By Daniela Frendo
Malta – You’ve heard about its lavish Moorish facades and luxurious riads, but Morocco has more to offer than just the splendour of its hamams. It is a country brimming with ethnic markets and rich traditions, and blessed with scenic landscapes.
This short guide of Morocco takes you high up the Atlas Mountains, across the golden dunes of the Sahara, and deep into the magical souks of Marrakech.
Live the Amazigh (Berber) life
Trekking along the Atlas Mountains offers a hands-on experience of Moroccan rural life. Berber villages of mud-built houses and cultivated fields stem from the heart of valleys and spread over red-soiled slopes. Herds of mountain goats can be seen perched on the rocky slopes, grazing away to their heart’s content. On your way you are bound to come across a few stranded huts selling freshly-squeezed orange juice and tribal ornaments. If the long trek makes you peckish, the makeshift restaurants at these ‘pit stops’ usually serve bountiful salads, lentil soups and the famous tajine.
Immerse yourself in ancient Moroccan culture by spending a few days with a Berber family. There are quite a number of local tour operators that provide tailored excursions to the Berber villages tucked among the High Atlas Mountains.
Learn how to brew the traditional mint tea, get your hands and feet dirty with some farming, and dance to the primitive beats of Berber music.
Conquer Mount Toubkal
Being the highest mountain in North Africa at 4167m, the expedition to the summit of Toubkal should only be attempted if you’ve recently pushed your training level beyond the gym membership. It is a do-able, but still a rather challenging climb.
Staying at a refuge means you have to step out of your comfort zone for a couple of days. Don’t get me wrong; the hosts are warm and the food abundant, but the toilets and showers leave much to be desired. The sleeping quarters are usually crammed, accommodating at least twenty visitors in a small confined room. It is highly recommended that you take your own sleeping bag just in case the refuge doesn’t provide blankets.
The ascent can take up to 6 hours on the final day, depending on your level of fitness. The trail weaves along rocky and gritty terrain, and in some areas the slopes can be quite steep. It is a physically-demanding trek, but the rewarding feeling you get once you’re standing on top of North Africa is priceless.
The best time to attempt Mount Toubkal is between September and November as the unrelenting summer heat would have abated by then. Autumns in Morocco are generally mild. You are still likely to encounter strong gusts as you advance towards the summit. Make sure to pack thermal and waterproof gear – the temperature can drop below zero and rain showers are unpredictable.
The climb might seem a bit disheartening at first, but if you approach the challenge with a good dose of willpower and take all the necessary safety precautions, it will turn out to be an exhilarating experience.
Explore natural gorges and ancient kasbahs
Morocco boasts diverse, yet equally panoramic landscapes. A day’s drive away from the lush green fields of the High Atlas Mountains takes you through arid moors and bare hills. The rugged scenery becomes more dramatic when you arrive at the Todgha Gorge, a canyon of golden-brown limestone. The sheer, smooth cliffs reach a height of almost 300 metres on each side, resulting in a dwarfing experience for anyone strolling through the gorge.
Along the trans-Saharan trade routes in southern Morocco stand the crumbling ruins of ancient fortified towns, known as kasbahs. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the ksar of Ait Ben Haddou in Ouarzazate is one of Morocco’s most well-preserved and majestic kasbahs. Ait Ben Haddou has starred in many screen productions, including Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, and Game of Thrones.
Sleep in the desert
Contrary to popular belief, desert trips and night stays are completely safe in Morocco. The Moroccan Sahara remains unaffected by the rise of Islamist terrorist groups in neighbouring countries. In fact, sunset camel treks are all the rage in Morocco, but not everyone is willing to sleep in a desert tent in freezing temperatures.
Spend a night in the Sahara with the hospitable Bedouins, singing and playing the drums with them. Wake up early the following morning for an awe-inspiring experience – watching the sun rising over the sand dunes.
Experience the magic of Marrakech
Finally, spice up your trip by venturing into the hustle and bustle of Marrakech’s spellbinding market. It is quite easy to get lost in the maze of the medina, but the locals will be more than willing to show you the way out… and then demand a tip.
The souks of Marrakech display a spectrum of vibrant colours. There are about 18 souks in Marrakech, all exhibiting different trades; pottery, ceramics, leatherwork, jewellery, carpentry, copper work, and of course, traditional cuisine.
Moroccans are crafty salesmen, and years of experience have helped them master all the tricks of the trade. They can be very persuasive and unyielding. The best thing to do if you feel trapped is to actually chat to them. Talk to them about your holiday so far, and what has interested you most about their country. Remember to smile and be polite, and they might put the price down by a few Dirhams.
And if by the end of the day you think you had seen it all, then Marrakech holds another surprise for you. As the sun sets behind the mosque’s minaret, numerous food stalls set up shop in Djema el-Fna square, preparing for a long night of entertainment. Street performers showcase their eccentric talents to passersby. The snake charmers are usually the main attraction, but the square is also shared by storytellers, fire jugglers, Berber musicians and the occasional card reader.
Don’t get too close to the performing area unless you are willing to leave a tip. However, this is a unique experience and it would be more enriching if you had to interact with the performers. The musicians are likely to catch you off guard and pull you into the circle.
Whatever you do, don’t panic.
Let the magic fill your heart and mind with inspiration.