From the romance of Casablanca to its fabled deserts and colourful souks, Morocco is a remarkably diverse country. Its former Ambassador to Australia, Karim Medrek, shares the delights of this intriguing land.
Must eat and drink
Gastronomy in Morocco is among the richest and most diverse worldwide, ranked in the top five. It’s a mixture of Arabic, Jewish, Andalusian, Berber and Mediterranean cuisines with some European and Sub-Saharan influences, reflecting the multicultural aspect of Morocco. Spices are used extensively in Moroccan cooking and there are a centuries-old secrets and arts for their careful balancing. Ingredients such as saffron, mint, olives, oranges and lemons, are frequently homegrown, while common spices include karfa (cinnamon), skinjbir (ginger), tahmira (paprika), gesbour (coriander) and zaafran beldi (saffron).
A typical lunch or dinner begins with a series of hot and cold salads followed by a classic Moroccan dish, the tagine, a slow-cooked stew made in an earthenware pot known by the same name. A tagine typically features cuts of meat that become tender with long cooking and flavoured with fruits, olives, preserved lemons, and spices.
Couscous is one of the most famous Moroccan dishes, fine semolina which resembles a grain and becomes light and fluffy when steamed. It is usually cooked with spices, nuts and dried fruit, and topped with meat or vegetables.
Pastilla (a tender pastry wrapped in aromatic flavours) is also part of Morocco’s culinary art. Many Moroccan sweets include an irresistible mixture of local ingredients such as orange blossom water, rose water, almonds and dates. A perfect accompaniment is a cup of traditional Moroccan Tea, a green tea prepared with mint and sugar, considered a sign of Moroccan hospitality.
Must do experiences
Morocco provides a chance to learn, discover and seek out new things. It’s a country of great diversity: modern cities and colourful medinas (old towns), epic mountain ranges, and sweeping deserts – and everything in between.
Wake up in magical Casablanca, ready to immerse yourself in the multi-sensory adventure that lies ahead. The mystery and lure of this fabled kingdom begins here and continues through the souks, dense winding kasbahs and entrancing architecture of fascinating cities such as Marrakech. Tangier, in the north, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, giving it an international touch, is a must-do experience, as is going to Dakhla, a Saharan paradise on the Atlantic Ocean.
The spiritual capital, Fez, has infinite charms. Seemingly blind alleys lead to squares that delight with exquisite fountains and streets bursting with colourful souks, hovering minarets, and artisans making one-of-a-kind treasures. Before that, a brief stop at Moulay Idriss, a sacred Islamic town, and the Roman Ruins of Volubilis is advisable.
Must listen (and dance) music
There are many different musical styles to be found in Morocco, each one with its own history. For instance, Andalusian music, Chaabi and Amazigh music, and Ahidous. Morocco’s Arab-Andalusian classical tradition evolved 1000 years ago in Southern Spain and can be heard, with variations, throughout North Africa, while Malhun is a semi-classical sung poetry making use of the same modes as al-ala orchestras, with more lively and danceable rhythms.
One of the most inspiring musical genres is Gnawa, a mixture of African, Berber and Arabic songs and rhythms. It combines music and acrobatic dancing. Gnawa sits at the crossroads between a variety of music – the deep spiritual cry of the blues, improvised ragas, and the cyclical trance of minimal techno – and has gained increasing international recognition as a key Moroccan art form.
Moroccan stars of Chaabi, Rai and Pop have engraved their names in the Northern Africa Middle East region with many spectacular hits having reached millions of views on the internet and winning international awards.
International festivals featuring top stars include the Mawazine festival in Rabat, the Gnaoua Festival of Essaouira, the Festival of Spiritual Music of Fez, Tanjazz in Tangier, and the Timitar Festival in Agadir.
Must visit tourist sites
In Casablanca, visitors should not miss one of the most breathtaking mosques in the world, Hassan II Mosque, as well as the Habous quarter and Rick’s Cafe, a place reminiscent of the legendary Casablanca of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In the capital, Rabat, explore historic places such the Kasbah of Oudayas, the Ruins of Chellah, the Hassan Tower and the Mohammed VI Mausoleum.
In Fez, travel through the 9th Century Medina, a UNESCO Heritage site, and explore religious Islamic centres, madrasas and universities, notably the Karaouiyin University, the oldest university in the world founded by a woman (Fatima Al Fihriya). I would also recommend Volubilis with its impressive Roman Ruins.
Top sights in Marrakech are the souks and Jemaa el Fna Square, the Saadyines Tombs, Menara and Agdal gardens, the Koutoubia, and the Bahia Palace. A dinner at a typical Moroccan restaurant with an accompanying folklore show would be a good way to crown a day in this magical city.
I would also recommend the surroundings of Marrakech such as the Oukaimiden Mountains, the Ourika Falls or the Sti Fadma landscapes. Heading south, you can explore Merzouga, Kelaa Mgouna, Dades Valley, Todra Canyons, Tinghir, with its magnificent Kasbahs, Ouarzazate with its Hollywood Studios, and Dakhla with its spectacular location on the desert and Atlantic.
If there is one city that you should not skip, it is Chefchaouen. Also called the Blue City, it is known for its walls covered in different shades of blue. Just 40 minutes away, you’ll find the waterfalls of Akchour. The hike to the large waterfall takes about two hours and if you’re up for it, you can continue the hike to God’s Bridge.
Must read books
Reading denotes an incomparable pleasure. In this regard, I would like to share with you a non-exhaustive list of the books that I have had the pleasure to read while living in this charming country, Australia.
- The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
- For Bread Alone by Mohammed Choukri
- Beyond the Veil by Fatima Mernissi
- The Sacred Night by Tahar Benjelloun
- In Morocco by Edith Wharton
I would share with readers two personal experiences which are worth doing in Morocco. The first would be to spend a night in the tents or bivouacs of Merzouga, where everyone will find tranquillity, clear skies, bright stars, beautiful sunrises, intense colours, high dunes and magical experiences.
The second would be in the “Kasbah du Toubkal”, which is surrounded by the Atlas Mountains in Toubkal National Park. This relaxed place provides unique mountain views in a luxury ambience. TTW
His Excellency Mr Karim Medrek was the Ambassador at the Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco in Canberra. More at Visit Morocco. Featured image: Sosinda/Pixabay.