That time my sister and I took my mum on an adventure to Morocco for gorgeous sunsets, camel rides in the Sahara and a missing snake in the tourist square.
Where? Marrakesh and the Sahara
When? February 2018
With whom? Meghan (sister) and Mum
I moved out when I was 18 so it was a good opportunity to get to know my mum again, whereas Meghan and I have stayed very close. We checked into our riad and had a tagine lunch. A tagine is a large clay plate with a conical lid. Moroccans cook and serve traditional food from tagines and pile up meat, vegetables and spices to the brim to create delicious goodness.
With full bellies we walked through the souqs into town and saw markets that sold everything. More hats than I’ve ever seen, belts, bags, chess sets, cups, tagines, scarves, pashminas, lanterns, fruits, vegetables, lizards, turtles… We took our time to get to Djemaa el Fna, which is the main square and the number one place to get ripped off. The sounds coming from market stalls, musicians and tellers yelling “I give you good price” made for a hugely vibrant atmosphere and the urge to circuit the area so that we could see everything. Meghan got accosted by a monkey who climbed up to stroke her face – she was not impressed at all and her expression said as much. The bloke chained to monkey still wanted two euros from us though, but we walked away and he eventually gave up.
We went into Café Grand Balcon to see the square from the balcony and watch the sunset which sets directly behind the Koutoubia Mosque. It’s a total tourist trap but did give us a great view of the square and the best view of the sunset. The square was a cacophony of sounds coming from excited voices and musicians. There were lots of “snake charmers” playing their beens to make the adders rise up as if they’re about to attack. I am sure they had their teeth removed and I didn’t want to think about the methods of conditioning the snakes. From the balcony we could see one man who would wave at tourists with a Cheshire cat grin but as soon as they turned their back he would frantically look under the mat or in the box. This happened each time and we giggled at how he had obviously lost one of his snakes.
The sunset was beautiful as the minaret of the mosque was cast into shadow, silhouetted in front of a completely orange sky. The balcony had filled up completely with people, mostly tourists, so the vibe was energetic with buzzing people trying to get a glimpse of the view. We were glad (and a little smug) to have the front row seats!
An early start to drive to the Sahara desert. We drove directly East until we hit the Atlas Mountains with a short stop at a nomad market. We wondered round the livestock section and we were told that this is also where the meat vendors at the same market source their meat. It tickled me to see a meat vendor buy some sheep and then carry it back to his stall to butcher and sell. At least it’s sold fresh!
The terrain changed so quickly; Morocco is a country that has something to please everyone – you can go to the mountains, the beach, the desert, or explore cities! The altitude gave us great panoramic views looking back towards the city and south towards the desert, with a dusting of snow in the foreground.
Our next stop was a Casbah called Ait Benhaddou. It’s famous because films like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven have been filmed here. To get up you first have to cross the dried-out riverbed, from where the paths up to the fort at the top are very clearly marked yet we still managed to get lost. We walked past the same people three times hanging our heads slightly lower each time as we became gradually more embarrassed.
The road then took us through more of the mountains and passed Ouarzazate Gorge, which had us stopping and staring in awe.
Once we reached the Sahara we ditched the car and got a camel ride to a Nomad camp amongst the sand dunes. My mum did not enjoy this at all. Meghan and I had a great time though, despite my camel trying its best to throw me off. I ended up horizontal but still clinging on tight. 1-0 to me! At the camp we befriended a local man called Mamadou. He spoke to us in French and told us his story about moving from Mali to Morocco before the borders, but his family were in the caravan of camels behind him and never made it. It was before the days of mobile phones and they had left their address in Mali, so he had no way of contacting them or finding them. It was heart breaking, but he said his life philosophy is to forget the past and be happy, and if he didn’t then he would always be sad. Mamadou had some nomad clothes that I donned for the evening as we played on the local instruments and danced around the campfire. It was needed because the desert was freezing after sunset! Once everyone had gone to bed, the three of us lay stargazing. The real constellations were so ambitious (I always thought Orion was some guy in a business suit and starfishing but it turns out he’s wearing a skirt and a shield) that we made up our own. We had mathematical notation and punctuation marks so we definitely lacked imagination. Someone should come up with a happy medium.
We set our alarms to wake us up at 6.30 so that we could climb the tallest dune to watch the sunrise. It was the perfect spot to watch it, although it was very cold.
Info: Easyjet does regular flightpaths to Marrakesh, and if you book way in advance you can get them for a reasonable price. On arrival you have to fill in a landing card so make sure you have a pen! Keep this for when you leave the country too. A riad is the best place to stay (traditional home). Most serve food and there are tons of these on airbnb. We stayed at Riad Moonlight which is a bit fancier than anywhere I’d normally stay but we went upmarket when we were travelling with la madre. It was a great location and Ali, our host, was soooo helpful. Marrakesh has an old town called the Medina and the new tow is outside the city walls. The currency is Moroccan dirhams but anywhere that the tourists go will accept euros. I made friends with a few locals and from what I could gather it’s illegal for Moroccans but tourists can drink. I’m not sure how I felt about that so I stayed clear but if you’re super keen I understood that you could ask for beer/wine if it’s not on the menu.
Tip of the week: If in doubt, cover up. There aren’t laws for tourists’ attire, but we brought enough clothes to cover up and I recommend that women do, otherwise you will get a lot of unwanted attention. There seems to be some sort of disconnect between the local men (and teenaged boys) that they see foreign women as objects that they can touch and grab but show great respect to local women. I had a headscarf, wore long trousers and covered my shoulders and it honestly made the world of difference.
Product of the week: If you like being connected to the world then you will need some sort of battery pack. I really rate Anker Powercore because it’s compact but carries up to eight charges and compared to its competitors it doesn’t break the bank! It would have cost a bomb to use my data out there but I was using my phone as my main camera so it was definitely appreciated in the desert where we had no electricity!
Other things worth visiting: In Marrakesh it is so worthwhile seeing the square. I didn’t buy anything but the vibe was definitely something to experience. We did a cooking course at Amal Women’s Centre which is in New Town Marrakesh, outside the old city walls. The bus goes directly there from the Medina and it was such a good day. We were told about the work that the centre does, taking women when they are in unfortunate situations (misogyny is very much a things here) and train them over a number of months to equip them with employable skills. For example, cooking! But then they have lots of leftover food, so they go to local schools and provide children with lunches. They grow as much of the food as they can so are almost self sufficient! It was genuinely such an impressively run place, by a woman of course. The cooking class was great fun and we ate a delicious tagine that we made from scratch in the sunshine in their garden. Another place we went to is a restaurant called Dar Essalam. It is definitely for tourists and minimum 30 Euros for traditional dinner as dancers and music entertain you through the night. Warning: it does get interactive towards the end!