I know. I know. I know it's the most advertised city in Morocco. I know it's tourist friendly with sufficient facilities. But I will explain why I say skip Marrakech. I landed in Marrakech's modern architecturally inspiring airport with a plan to travel from south to north with a few excursions to the far north and through the Atlas Mountains to the desert. I decided to make Marrakech the main focus of my journey. However, as I will explain, I found that there are far better gems in Morocco. I found it a shame that these other places are not advertised more because these cities and towns would benefit from the economy that tourism brings.
Let me explain. The medina in Marrakech, which is the inner walled ancient part of the city, is like getting off the tube and stepping into Piccadilly Circus/ Soho, i.e. lots of tourists. Bear in mind that I went there during off-season so I can only imagine what it is like during the peak tourist months. The medina in Marrakech is full of history and culture of course. It has the ancient vibrant walls, the narrow lanes (called derbs), the smell of spices, the colourful ceramic tiles on every door step, the multicultural people with Jews, Muslims, Berbers, Arabians, olive-skin, black skin all blending to give you a diverse city. But as I mentioned, it is full of tourists and wherever there are tourists, there are also swindlers. I'll explain more later but my point is in Marrakech, everybody wants something from you. Nobody does anything for free. In this city, a tourist is a sheep meandering through alleyways whilst the wolves are looking on... ok, exaggeration but you get my drift.
I left Marrakech and travelled up to Casablanca. Of course I'd watched the old movie 'Casablanca' before I left. For those who don't know, the film is a classic World War II story about an American nightclub owner in Casablanca who tries to escape with his American lover out of the country as a war is going on between the French and Germans. After watching this romantic movie, I always wanted to visit Morocco. Casablanca is by the seaside. It has some long stretches of beach but ultimately it's a cosmopolitan city with its skyscrapers and Art Deco buildings. I also noticed that in Casablanca, more people speak English and French fluently than anywhere else in Morocco. You can book a table for lunch or dinner at the famous Rick's Cafe which is in the movie, or delight yourself in the city's nightclub scene.
You can also visit the largest mosque in Africa (and I believe it is also the second largest in the world), Hassan II Mosque. The mosque is one of the few mosques open to non-muslims outside of prayer time.
Opening times vary as follows;
Sept-June Sat-Thurs 9am, 10am, 11am, and 2pm, Fri 9am and 2pm;
July-Aug daily 2:30pm
The mosque is a must see in Morocco. You will learn more about Islam, the meaning of Mecca and some Koranic verses. This visit will waive away the stereotypes you might have in your mind about Muslims. They are good people. As for the architecture, what lies inside will blow your mind. Light, shadows, big arch doors, large ceramic fountains, pillars, sparkling floors, lanterns, below ground washing pool... shall I go on? This is the stuff that Instagrammers live for.
Further up north, away from the seaside and 5 hours away from Marrakech is Fes. This was by far my favourite city in Morocco. Fes can offer you everything that Marrakech gives you, except you won't get hassled. Fes medina is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is much older and much more complex than Marrakech. If you think getting lost in Marrakech is a bugger, wait until you come to Fes. Here you can throw away the saying "Those who wander are not always lost" because here, those who wander without a guide are certainly lost. By far, my favourite thing about travelling is getting lost because when you get lost, you find the most beautiful treasures. Unlike in Marrakech, in this medina, no taxis will save you if you are lost because cars are not allowed. The only mode of transport you'll see is donkey and footwork. If you spent 2 weeks here, you still wouldn't get bored. Fes is home to the oldest university in the world and also home to a high concentration of mosaic displays and architecture boasting fine artisanal work.
There is the old medina built in the 8th century and there is the new medina built in the 14th century. Fes’ old medina is still based on traditional industries, such as tanneries, soap making, textile and flourmills, along with oil processing. In the new town, you'll find ceramic factories, cattle, sheep, grapes, cereal grains and plenty of olive trees.
Further along to the north of Fes, about 3 hours' drive, is a town in the Rif mountains called Chefchaoeun, nicknamed the Blue Pearl of Africa. I came to find out that the Rif mountains are also notorious for the growing of marijuana which is illegal in Morocco. Dealers will offer you marijuana and some of these dealers are informant police. Just say no! But here, the main attraction isn't marijuana.
Some of you may be familiar with Santorini with its white washed buildings. Well, this town is blue. It is beautiful!!! The colour gets deeper and deeper as you go further into the centre of the town. You could easily spend a week here as it is ideal for hillside hikes or idle strolls. You can bathe in mountain streams; or embrace the culinary scene and excellent shopping.
So there you go! There's more out there in Morocco. Don't confine yourself to one place.