So close and a world away: Morocco

Such a short distance across the Straits of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco and yet they are a world apart. This is the wonder of travel in these parts, a short boat ride delivers one to a completely different culture, language, geography, religion… in short, a completely new and exotic world!

The word exotic has traditionally been attached to colourful things: among them, to snake charmers, harems, minarets, camels, souks and mint tea poured from a great height into a tray of small glasses by a mustachioed servant.”                                                                     I can only imagine that Alain de Botton, in The Art of Travel, was describing Morocco.

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It was our friend in Granada who said it would be sacrilege to spend a year in Granada and not visit Morocco. I said I completely understood but insisted that our travel schedule and budget were nearly maxed out. She proceeded to find us €23 flights from Seville to Marrakech and a cheap and charming Riad in which to stay while insisting there would be no problem to take the children out of school for a week. Armed with this information I pitched the idea of this irresistible and affordable experience to the other decision maker in the family.

And so it was on a clear night, under a full moon in mid March, that we stepped off the plane at Marrakech airport. Within minutes we were walking through the medina and the famous Place Jemaa el Fna at rush hour. With our suitcases in tow, we pushed through the throng of people, crowds encircling snake charmers, monkey handlers, freshly squeezed orange juice stands, food stalls and souks. Our senses were alert in awe of the spectacle, colour and noise.

La Place Jemaa el Fna
La Place Jemaa el Fna
Arriving in Marrakech, The Medina
Arriving in Marrakech, The Medina

We were told so many different stories about Morocco, we really didn’t know what to expect. What we found was a beautiful and varied landscape of green rolling hills in the north, high snowcapped mountains in the middle, desert in the south and gorgeous beaches along the coast. Inhabiting these landscapes were warm, friendly people who often wanted to insert themselves into our space, share some information, ask a question, help us find our way (usually for a donation) or sell us something. We never felt in danger or lonely for that matter and I particularly enjoyed the constant banter, bargaining and conversation in French (my Arabic is nonexistent).

Many people find the constant solicitation difficult but for me the interactions were often fascinating and I tried to maintain a sense of humour when declining offers or bargaining for goods and services. It wasn’t too different from my own family upbringing where everyone meddles in each others’ affairs and talks over each other. I was well prepared and often revelled in the constant negotiation.

Morocco is a visual place so I have decided to create a photographic essay of our trip rather than attempt to describe everything in words. I hope you enjoy it!

MARRAKECH (to enlarge the smaller images, click on one and scroll through the gallery)

Families take a Sunday stroll or picnic in Menara Park
Families take a Sunday stroll or picnic in Menara Park
Three generations feeding the fish in Menara Park
Three generations feeding the fish in Menara Park
Camels and a tagine cooking lunch by the road
Camels and a tagine cooking lunch by the road

THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS  (to enlarge the smaller images, click on one and scroll through the gallery)

Driving over the Atlas Mountains from Agadir to Asni was one of the highlights of the trip. Although the road took extreme concentration and much effort to avoid car sickness due to the tight curves and incredible switchbacks, the views and landscape were breathtaking. We climbed from sea level up to 2,100m at Tiz n’ Nest pass and then back down the other side towards Ourigane and Asni. There are very tight sections of the road squashed between rock faces and sheer drops and many with no barriers – nail biting driving. After spending a night in a gorgeous hotel in an olive grove, we drove into the Toubkal valley to go trekking in the snow capped mountains. The Berber people who live in this mountainous region are generous, kind and the most amazing cooks. We ate the best food here.

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Driving over the Atlas mountains
Tea at Tiz n' Nest (2,100m) crossing the Atlas Mountains
Tea at Tiz n’ Nest (2,100m) crossing the Atlas Mountains
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Valley of Toubkal, highest peak in Morocco (4,167 m)
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Driving towards Asni
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Our daughter the lone rider on a mule heading towards Mt Toubkal
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Heading back down the mountain
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Beautiful Imlil
Wares for sale in the mountain villages
Wares for sale in the mountain villages

AGADIR (Atlantic Coast) 

This section of the trip was planned to allow the children some down time by the beach and pool. We were blessed with warm weather and the kids ran around barefoot and swam most of the time, taking time out only to ride bikes along the 10km beach promenade or to eat. Hubby and I were happy that the children were content but we struggled with the ‘resort’ thing. We were surrounded by hundreds of Northern European sun-seeking retirees and needless to say, there were very few people in our demographic. Agadir is very lovely for its natural beauty although the town has no historic centre owing to an earthquake in the 1960s that required the whole city to be rebuilt.

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Ahhh, the ocean! Arriving at the beach in Agadir
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Bare feet on the ground, just like home
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A fork in the road
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Some pool pleasure for the kids
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Surrounded by Northern European sun-seeking retirees who dress alike

The trip home – over land and sea

After missing our flight home from Marrakech to Seville, our only option was to return by train, ferry and train. It was an exciting 24 hour adventure that we wouldn’t have experienced had we not missed our flight. We departed Marrakech at 9pm on the overnight train to Tangier, followed by a ferry to Algeciras and another train, arriving in Granada exactly 24 hours after we left Marrakech. Here is the journey in photos.

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All aboard! The overnight train to Tangiers pulls out of Marrakech station
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First time in a couchette for the kids- lots of giggles and excitement
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Breakfast at Tangiers train station – coffee, pastries and last banana smoothies
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Good morning luscious green Tangier
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Green rolling hills and Spring blooms in Tangiers
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Grand taxi to the Tangiers Med Port – 40kms along a scenic coastal road
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Farewell Morocco
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The ferry crossing from Tangiers, Morocco to Algeciras in Spain

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In the short time we spent in Morocco, I observed people living in relative peace and freedom – an achievement for a country that only gained autonomy and independence from its French colonisers in 1956.

These are only surface observations of course. I observed several contradictions too with extreme displays of wealth next to poverty, and women in modern dress and towering heels standing next to women wearing a hijab or burqa. Although outside of the big cities, the streets and cafes are dominated by men, there were many modern twists to life in Marrakech where a middle class was evident.

I highly recommend a visit to Morocco for anyone who finds themselves in Southern Spain. The boat trip across the Straits of Gibraltar is not only scenic but an ancient route travelled by numerous past civilisations. Morocco is yet another destination in which I would love to spend more time to better understand its culture, history and people. Until then, we are back in Granada living “Our year in Spain”.

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8 thoughts on “So close and a world away: Morocco

  1. Thanks for your post. Such a great story and reflections. (I’m a over fifty solo Aust female traveller, and visited Marrakesh in 2012, and ‘lost’ my photos. Great to see the places in your photos. I’m also about to pass through Granada, and appreciate your posts.) good luck, Rebecca

  2. You fitted a lot into this post Bianca just as you are fitting a lot into your life. Such a colourful place and the thumbnails are a great way of sharing. You are fortunate to have a friend who was so insistent. 3 months to go! I’m looking forward to reading about how much more you can fit in.

  3. Marvellous, Bianca. You’ve made it all come to life for me. What a wonderful experience you are all having. What memories to look back on. Congratulations. Love, Maureen xx

  4. Hi Bianca, loving your comments on Spain and Morocco – wonderful photos – what a wonderful experience for your family.

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