I’m sitting in my New York apartment and I can feel a palpable shift in the weather as August gives way to autumn and the need for air conditioning becomes increasingly obsolete. It’s hard to imagine that just a handful of days ago I was standing outside the medina in Marrakech, feeing as though I had been in Morocco for over a month (I was there 10 days). It’s a funny thing about travel, how quickly it feels like a dream once you’re back to reality. Was I really walking past the souks in Marrakech? Riding camels into the Sahara? Road tripping through the High Atlas? At the time, I remember being equal parts in awe and homesick (getting actually sick while abroad can do that to you) but now, in retrospect, it seems so surreal that I was in Morocco. Before heading to North Africa for my Topdeck tour, I knew little about the country I was visiting beyond the main cities of Marrakech, Casablanca and Fes. In just 10 days, I discovered more about Moroccan culture than I could have ever known; for anyone heading to this exotic destination the following are absolutely worth adding to your itinerary.
Marrakech & the Medina
Many travelers will think of one place when visiting Morocco and that happens to be Marrakech. Marrakech is the fourth largest city in Morocco and is home to the the popular Jemaa el-Fnaa square, medina and much more. Visiting Marrakech in many ways felt like visiting Times Square to me, it is busy and tourist-facing with vendors hawking everything from orange juice to henna; yet it is a place you must see at least once in your life. I will say that I found purchases from the souks in Marrakech–such as crafts and textiles–to be of lesser quality than those found elsewhere as it seemed very tourist-oriented (much like the “I love NY” t-shirts sold all around the city). Regardless, Marrakech is iconic and a whirlwind that is best seen to believe.
The Kasbah les Oudaias in Rabat
“Rock the Kasbah,” it’s a coined phrase that everyone knows from films and music. The Kasbah les Oudaias in Rabat reminds me of Santorini. Standing tall, it is a former military fort that once was home to soldiers tasked with protecting the city. White washed walls and bright blue paint (to ward of mosquitos) decorate the Kasbah and overlooks a river of half-dressed locals boating, fishing and cooling down.
Casablanca & the Hassan II Mosque
The Hassan II mosque is the largest mosque in Africa and is the 7th largest mosque in the world. It stands by the sea in Casablanca and is absolutely stunning with its intricate designs, marble, chandeliers, archways and mosaics. Everything in the Hassan II mosque is said to be sourced locally from Morocco, albeit some marble and chandeliers imported from Italy. I took a tour of the mosque, which proved the best way to see it as I walked away with a new understanding of Islam and the pillars on which the religion is founded.
Discovering the High Atlas Mountains
The High Atlas mountains extend from the Atlantic Ocean to the Morocco-Algeria border, offering up impressive views and villages–some by snow-peaked tips and others nestled in the lush valleys. While on my Topdeck tour, we drove through the High Atlas Mountains, past scenic views that seemed as if they were plucked from a movie. The Dades Gorge is one such spot, which has many kasbahs built by Berbers. The Aït Benhaddou (a UNESCO world heritage site and also the backdrop to Game of Thrones) is a fortified city that is also a stunning sight to behold when visiting the Atlas Mountains.
The Roman Ruins of Volubilis
The Roman Ruins at Volubilis are a surprise treat when visiting Morocco as it feels as though you’ve made a wrong turn and somehow ended up in Italy. Cyprus trees sway in the wind, well-preserved ruins stand tall over valleys and plains that stretch as far as the eye can see. Volubilis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was founded in the 3rd century B.C. and went on to become a prominent outpost for the Roman Empire. Nearby is the small town of Moulay Idris, where colorful homes are carved into cliffsides and are reminiscent of Cinque Terre.
A Camel Trek in the Sahara Desert
Spending a night in the Sahara Desert at a local Berber camp was by far the highlight of my Topdeck tour. The Sahara is like a dream; the warm sand slipping through my fingers, the gentle ripple of the sand dunes like slow moving red waves as the wind shapes and molds them; the low grunt of a camel languidly chewing in the distance and the slow rising golden sun illuminating the desert. We drove to Merzouga, a small town on the edge of the Sahara, and ventured on camelback into the desert where we passed the evening at a Berber camp and fell asleep under the stars. We rode camels about an hour there and an hour back, watching the sunrise over the dunes and enjoying tagines and mint teas on Moroccan rugs placed on the sand. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and one I wish for everyone to enjoy.
Fes and the Tanneries
Venture down the twisted paths of the medina in Fes and you’ll be led to the famous tanneries where you’re handed a handful of mint leaves (to mask the pungent smells of cow urine) and taken to see the leather tanneries where tanners use their bare hands and feet to dye the leather Fes is so famous for. What makes the tanneries so unique is that the leather tanning process used is the same system dating back to ancient times: hides are soaked in vessels of cow urine, water and more before being picked and laid out to dry. The hides are then placed in vats of diluted pigeon (how shall I put this nicely?) crap to be softened before being dyed. It’s no wonder that mint leaves are necessary to view the tanneries but the colorful vats make for incredible photos!
Are you headed to Morocco? Make sure to check out my TIPS FOR TRAVELING IN MOROCCO post and share your comments, feedback and stories below!
*I visited Morocco as part of a complimentary tour with Topdeck Travel. The Pin the Map Project does not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage, as always all opinions & experiences expressed are my own.