Morocco: Maghreb Mosaic

Morocco: Maghreb Mosaic
A young tuareg and his camel, Photo Credit: Getty Images

Vivid hues and eclectic views, all part of an exhilarating road trip to Morocco, the jewel of West Africa

Karishma Kirpalani
August 09 , 2019
08 Min Read

While visiting family in London last year, my husband and I were prompted to try a ‘hop across Europe’. But wanting to push ourselves beyond run-of-the-mill tours, we searched for cerebral stimulation in Africa. After much deliberation, we zeroed in on Morocco, for a 2,000-kilometre self-drive safari.

Spearmint tea, a staple drinkOur journey started off at a riad in colourful Marrakesh. Akin to a Roman villa, it lay behind the bustling Jemaa el-Fnaa square; its chaos, thankfully, was blanketed by the Maghreb’s hospitality. Our host, Abdil, greeted us at the doorstep with traditional Moroccan tea for a revitalising beginning. The Koutoubia Mosque, Bahia Palace, and Marrakesh Museum lay a stone’s throw from the main medina, making for easy exploration. The nearby Majorelle Garden, a must-visit for many auteurs, fused art and lush greenery to channel the lavishness of its benefactor, French fashion mogul Yves Saint Laurent. The Parisian fervour didn’t end here; we witnessed 500 partygoers eating, drinking and dancing away weekday lulls.

The lush Garden Majorelle in MarrakeshWanting a firsthand feel of Moroccan roads, we booked a drive to the Sahara the following day, with navigation software Waze proving useful for narrow bylanes. Curving around hairpin bends, we drove through Ouarzazate (and Hollywood-favoured shooting destination Aït Ben Haddou) to reach Zagora. The Atlas Mountains kept us gorgeous company, as did the caravan crossings every now and then. Aït Ben Haddou, an ighrem (fortified town) and Unesco World Heritage site, had been at the back of my mind since I saw Gladiator (and Russell Crowe), and we took a mesmerising stroll through the earthen village to meet Berber locals. A few hours later, their camels carried us to the edge of the desert. Boiled food greeted us at our camp in the Sahara, but a spectacular sunset more than made up for it. Cold sands, mellow music, and a smattering of constellations.

A popular view of Aït Ben Haddou

A stop en route ZagoraWith 700 confident kilometres under our belt, we set out for Agadir with a detour to Paradise Valley. The terrifyingly vertical route took 90 minutes for a mere 20-kilometre stretch. Luckily, the ride back was gentle, and did not upset our relaxing dip in the valley’s surreal stream. Agadir hit us with a reversal from the hilly terrain, as its beach bustled with shacks, restaurants, boutiques, and a Ferris wheel.

Fortified walls at EssaouiraNext was Essaouira, a 175-kilometre jaunt along the Atlantic coast, its calm roads reminiscent of the US Pacific Highway. Essouira is a small port that’s lashed with powerful trade winds; we found it a laid-back mix of Marrakesh and Agadir, and picked up spices, rugs and an astoundingly good Toblerone crepe. An ocean-fronted sunset at a lighthouse was the fulfilling end to this blissful evening. Named after the local term for ‘little picture’, Essaouira, with its white and blue medina, reminded us of Santorini and Sidi Bou Said. Time went by endlessly slow here, and the feeling continued until we set off for Rabat, 450 kilometres away.

The road to Rabat resembled the federal motorways of Germany, and we drove at a swift 100 kmph.Townships birthed abrupt slowdowns; the speed limit dropped from 100 to 20 within one kilometre. Clearly, we hadn’t accumulated enough driving expertise, and traffic cameras caught us red-handed. Slapped with a 400 dirham fine (approx. 2,930), cautious humility trickled in. We covered the remaining distance at a more respectable 80 kmph.

Rabat’s Hassan TowerRabat didn’t seem as exciting as the other places we visited, nevertheless, a cultural dekko seemed apt, and we made our way to the famous Hassan Tower. Commissioned to be the world’s largest minaret in the 12th century, the structure has since remained incomplete. We also checked out Dâr-al-Makhzen, the official residence of the King of Morocco. The building bears a darling nickname—El Mechouar Essaid, the Palace of Happiness.

The road from Rabat to Tangier was well-developed, except for video game-like jolts from speedbreakers. We were manoeuvring around trucks, cars and donkeys here, and everyone’s basic philosophy was this: reach first, come heaven, hell, or traffic rules. Luckily, we entered the Grotto de Hercules intact; the Greek demigod is said to have rested here amid one of his infamous labours. The cave complex hasa seaward entrance in the shape of Africa; a sign, I hear, of Phoenician design. I befriended an African parrot here, while my husband met a playful monkey. Tangier was culturally indulgent and spiritually rejuvenating—and might I add, the best for breezy strolls. Cold winds continually travelled across the Strait of Gibraltar to greet us at the marina.

Olives at a soukOur next (and most awaited) stop, surprisingly, lay far from the ocean: Chefchaouen, or the Blue Pearl of Morocco. A two-hour drive into the Rif Mountains, the 15th-century town is doused entirely in blue—shops, houses, even the interiors of our bed and breakfast. The azure locale was irresistibly social media-worthy, and we hired Ryan, a local, for a photoshoot. Filling up with Chinese food for the night, we hiked to the Spanish Mosque on the hillside next morning; though in partial ruin, it offered a splendid panoramic view of the city below.

Isolation was odd after the everyday buzz we were used to, but unavoidable on the hauntingly solitary drive from Chefchaouen to Fes. Before setting off, we stocked up on water, fuel, and an extra tyre. If the car broke down, there would be no help for miles.

The ornate doors of Madrasa Al-Attarine in Fes

Curios in FesOut of all the cities we visited, Fes was the unmistakeable figurehead of tradition. It’s home to the University of Al Quaraouiyine (the world’s oldest operational one), and the Sufi World Sacred Music Festival. I thoroughly enjoyed the ceramic pottery of Art Naji, and observed the painstaking manufacture of zellige—colourful mosaic tilework.

Our journey reached its regrettable end at Casablanca. Morocco’s largest city, with its wide expressways and metropolitan airs, felt like we’d made a transatlantic jump into the US. We spent a few wonderful days here, and were awed by the massive Hassan II Mosque, Africa’s largest. The mosque also boasts the world’s tallest minaret (210m). A more contemporary icon is Rick’s Cafe. The story goes that tourists came looking for the gin bar made famous by the Hollywood classic Casablanca, which actually didn’t exist. Turning away disappointed swarms was slowly becoming the norm, until an American diplomat created the perfect tourist spot by opening Rick’s in 2004—complete with cocktails and a piano.

Our last-minute souvenir shopping was at the Quartier Habous, a newer medina in the city. When it came to finding souvenirs, Marrakesh seemed a better bet; maybe we should have exchanged our starting and ending marks? Our last traditional experience, too, was in Casablanca: a visit to hammams to sweat out the gunk from our sandy pores.

I had imagined that this road trip would check off all my exotic notions of Morocco. However, I couldn’t pinpoint its cultural identity in my mind. From Turkish treatments to French designs, German roadways to Lebanese entertainment, Morocco is an effortless patchwork of the far-flung yet familiar.

The Information

Getting There
Connecting flights from India are available to major Moroccan cities like Casablanca, Marrakesh, Rabat and Agadir. If self-drives seem too daunting, try rented taxis, luxury buses or domestic carrier Royal Air Maroc for intercity travel.

Rail networks aren’t extensive, but state operator ONCF connects most large cities.

Where To Stay
There are plenty of options; boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, and revamped riads near the city medinas.

There’s the luxurious La Mamounia in Marrakesh (from 42,000; +212-524388600), built on a 12th century estate. Further north, try the Riad Kalaa in Rabat (from 8,050, including breakfast), or the sapphire toned Dar Elrio in Chefchaouen (from 6,630, with breakfast; +212-3853557901). When in Aït Ben Haddou, enjoy Berber architecture at the rustic Kasbah Tebi in Ourzazate (from 2,925; +212-661941153)

What to Eat
> Breakfast treats abound. Opt for French pastries, beghrir (crumpet-style pancakes with honey), or khobz (Moroccan bread) with piping hot bisarra (fava beans and garlic soup)

> City-specific specialties include kennaria (meat and artichoke stew) in Fes, tanjia (lamb slow cooked in the fire of a hammam) in Marrakesh and dujaj bil berquq (chicken with prunes) in Chefchaouen.

> For a quick snack, try the spicy merguez sausage sandwiches spiked with cumin, harissa and apinch of salt.

> Pick up a basket of seasonal fruits. Must-haves are figs in autumn, apricots in spring, watermelons in the summer, and mandarins in the winter.

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