With its unique culture and spicy cuisine, set against a stunning backdrop where desert meets the sea, Morocco has so much to offer. On top of it all, flights to Marrakech from mainland Europe can be as short as two and a half hours. When it comes to planning a trip, you’ll be faced with a dilemma of how to choose where to go. Over twelve days, our itinerary was an exploration of the country, starting in Essaouira, traveling to Sidi Ifni, Taghazout, Legzira, Mirleft, Taroudant and the Tamraght valley before finally heading to Marrakech.
With an urge to see the sea, Essaouira was our first destination. Taking the A7 from Marrakech, the journey takes around three hours. Though the travel time is short, be prepared to stop six or seven times at police speed checks–they are very vigilant.
Upon arrival, we were dipped straight into Moroccan culture: winding through the souk stalls, immersed in the sounds and smells of everyday medina life. Numerous shades of blue were immediately obvious–doors and external walls, shutters, tiles and hand-painted crockery for sale on market stalls all bore the city’s signature hue..
The color blue is seen everywhere, and is a visible reminder or the nation’s patchwork history of cultures who have all left their mark. Jewish people fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s introduced painting external walls in blue as a reference to their religion and a symbol of heaven.
Local tribes also believed that blue symbolized the color of life-giving water, of such importance in a country that often experiences shortages. There is a belief that painting houses blue keeps them cooler in the hottest seasons, and some even claim that it keeps mosquitos away.
The smell of spice tickles the senses in the market and along the side streets lined with restaurants. Favorite dishes here include gorgeous tagines piled high with couscous, carrots, and potatoes, followed by slices of locally-grown oranges sprinkled with cinnamon. Pastillas, a kind of pie originally of Spanish origin, are popular as well: made from filo pastry and filled with chicken, vegetables or fish. The Caravane Café had a more unexpected menu item: a fire-dancing show held in the central courtyard.
During our time in the area, we cycled the 30-mile trip to Sidi Kaouki to see camels lying by the Atlantic, walked around the historical old port where Orson Welles filmed “Othello,” and drank a freshly squeezed citrus-fruit cocktail while laughing at seagulls in their hunt for fishy scraps from the returning boats. To top it all off, we sipped real mint tea overlooking Essaouira’s rooftops.
We moved southwards on the journey to Sidi Ifni, 220 miles down the Atlantic coast. Stretches of this journey stick vividly in my mind. The wildness, the vastness, and the absolute calm on deserted coastal roads: it was a Rothko duotone of parched land and hazy blue ocean for miles and miles.
Sidi Ifni remained under Spanish control until 1969 and the Spanish influence can still be seen in the architecture. There are old Spanish street names present today, such as Calle Gomara and Calle Ceuta. Now very distinctly Moroccan, the city has a comfortable, un-rushed feel to it. Men drinking coffee in cafés along the main strip, women bartering at the huge market situated on a former airfield―it all creates a feeling that the grand old days of colonial rule came to an end quite some time ago, yet are still visible.
Much of the old town is slightly faded, but new houses are being constructed on the south side of town. However, the blue and white governor’s palace still stands proud across the road from a bright blue, art-deco style hotel in the Place Hassan II. The striking blue and white lighthouse is just around the corner and glows brightly against the African sky.
Buying food from the market was fun; as foreigners, we were bumped up the queue by eagle-eyed stall holders who handed us baskets to put our fruit and vegetables in, which was chosen from the piles of produce laid out on the ground. Our bananas were cut straight from a huge, fruit-laden branch. Our eggs were packaged in egg boxes torn up to the appropriate size and neatly tied with string to make a little handle with which to carry it. We bought still-warm, plate-shaped bread every day from street vendors.
On our way back up north, we spent part of the day inland in Taroudant, a mini-city entirely surrounded by ramparts and entered by nine separate gates. Driving inside to park involved precariously dodging donkeys and mopeds until a friendly local, Mahmoud, guided us to a parking spot.
Mahmoud became our self-appointed tour guide for the day and took us to the best tourist spots via all sorts of short cuts. He guided us to lady making argan oil by pushing kernels through a traditional press before showing us into a carpet store where the Berber owner explained the intricacies of handmade rugs produced in the desert. We bartered for djellabas in the souk and were given a tour around the Palais Salam hotel, formerly a pasha’s palace built in the 18th century. It was like stepping back into the past–an opportunity to visit a time period from along ago.
Bypassing the much bigger and busier city of Agadir, we continued 20 minutes north to the small fishing village of Taghazout. The drive highlighted the massive urbanization that’s unfolded on this stretch of coastline in recent years–the Moroccan Tourism Board has been attempting to entice foreigners to visit the area through extensive construction of new, high-quality housing developments. (Albeit, they are adhering to strict ecological and sustainable guidelines.)
But pulling into the unpaved road of old Taghazout, there is an instant chilled-out, surfer vibe and once you arrive, you can see what pulls in the surfing crowd: beautiful, uncrowded beaches and Atlantic rollers.
The traditional feel of this fishing village is immediately evident by fishermen pulling in and out of the sea in their small, blue boats with their latest fresh catch. A quick investigation and we discovered what they had caught–a big crate full of squid. After so many hours of driving and visiting different locations, it was a relief to be in a place that offered some peace, quiet, and amazing seafood.
An stunning hour’s drive up through the Tamraght River valley (in the High Atlas Mountains) brings you to Paradise Valley. This unusual and almost hidden oasis has naturally formed rock pools dotted throughout the valley. There was very little water when we visited in the month of February, but geologists would have a field day with the layered rock formations exposed to view. With more water, it’s possible to take a dip in the clear, blue pools. There are tiny cafés along the route, so you can stop for a freshly-squeezed juice or a snack under the shade of a palm tree.
The waterfalls at Imouzzer are also worth a trip–when there is water! They can be found a little way inland from Taghazout. Although in more recent years, drought has reduced the cascades to a mere trickle, in February, there wasn’t even that. Regardless, the walk there was lovely, and it was fascinating to see the irrigation systems rigged up by local farmers. The nearby village of Imouzzer Ida Ou Tanane has a large market with an amazing view down the valley. As an added bonus: it still feels largely untouched by tourism.
We’d left the biggest and noisiest place until last: Marrakech. The city is a definite gear change from the calmness of Taghazout; racing traffic and the nose-stinging smell of car exhausts took us out of our beach-induced zen. The first challenge was to find our riad on our own-–a task that was especially daunting within the walls of the medina maze. Taking photos of shop signs and a particularly impressive-looking door as way-markers definitely helped us home in the days which followed.
Within the city, the calm, open spaces inside Bahia Palace are a sharp contrast to the craziness outside its walls. Its ornate tiling, unbelievably carved and painted ceilings, and exquisitely molded wrought-iron features are beyond impressive.
The Saadian Tombs may well give ideas about how you’d like to be buried. The architecture and quantities of marble used are spectacular, and to think that the whole lot was itself buried for hundreds of years before an aerial photograph in 1917 rediscovered it. A short distance outside the medina are two neighboring places to enjoy–the Jardins Majorelle, botanical gardens established forty years ago by the artist Jacques Majorelle. Many of the buildings and garden features are painted Majorelle Blue, a color he patented and which he believed reflected the hue of Morocco. Right next door is the Yves Saint Laurent museum which houses exhibits from the clothes designer’s collections. The building itself is brilliantly designed and there is an engaging film about the designer’s life, some of which was spent in Marrakech.
After traveling up and down the coast of Morocco, we still found ourselves overwhelmed with everything there was to see in this incredible country. Even though we had already been there a good amount of time, we found ourselves longing for more–twelve days wasn’t enough.
Have you ever taken a road trip through Morocco? We would love to hear about it!