Morocco: From Souks to the Seaside

Nestled in the North-Western most tip of Africa, Morocco undoubtedly offers something for everyone. Due to its rich and varied history, the scenery, culture and infrastructure alters dramatically depending on region

All photos: Lucy Dixon

All photos: Lucy Dixon

Nestled in the north-western most tip of Africa, Morocco undoubtedly offers something for everyone. Due to its rich and varied history, the scenery, culture and infrastructure alters dramatically depending on the region you find yourself in.

Be it the traditional Berber dynasties, the arrival of the Arabs, or the French’s colonisation between 1912 and 1956, Morocco bears the scars of a dynamic and ever-changing past. The tourist industry here is still very much in its youth, and the cost of travel and leisure reflects this. Currency is in Moroccan dirhams, and there are approximately 12.9 dirhams to one pound. Nothing in Morocco has a set price, and a holiday here will be sure to increase anyone’s ability to strike a bargain.

Along the streets and winding corners of the medina, restaurants will offer three course meals for anywhere between 50 and 150 dirhams – but refuse to eat for anything above 40 dirhams, and it is almost guaranteed the waiter will give in. Sandwich shops offer baguettes and rolls for 15 to 20 dirhams and street vendors will sell crepes, ice cream and other sweets for a handful of dirhams.

Taxi cabs are where you are most likely to be ripped off – be extra careful when travelling from the airport on arrival into the country; the drivers realise this is when you’ll be the least savvy about reasonable prices. In general, you shouldn’t be spending anything above 60 dirhams for a four person taxi. Morocco’s roads are an experience in themselves, and your first ride in a taxi will be an alarming one. It seems the average taxi driver sees the lane for oncoming traffic as an extra lane for him, providing no other vehicle is actually in sight. Luggage will also be balanced precariously in roof baskets for the journey – their survival is always cause for genuine surprise.

For the female traveller, be warned of any offers of camels proposed to your male friends in exchange for ownership of you – they will be numerous and can range from only a couple, to all the camels in Africa. Ideal for a group of students (although not if you are intending to drink – it is a Muslim country so alcohol is scarce), Morocco is diverse, inexpensive and culturally rich.

Be it the traditional Berber dynasties, the ­arrival of the Arabs, or the French colonisation between 1912 and 1956, Morocco bears the scars of a dynamic and ever-changing past – but the tourist industry is still in its youth.

The most common city to fly to, Marrakech can be quite overwhelming on first impressions. The main square, Jamaa el-Fna, exudes an atmosphere reminiscent of an annual street festival rather than an everyday market place. It is one of the biggest of its kind in the world, and features everything from monkey trainers and women sitting on stools selling henna tattoos to caleches (horse-drawn carriages) and orange juice stalls.

By night, the square transforms into a bright and fiery hub of burning incense, coloured lanterns and dancing. Temporary stalls line part of the square and are erected each evening to form mobile restaurants, where the customers watch their food being cooked on open air barbeques, the steam billowing up into the night. One employee of each stall is always assigned to lure tourists in, and their knowledge of Eastenders as well as the regional accents of England, once they discover you’re British, is astounding, and enormously entertaining. A dish here shouldn’t cost more than 30 dirhams, although eating centrally in Marrakech is generally more expensive than elsewhere.

The souks, of which Jamaa el-Fna is the centre, are seemingly endless, labyrinth-like and always packed. You’ll need your wits about you, but if you’re discerning and careful you should be able to barter souvenirs down from their original prices – the shop keepers will be ready for the fight. Marrakech’s souks are the biggest in the country and hold the widest variety of products, but this comes at a price: the area loses a degree of its authenticity and the locals are much more practiced in overcharging and duping their customers. The best place to stay is as close to Jamaa el-Fna as possible; there are endless riads (guesthouses), but the price of staying so close to the main square in the main city of the country drives the rates up to between £17 and £40, depending on the level of luxury you are seeking.

Be sure to visit Koutoubia Mosque overlooking the square, with its picturesque gardens lined with orange trees open free to the public. Yves Saint Laurent owns The Marjorelle Gardens, housing brightly coloured rare plants, which he purchased in 1980 and restored to their original 1920s splendour. Situated north-west of the medina, these are a must see, and entry is 30 dirhams. Finally, Marrakech is also the best place to organise excursions into the tip of the Western Sahara, with numerous companies offering trips of between two days and two weeks into the desert. These can cost anywhere upwards of £50 including food – make sure you browse all websites you can and pre-book to find the best prices.

With traditional Berber camps housing you overnight, local men teaching you ancient songs on drums around a warming fire, steaming delicious tagines and lying on the sand dunes spotting constellations in the clearest night sky you will ever see, these trips are not to be missed. Of course, the camel rides usually included add to the enjoyment, even if they are painful in the following days (especially for the men).

The coastal resort of Essaouira is a perfect getaway from the bustle of Marrakech. There is no train line as yet, so the best way to get there is either by coach (about 70 dirhams one way, and be sure to book in advance as they fill up quickly), or by grand taxi if you want to splash out (about 750 dirhams for five people).

Relatively unspoiled by tourism, this is ideal for anyone who wants to experience authentic Moroccan culture in a relaxed, seaside setting. The architecture exudes everything beautiful about the blend of French style and Moroccan colour – whitewashed buildings with bright blue shutters line every street up to five storeys high, with some streets being so narrow the buildings seem to meet high above you. Essaouira is also known for its art scene, with several small galleries through the town. You’re likely to spend your days here strolling leisurely through the souks passing donkeys carrying, browsing ornate teapots, Berber carpets and spices such as saffron. You can walk along the old ramparts which used to form the port in the sixteenth century, when Essaouira was a key stop off in Atlantic trading.

The current port is a hub of activity, with all kinds of seafood being sold along the harbour-side. Here you can find stalls that display the fish caught earlier that morning, and the idea is that you choose your food of choice and they cook it for you there and then. Whole fish can get quite expensive, but a dish should cost around 40dirhams after a bit of healthy bargaining, and the experience is well worth it. The beach is just along from the port, and stretches for miles around the bay. Although it is lovely to walk along, be warned: Essaouira is not called the windy capital of Africa for nothing, as howling gales driving in from the Atlantic causes the sand to blow horizontally for a large proportion of the year.

There are beautiful and inexpensive riads to stay in everywhere; many wealthy westerners have opened their own in recent years and prices are anywhere between £13 and £25 per person per night depending on your preferences. Most advertise on websites such as Hostel Bookers, so be sure to have a good browse through. This may also be a good place to try out a hammam, which are the public baths for Moroccans, separated strictly by gender. Usually organised through your hostel owner, tourists have to pay a premium to be allowed in, but an hour’s massage and wash should cost around 70dirhams and involve a full body massage with a local expert. This is definitely an experience you may not ever get (or want) to repeat, as the partial nudity means you’ll become a lot more acquainted with not only your friends, but many other Moroccans too.

Seven hours by train from Marrakech, the city of Fes stands inland in the north of the country. With an approximate population of one million, it consists of three main parts: the old medina inside the ancient city walls, new Fes containing the Jewish quarter (the mellah) and the Ville Nouveau, created by the French.

The old medina is by far the most charming and beautiful part of the city, so it is preferable to stay within the old walls if possible. Endless riads line the narrow winding streets and generally cost between £12 and £25 a night each. Many are small family run properties, with extremely welcoming owners. Dar Hafsa is located right in the middle of the medina, and is run by Karim and his family. Mint tea is complimentary at any time, and can be served on the relaxing rooftop terrace boasting a breathtaking view of the whole medina. Karim is extremely welcoming, and will talk about his love for the city endlessly if he has willing listeners. Breakfast is included in the price, served whenever suits you, and is a delicious mix of local breads, honey, jams and cream cheese.

The owners of the riads will also recommend you excursions of varying lengths and distances – it really is up to you how much you want to see, and how much you want to spend. Day trips into the Middle Atlas mountains only have to take a day, costing around 200 dirhams (approximately £17) and can involve spotting school children splashing under plunging waterfalls, eager to pose for photos if you give them the chance. The endangered monkey, the Barbary Macaque, lives in the forests here, and in places they are so tame you can feed them from your hand. Be careful what you buy from the boys selling food for them though: the monkeys won’t come near you if you try and offer them fruit bars – they much prefer chopped up pieces of apple.

You could even have lunch in Ifrane, a town where in the winter there is enough snow to warrant another rarity – an African ski resort. The town of Bhalil is steep and hilly, and you are likely to see the women washing clothes in the center before being invited into a house cut into a cave for more mint tea. Navigating the supposed 9,400 winding streets making up the old medina of Fes is another potential hazard, and hiring a tour guide is highly advised, and inexpensive, costing around 20 dirhams (approx. £1.75) each for a morning.

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  1. In your article you mention the trips to the tip of Western Sahara. I was wondering could you explicitly name the company you used (and other companies you were considering to use). Thanks in advance.

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