bottom of the hill then there are some impressive views from the old Kasbah ruins at the top.
In one way or another, Morocco definitely makes an impression on those who have been there. I would say that the best and only way to make up your mind is to go and see for yourself!