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Charlie in Morocco

written by
Sue van Winsen
Sue van Winsen

A glimpse into off-the-beaten-track Morocco

Setting off for just over a week, Niarra Travel Researcher, Charlie Darlington, explored both the cities and rural parts of Morocco to get under the skin of the destination. Niarra Travel’s Content Writer, Sue van Winsen, caught up with her to find out what she loved most about the country.

For many people, Morocco is synonymous with shopping, with Marrakesh at the centre of the country’s tourism offering. But there is so much more to this North African country – a land that is largely untouched by the commodification and mass production so predominant in so many other places; and a place that puts tremendous value on embracing age-old practices and tradition. From Casablanca to Fes, to the Atlantic Coast and finally to Marrakesh, Charlie explored cities, villages and rural landscapes in search of remarkable experiences for our travellers.

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What were your first impressions of Morocco?

I think often when people think of Morocco, they immediately picture Marrakesh and the Sahara Desert, but the rest of Morocco is a bit of an unknown. The first thing that really stood out to me, was the fact that as a country, Morocco hasn’t really been industrialised and it’s almost like stepping back in time.

All the farming is still done by traditional means, donkeys and horses are used for everything, and people harvest everything by hand – particularly in the rural north. When I was there, they had just had spring-time rains, and everything was very green and abundant. Morocco is an incredibly productive country with an outstanding work ethic.

Aside from the agricultural work being done by hand, the level of talent is incredible – everybody just oozes creativity and the craftmanship is phenomenal. Fes is particularly amazing because everything is being created from scratch: leatherwork, ceramics, metalwork and woodwork. Skills are passed down from generation to generation and the way things are being done hasn’t really changed over the years.

Who did you travel with?

For the first few days I was on my own in Casablanca and Fes. At the coast I joined a group of travel agents for a stay at La Fiermontina Ocean, where we were hosted by the owners for two nights. From there, I travelled down to Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains, and Savanna Allport from Niarra Travel’s Reservations team joined me for the final three nights.

What did you hope to come away with from this trip?

I wanted to gain a full understanding of Morocco’s experiential offering. It was great to see lots of different properties, but I also wanted to understand what kind of experiences people can have and what types of travellers each would lend itself to. Also, I wanted to get a sense of where Morocco is from a sustainability perspective and understand what some of the deeper-rooted problems are and how the travel industry, and Niarra Travel in particular, can make a positive impact.

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How did your trip begin?

I landed at Casablanca Airport at about 9:30pm and it was heaving people, which I assumed was just what the airport is always like. I later discovered that I arrived at exactly the same time as hundreds of people were returning from an Islamic pilgrimage with thousands of family members waiting to greet them. Luckily my guide was in an obvious place with a sign, but it made for a very memorable arrival!

We then drove into Casablanca city where I stayed at Le Doge right in the centre. Le Doge is a quirky Relais & Châteaux property, full of personality and a true homage to the famous French art-deco movement which Casablanca is famous for.

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I went on a walking tour of Casablanca, but the real highlight is the Hassan II Mosque which is phenomenal. It took six years to build and opened in 1993 although the level of detail makes it feel like an ancient building. While its beautiful from the outside, the interior is just incredible with 35,000 artisans all coming together in a remarkable showcase of Moroccan craftmanship.

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From there, we drove to Fes through Rabat which is the administrative capital and home to Morocco’s royal family. While bustling, just as any capital city would be, Rabat is incredibly green and immaculately clean – full of orange trees and parks. The ancient walls are very beautiful and are a striking contrast to the sustainable and sensitively constructed modern buildings.

Here we visited the Mausoleum of Mohammed V which is stunning and a lovely and peaceful place to explore with great views of the city. On the drive out of the city, you pass through miles of huge cork oak forest, home to 360 unique species of flora, forming an incredible green oasis around the city that the locals all visit and enjoy. This was my first glimpse of the green north of Morocco, and I think spending a night here would have been interesting. Rabat also has a lovely marina and estuary where we enjoyed lunch watching the sailing boats pass by.

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Next you stayed in Fes, what was the experience like?

Fes is a very busy city, but the old medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 8th century and is phenomenal in that very little has changed. The narrow alleyways mean that nothing motorised can really get in, so while it’s bustling, it is with donkeys, wheelbarrows and people and again you have that feeling as though you have stepped back in time. It is a complete maze, so I highly recommend you explore with a local guide as it is so easy to get lost.

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Different areas within the medina are home to different types of artisans – the metalwork district, leatherwork district, ceramics, door painters and much more. Everyone was so incredibly welcoming I really got the sense that people want to share their craft with you. I sat down with a man and learnt how to make hammered pots and saw the tannery where they stain the leather. Fes is very history, culture and art-focused and you feel as though you are experiencing living history as it plays out in real time.

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Another experience I highly recommend is Art D’Argile, a collective of ceramicists who work out of a beautiful old warehouse space just outside of the city. You can learn how to make tagines and see how zellige is create or even enjoy a full pottery workshop. It is easy to spend a few hours here, meeting the local people, learning about the different artisan collectives and how they are empowering women to play a more active role in the economy.

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I stayed at Riad Dar Lys, a new small property that looks out across the countryside. It was the perfect place to come back to for rest and an excellent breakfast that sets you up for a day of exploration.

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Tell me about your road trip from Fes to the Atlantic Coast?

This was one of my favourite parts of the trip as it was the first time we weren’t on a highway but rather took the smaller roads through the countryside past farms and working towns for a glimpse into rural life. During the pandemic, a man had a little caddy van and bought himself a Delonghi coffee machine to put in the back. He started selling coffee on the side of road and it took off. Now everywhere you go in rural Morocco, you only have to drive a mile down the road before coming across someone making great coffee on the side of the road. We stopped quite a few times and would relax for 20 minutes or so, chatting to the locals and watching the world go by.

The landscape was amazing: endless rolling hills, olive trees as far as the eye can see and big citrus groves and fig trees along with wildflower meadows. I loved getting off the beaten track and not having to rush from place to place which made it feel like more of an adventure.

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Then you arrived at the coast – what was your experience there like?

We stayed at La Fiermontina Ocean, about an hour south of Tangiers. The property is owned by a French-Italian family with roots in Morocco. It’s a very peaceful retreat in the heart of rural Morocco with insane views, perched on a hilltop. This isn’t necessarily a destination where you would sunbathe on the beach, as the coast is more rugged, but we had a really good beach barbecue where we watched the fishermen catch our lunch right in front us.

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I loved that the community has been involved in the hotel from start to finish. Before this property there was no tourism industry here at all and local villages had no basic services or even a primary school. La Fiermontina Ocean has transformed the village by introducing power and running water, building a school and communal ovens along with a community shop. It’s such a great example of how a community can benefit from tourism and be consulted throughout the process. Most of the staff come from the village and it just felt like everybody was so happy to be there.

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Next Savanna joined you for some time in Marrakesh – how was that experience?

Marrakesh was a real step change after the zen of the coast. It doesn’t feel like a big city as such but there a lot of people in a small space and really bustling with a fun energy to it. The properties we saw and stayed at were some of the best – real retreats in amongst the hustle and bustle, which means you can go out and enjoy the chaos and come back to completely recharge. We spent one night at Almaha Marrakech in the old medina which feels like a little fortress, and Villa des Orangers which is on one of the busiest roads but as soon as you walk in, it’s total tranquillity.

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Can you tell us about some of the activities you experienced near Marrakesh?

We went into the Agafay Desert just for the evening, just over an hour’s drive away from Marrakesh. While it’s not the Sahara, the landscape is rocky and rugged and very impressive. We drove deep into the desert to one of the more remote camps for dinner. It was so peaceful to enjoy a candlelit dinner in a desert tent and watch the sun go down over a glass of wine. This is a great option for people that only have four or five days in Morocco and no time to travel to the Sahara.

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We also went into the Atlas Mountains where we had lunch at a beautiful property called Olinto surrounded by green Eden-like gardens – a real haven. The drive into the mountains is amazing – twisty and beautiful. The architecture of the Berber villages is fascinating with villages appearing out of nowhere and we enjoyed a wonderful hike and lunch in a Berber home. It was an amazing way to end an incredible couple of days.

What were some of the stand-out moments?

What made the biggest impression on me were the genuine interactions with the local people. I loved the way they were so welcoming about sharing their crafts or sharing a coffee on the side of the road. As with any trip, it’s the people that stand out at the end of it. As a solo female traveller, I felt so welcomed and safe.

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What are some of the top tips you’d share with someone thinking of doing a similar trip?

  1. Try to spend as much time as you can in each location and don’t be tempted to cram too much in. Otherwise, it will feel too fast. There is so much to see and do if you really want to get under the skin of the destination.
  2. Strike a balance between the cities and the rural areas, making sure you have a good split between the two.
  3. Wherever possible have a local guide, it really elevates the experience so much, in both the cities and the countryside.
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Who would enjoy a trip like this?

I think this trip is great for solo travellers, having done much of the trip that way myself. I do think anyone from families with older children to couples and adventure-seekers would enjoy Morocco. Perhaps families with young children would find the cities a bit challenging. But anyone interested in craftmanship, history, culture, anthropology and people in general, who loves to see the world working in a different way, would just love it.

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