Hello darlings and welcome back!! This week I’m introducing another series for my blog: Autour du Monde, aka “Around the World,” for those of us who don’t speak French. Initially I was planning to hold off on starting this series until after I’d moved to France (especially since I plan to do LOTS of traveling while I’m there!), but the more I thought about it, I decided writing about the places I’ve already been to would be a nice way to ease into it all. So here we go!
If I haven’t already mentioned this before, traveling is my absolute favorite thing. There’s nothing in this life I find more fulfilling. That might sound kind of cliché because lots of people love to travel, but that’s because there’s great reason to.
When I was younger, I always dreamed of traveling internationally. Sure, we traveled around the country pretty regularly with my family–mostly to the east coast–but never had I been able to go abroad before. The place I wanted to visit above all others was France: a dream of mine since I started studying the French language back in sixth grade. However, I’d never quite been able to make it happen for myself. It seemed incredibly expensive, I could never find anybody willing to commit to going with me, and the idea of traveling solo internationally was way too intimidating.
My, my, how things have changed, haha.
So finally, a year and a half ago, I made my dreams come true. My university was offering a short-term study abroad program, around 3 weeks, called “France and the Islamic World.” The program consisted of a week in France, and slightly longer than a week in Morocco, not including travel to and from the United States. I saw my opportunity, and I grabbed it.
I will never be able to explain how glad I am that I did. I didn’t come from a family with a ton of money, so me making this happen for myself was a big deal on more than one level. This trip was one of those moments in your life where the dramatic shift and growth within yourself is palpable. A moment when you know that nothing will be the same again. I had tasted the fruit, and I knew there was no turning back. My appetite would only grow from here, and oh yes, it has.
The fact that the first stop on my trip was Paris, and that I was going alone, in a sense, couldn’t have been more appropriate, either. But this post isn’t about that. At some point I will be writing about France, but I haven’t decided if I’m going to write one behemoth of a master post, or if France will be an entire series by itself. (Which would you rather read? Please let me know in the comments down below!) This post is about Morocco.
I still remember the moment we started to fly over the edge of Morocco, looking out my window and seeing the continent of Africa. I felt my body shift from being wrought with anxiety, to buzzing with excitement. Frankly, I’d never foreseen myself visiting Africa in my lifetime, but thank god that’s changed.
We landed in Marrakech, which is pretty much smack in the middle of Morocco. It’s an old imperial city, and also a very popular vacation spot for the French. It’s been dubbed the Pink Pearl of the Desert, due to the pink tint of the old walls and buildings, it’s also known as the Oasis in the Desert.
The local currency is Dirham, pictured above, and the exchange rate is approximately 10 dirham to 1 USD. Of course there are bills that exist as well, but I only have coins left. And yes, Morocco is incredibly cheap. I recommend traveling here in general, but it’s an especially great place to travel on a budget!
Some things to know:
-Morocco has three official languages: Arabic, French, and Amazigh, which is the language of their indigenous people, the Berbers (more on them later).
-All of the signs there are in Arabic and French. If you don’t speak one, or both, of these languages, you’re going to have a hard time getting around. People speak both in Morocco, and many speak three including Amazigh. The only places where people spoke English, at least in my experience, were in the airports and hotels.
-Moroccan Arabic is different from standard Arabic, due to the fact that they were colonized by the French–there’s lots of French words that have been blended into their dialect of Arabic. (If you’re an Arabic speaker I’m not sure how intelligible it is.) Colonization is also the reason for the French on the signs, and why everyone speaks it.
-You can’t exchange your dirham back into Euros or USD, so plan to spend it all, or keep it. Also, ONLY withdraw money from bank ATMs, or the ATMs in the airport. Identity theft is a thing.
-You’ll get a lot farther with the locals if you know a few words in Arabic or French. I can’t tell you how many people were amazed that I defaulted to speaking French with them, as opposed to English, as an American. We’ve made a pretty bad name for ourselves going around the would expecting everyone to speak English, attempting those few words is such a profound act of respect. Learn a few.
-You CANNOT drink the water there. I spent way more money on bottled water than I expected to. Plan to do the same!
-Morocco is easily the most progressive of the MENA countries. Besides the UAE, that is. However, it’s important to remain respectful. While you don’t have to sport a hijab, you should wear long pants and abstain from bearing your shoulders and chest area.
We stayed here in Marrakech. The hotel basically resembled a palace and was very nice. There are many other places you can stay, however, for a fraction of the cost. This hotel is located in the newer part of the city, but it’s not terribly far from the Plaza Jemaa el’fna, which is where you’ll want to spend all of your time.
The Plaza Jemaa el’fna is the heart of the city, so it’s where everything is located: restaurants, shops, etc. It’s also where the souk is located, which is a big reason most people are attracted to Marrakech. That, and it’s couscous heaven.
Side note: if you share any of my food allergies, specifically the nut and sesame allergy, it’s fucking difficult to eat in Morocco. I ended up sticking to mostly fresh vegetarian stuff while I was there.
Pro-tip: drink ALL of the mint tea while you’re there. It’s a Moroccan specialty and it’s DELICIOUS. Plus it’s safe cuz the water has been boiled.
Also, eating local food anywhere you go, instead of opting for something familiar like a hamburger, is always a good idea because that’s what they know how to make!
The souk is an incredible place. It’s filled with anything and everything you can imagine, and it’s packed with people, so make sure to hang on to your purse/wallet. The souk/square is where the majority of people work and make their living. I think most people would suggest you try and haggle with the shop owners, but personally, everything was already so discounted I didn’t feel right doing that. Use your own discretion. Either way, this is where you’ll want to purchase souvenirs.
I opted to use the souk as an opportunity to invest in fabric pieces. I bought scarves for every lady in my life, as well as purchasing a pair of Moroccan house shoes, and a giant tapestry, part of which is pictured above.
The Plaza itself is a UNESCO world heritage site, because it is a place where oral history gets passed down from generation to generation. If you walk around the square, you’ll see large groups of people gathered around one person: that’s the storyteller. Until quite recently, the Berber language was uniquely oral, so the lack of a written alphabet created the necessity for these story tellers, and the practice is still alive and well in the Jemaa el’fna today.
Pro-tip: the square is also filed with women selling jewelry and henna. Sometimes they’ll come up and try to start putting henna on you. Don’t let them. Whatever material they use to make it can give you a rash and isn’t always safe. There are many safe places to get henna in Morocco, but the souk isn’t one of them.
Another place to stop and see is the Bahia Palace, built in the late 19th century, and meant to be the greatest, most immaculate palace of its time. Bahia means “brilliance,” by the way. It’s filled with many gardens, and so peaceful and lovely. It’s also filled with cats, as much of Morocco is, haha.
If you’re looking to get out of the city for a little while, just outside of Marrakech is the Ourika Valley and the Atlas Mountains. They’re filled with Berber villages, which we got to see. The mountains are very different from the ones we find here in Colorado, so I loved it. They definitely have their own beauty.
We also rode camels around in the mountains. This is the girl I rode. It’s important to note that camels are not native to Morocco. They have been imported solely for the purpose of making money off of tourists who have a certain set of ideas in mind when visiting MENA. The same goes for the snake charmers in the square. These are byproducts of Orientalism.
Also, many people charge you money to take photos of them. In example, it cost extra money to take the photo of that camel. At least they’ve found a way to capitalize upon appropriation, am I right? Haha.
Further north is the economic capital, Casablanca. This city is much more modern and sits right next to the ocean! There’s even familiar places like McDonald’s, but again, eat somewhere local. However, the real jewel of Casablanca is the stunning and incredibly-sized Hassan II Mosque. This is the only place in Morocco that I wrote a hijab, because it was the only place it seemed essential and respectful.
Most mosques aren’t open to the public, but this one is. It’s difficult to tell in photographs just how gargantuan this architectural feat truly is. It’s also a source of controversy because of how much it cost, and because the king hired a French architect, a Christian, to build this mosque instead of a local, and/or a Muslim. The dichotomy between the very rich and the very poor is most apparent in Casablanca, in my humble opinion.
This mosque is easily the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, architecturally speaking. There are too many intricate details to try and explain, or capture. (For example, there are cutouts in the floor gust allow you to see the ocean!) If you do nothing else in Morocco, visit this mosque. It is an absolute must-see.
Not far from there is the city of Rabat. This is the capital of Morocco! It’s also very modern, and sits next to the ocean. It, too, has a souk, and that iconic blue that Chefchaouen is normally credited for, while remaining much less touristy.
It’s also home to lots of surfing!! There are several beaches and pedestrian-friendly jetties that go out into the ocean. Careful though, the waves get HUGE and I watched several groups of people get soaked while trying to selfie.
There are many gardens and the Chellah to visit in Rabat, as well. The Chellah is an ancient necropolis, and really impressive to see. It’s been overtaken by storks and flora, so it’s excellent if you enjoy birdwatching.
Pro-tip: lots of hotels include some sort of spa, and you need to get a hammam while you’re there!
Further north still is the city of Fez. We didn’t spend a ton of time there, but we did visit a ceramics factory, which was really neat. This is another great spot to purchase some souvenirs! It’s also very close to the Spanish border, and if you go slightly north out of town you can take the hydrofoil across to Spain!
Overall, the entire country is very beautiful, culturally and linguistically rich, and everyone I met was incredibly kind. Plus, everywhere is very Instagram friendly. Especially if you have a thing for tiles and doors.
Visiting in the middle of winter is probably the best time. We enjoyed temperatures in the 70s, and lots of sun the entire time. In the summertime it can reach over 120 degrees Fahrenheit!
Wow!! That was a lot of information! If you’re still reading, thank you and congratulations for making it this far, haha. I tried to cover everything I could think of, but if I left something out or if there’s anything else you’re curious about, please let me know! I’d love to answer your questions.
Until next time, if you’d like to see more about this, and other places, please head over to my Instagram @aubreyautourdumonde
Where are you planning on traveling next?! What are some of your dream vacations? Let me know!