Medinas and the Mediterranean: A Moroccan Adventure
Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca
Morocco is a country which many have heard of, but don’t know too much about. The name is evocative of mystery, romance, and great adventure. I, too, wanted to immerse myself in the singular experience of this North African country. It didn’t disappoint–Morocco was as fragrant and nuanced as its famous couscous spices–with so many ingredients blended in to make the perfect mixture.
This kingdom, about the size of California or France, still retains much of its authenticity. Anyone who has a desire to see Morocco should do it soon–especially before it becomes more touristy and tame. People don’t go to Morocco to have a Western experience; they go to see and feel things, unlike anything they’ve known before.
Morocco is rapidly making its way into the modern world. With this responsibility also comes a duty to make travelers feel welcome. The government has spent a lot of money restoring historic landmarks and updating the infrastructure.
I traveled alone. As a female traveler in a Muslim country, I did not feel any less safe than anywhere else. That is not to say I didn’t watch myself and my belongings. However, I never felt as if I was in danger of being harmed with malicious intent.
With that said, travelers must be careful with crosswalks, traffic, and medina crowds. Often, the road laws are not followed by either cars or pedestrians–I could not tell when to walk or not walk, even with traffic signals. Every day inside the medina, narrow marketplace alleys are crammed with shopkeepers and goods, customers, tourists, donkeys, wagons, motorbikes, bikes, and even a car or two. Stay to the sides of the alleyways, and beware of the motorcycles! They are the cheapest and fastest way for Moroccans to travel, so you’ll see them everywhere.
I visited three medinas–Marrakech, Fez, and Essaouira. I found each one to be very different from the next. However, Marrakech was very hectic, and I can see why the inexperienced traveler might have a bad experience there. As long as you are unfailingly polite but assertive, you shouldn’t have any problems. There are people in the medinas who will try to act as your “guide”–never take them up on the offer.
Throngs of locals and tourists, donkey carts, motorbikes, and even automobiles fill the Marrakesh medina.
What Is a Medina?
A medina, usually dating back to the Middle Ages, is a walled-in North African city where people live and work. Because the medina walls and alleys were built on top of one another without any big plan in mind, today it is a network of mazes. You could literally get lost for days if you aren’t careful.
Marrakech can be daunting, but it is actually the most invigorating medina of the three. The best piece of advice I can give you is to make sure you have a map of the medina before you go. Google Maps was very helpful with Marrakech–it showed most of the maze alleyways, and I had pretty good reception inside the medina.
Because the Marrakech medina is located within the confines of the big city, there is so much to do and see. It is very easy to get transportation for a day-trip. I opted for a bus line, which took me to Essaouira–only a couple of hours away. After I spent the day in Essaouira, the bus took me right back to Marrakech.
Fez, unlike Marrakech, was very difficult to navigate. I didn’t have a map, and Google Maps, while pinpointing my location, showed none of the alleyways. I got lost for a couple of hours, until I finally succumbed and contacted my riad host to help me find my way back. If I had been more prepared in Fez, I might have gotten more enjoyment out of the city.
My favorite memory from Essaouira–the stray dogs and cats were treated very well. They are fed fresh fish and allowed to roam as they please. This cat suns itself, not a care in the world.
A mosque in Marrakech, framed by orange trees. Orange groves can be found all over Morocco.
This seaside town was one of the most relaxing places in Morocco. Being next to the ocean has a way of calming one’s spirit, I think. The people who lived and worked in Essaouira were very friendly. The marketplace wasn’t as aggressive as Marrakech and Fez. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t make Essaouira a primary destination in Morocco. I would have gladly stayed a week there if I had known how much I would love it.
Tangier and Casablanca
I group these two together because they are more modern. They don’t have many “old” landmarks. If you want a taste of true Moroccan culture and history, go to Marrakech or Fez.
Still, Tangier and Casablanca have their charms. Both cities are located on the Mediterranean. You will hear a lot of French being spoken. Arabic is the official language of Morocco, but French is certainly spoken by a large portion of the population. (Yet, in the older cities, I came across plenty of people who only spoke Arabic.)
A local tour guide drove me around Tangier. I got to pet some camels and donkeys who had carried some goods to market from nearby villages. I also saw the residences of the royal family.
Casablanca, likewise, is a more modern city–known more for being the title of a Hollywood movie. Much of its history comes from the World War II era when it was a strategic port for the Allies. Although Rabat is the capital of Morocco, Casablanca is the largest city in the country.
Apologies for the poor quality–this snapshot was taken from inside a moving bus. Goats feed on the argan trees. They eat the nuts, and the seeds are collected from their waste. The seeds, softened through their journey through the goats’ digestive tracts, are then ground to produce oil.
A very traditional Moroccan restaurant in the heart of Tangier.
What to Prepare For
I admit that I expected to get there and immediately have unfettered access to the internet. (Don’t be like me!) I had adequate cell reception from my normal US mobile plan, but I found that the internet service in Morocco was poor. The ping was very high and upload and download speeds were often below 1 mbps. I have heard that some digital nomads have taught online classes in Morocco, so I believe they’ve been able to purchase some sort of SIM card while there. If you must teach while there, don’t make a schedule until you know what your internet situation will be like.
I traveled through many cities in Morocco, and every vendor and store I came across only took cash. Only the hotel in Casablanca took credit card, but I had purchased my accommodations online anyway. Even the airports took only cash. Bottom line–have plenty of cash on hand. Use common sense–only take what you need on your day excursions. For the ten days I spent there, I purchased about 4,000 dirhams, which was more than enough. You’ll most likely incur some fees to purchase the cash–just one of the unavoidable costs of traveling! Keep in mind that the Moroccan dirham is closed currency, meaning you cannot purchase it until you are on Moroccan soil. Additionally, if you have too much, you won’t be able to change it once you leave Morocco.
My internet connection wasn’t strong enough for teaching online, but I was able to get a little work done! Seen here: my fabulous riad in Marrakesh. I had the entire place to myself!
Bahia Palace in Marrakech
Hugging a baby donkey where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic.
Morocco is a place that will stay with you forever. It is a gateway to Africa, and indeed one of the places where most people will enter the continent from Europe. The people are different from city to city. Tangier and Casablanca make good starting points to get acquainted with Morocco. Don’t leave without seeing Marrakech and Fez (their medinas are UNESCO World Heritage Sites), but try to reserve plenty of time in Essaouira too.
You will be fascinated by the variety you see in Morocco. Conversely, you will also see echoes of European culture in Morocco. Moroccans are very proud of their rich heritage infused with elements from around the world. You will find them to be warm, inviting, and excited to share their country with you.