The best thing about being a local is spending summer in… (drumroll) the Okanagan. T’is the season for early tee times, morning hikes, cycling on cooler mountain trails and splashing in our spectacular lake. Just hangin’ at home,
enjoying all our Valley has to offer!
But, hello Fall!
Those hot, lazy days of summer are behind us.
A chill has crept into the air, the hills are tinged with red and gold and many a’ feet are starting to itch. If you’ve got the urge to pack up and head to somewhere else this season, you’re not alone. It’s called wanderlust, the compelling urge to travel to new places.
The Dalai Lama, world’s number one feel-good guru, suggests, “Once a year go someplace you’ve never been before.” His Holiness didn’t actually specify Morocco, but he could have.
From the snow-capped Atlas Mountains and the bustling markets of Marrakech, to the endless sands of the Sahara, add dazzling mosques and palaces and crumbling Kasbahs, then throw in spice-scented souks, woven carpets and stunning architecture, it’s no mirage. It’s Morocco, the perfect destination to satisfy even the most active wanderlust gene (honest, there really is such a thing)!
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AN EXOTIC KINGDOM…
Morocco lies across the Strait of Gibraltar, only thirteen kilometers and a world away from southern Spain.
About 4,000 years ago, its indigenous population met, mingled and merged like a blend of Moroccan spices with whoever happened to wander into the region. The result, a swirling potpourri of unruly, fierce people the Romans called Berbers (or barbarians). Over the centuries, Arabs and other invading forces left their mark, but the indomitable Berbers maintained their own culture and language.
Fast forward to modern times. The continuous mixing of cultures has produced this vibrantly distinct region considered the “Gateway to Africa.” Today, most Moroccans are of Berber descent and ninety-nine percent of the population adhere to the Muslim faith first brought to the country by Arabs.
The country’s languages mirror its complex demographics. French, which originates from Morocco’s colonial past, is still taught in schools and widely spoken, but classic Arabic and Berber share official status.
Intrinsic to traveling in this country is hearing the call to prayer five times a day. The first one is at dawn - no need for an alarm. Broadcast through loudspeakers from the local minaret, this haunting sound echoes throughout the streets of every hamlet and city. It’s central to daily life and more pleasing to the ear than crowing roosters!
While Morocco is not considered a dry country, spirits aren’t readily available simply because Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol. As a result, evening happy hours aren’t always a given. My advice: stock up at the local Carrefour, one of the few grocery stores that sells such libations.
Don’t worry, there’s always plenty of fresh mint tea to drink. Steaming, sweet and ceremoniously poured in an age-old ritual from an engraved silver teapot held high above tiny tea glasses, Moroccans take their tea seriously. I found it fragrant and refreshingly delicious, particularly if ordered without the mounds of sugar loved by locals…that being said, tea is not wine!
Hammams are part of daily life and a trip without indulging in this traditional Arabian bathing ritual would be incomplete. For foreigners, it’s confounding. The sexes are segregated to separate areas, then the process seems to be divided into three steps.
First off, you’re nearly-naked in a steam room with a big, bra-less bather-woman who has stripped down to serviceable, white cotton knickers. Then she lathers your body (all of it) with Morocco’s famous black soap and scrubs you (vigorously) with the traditional exfoliating mitt to remove dead skin. For an invigorating finish, you’re immersed in tepid water by the buckets full – one after another poured over your head until you’re gasping for air.
SPICY, NOT HOT!
Like the country, Moroccan food is dizzyingly diverse. A mélange of Berber, Arabic, Andalusian and Mediterranean, with an added dash of French influence, everything is fresh, aromatic and 100 per cent organic.
The flavour combinations are intriguing and the spices used in cooking are not hot, but rather rich and subtle, including the likes of ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, caraway and saffron. Then there’s the quintessentially Moroccan, ras el hanout, a warm, pungent spice blend which contains as few as ten and as many as a hundred ingredients. There is no definitive composition and every cook seems to have their own secret recipe.
While locals consider couscous a gift from Allah, tajine seems to be the national dish. A stew seasoned with ras el hanout, it is slow-cooked in a unique, two-piece clay pot of the same name. The fluted, conical-shaped lid traps steam and returns it to the pot as condensed liquid, which means little water is needed – a bonus in the desert. It’s typically made with a variety of seasonal vegetables and either beef, lamb, goat, chicken or even fish – but never pork. It’s on every menu in every restaurant and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to become tajined – out!
There is no wrong time to eat bread in Morocco. It comes in all shapes and sizes and is either fresh baked on a fire or in an oven, cooked in a pan like a pancake or deep-fried like a Krispy Kreme. Delicious!
THE MAGIC & MYSTERY OF MOROCCO
A kaleidoscope of colours, cultures and mind-twisting contrasts, Morocco has something for every traveler. Here are a few of my favourite experiences to help soothe the bite when that insatiable travel bug attacks next.
Being Blinded by Blue in Chefchaouen
Why blue? Good question. Several theories have been offered to explain the striking color of the Blue City: it repels mosquitos; the color keeps the interior of the homes cool; and Jews, expelled from Spain, settled there and painted their homes blue to mirror the sky and remind them of God. The real reason is about as clear as indigo paint, but the blue hues are great for tourism.
Getting Lost in Frenetic Fes!
Deep in the dense, dilapidated heart of this ancient city is its medieval medina (old town), the largest car-free urban area in the world. It’s home to more than a quarter of a million people and nothing can prepare you for the perpetual pandemonium of this maze to end all mazes! It’s a jumble of souks, palaces, mosques, monuments and about 9,500 twisted laneways so narrow, goods must be either hauled or carried in by people, bicycles, donkeys or mules. The souks (Arab markets), crammed inside the sandstone walls of the medina, are much as they were 1,200 years ago. Crowded, dark and teeming with exotic sights, sounds and nose-punching smells, the place is claustrophobic, with a crazy yet fascinating underworld energy. Getting lost is a given!
Smelling the Chouwara Tanneries
The smelly star of the Fes medina are the tanneries, where buttery-soft, world-class leathers are produced using methods changed little since medieval times. The entire process is done without automation. Dozens of bare-chested workers knead animal hides with their bare feet, waist-deep in stone vats of caustic nastiness like cow urine, quicklime and ammonia-laden pigeon feces. You’ll never see (or smell) anything quite like it.
Bargaining with the locals
Nothing is more Moroccan than bartering for merchandise in its souks. Haggling is an extreme sport and to get a fair price, often about half of where you start, you must maintain a relentless sense of humour, be able to feign disinterest and even walk away.
Climbing the hilltop in Ait Benhaddou
Not to be missed, this massive 11th century, walled, red city and clay kasbah (fortress) is where Lawrence of Arabia, Game of Thrones and Gladiator were filmed.
Exploring Moroccan countryside
Roam through spectacular Roman ruins in Volubilis, 40 atmospheric hectares of temple fragments, dazzling floor mosaics, the remnants of over 50 villas, and they’re still digging. Then head to the Moroccan mountains and wander wild trails in places like M’Goun Valley and Todra Gorge. The scenery is stunning and it’s the best way to understand life in traditional Berber villages.
EXPERIENCING THE POWER OF AWE IN THE SAHARA
Have you ever had a moment? For me, it happens only rarely, when a sight so transcends my normal, I can’t help but gaze with wonder.
The surreal sense I’d stepped into a different world began when I mounted Ali, my grumbling camel, whose doe-like eyes with enviably long lashes looked at me with disdain. From her lurching back, the stark Sahara at sunset was otherworldly. All I could do was stare and savour, hoping to burn into my memory forever the stunning sight: undulating waves in an endless, empty sea of orange-golden sand. In the presence of such timeless landscapes and raw beauty, it was one of those “Pinch me. Am I really here?” experiences - the highest reward of travel.
If you’re into the exotic, love lyrical landscapes and a compelling culture and you’re gripped by a bad case of wanderlust this autumn, Morocco won’t disappoint. But if you go, remember the famous Moroccan proverb: “By all means, trust in Allah, but tie your camel first.”
Laura Gosset is an Okanagan writer, blogger & adventure traveler. To read more stories like this, subscribe to her blog: Away, eh! @ www.lauragosset.com