|STUNNING: Koutoubia mosque, Marrakesh|
When I heard from Peggy that Friendly Planet was introducing a nine-day Treasures of Morocco tour, it brought back a flood of images from my trip to this exotic country.
I’ve never been anywhere quite as bizarre, exotic, and diverse as this North African country, the world’s oldest surviving monarchy, dating to AD 788. Here African, Arab, Berber, and French influences have produced a culture as ancient as Fez’s medieval walled city and as cosmopolitan as Casablanca’s Hyatt Hotel, where bar staff dress in costume from the classic film “Casablanca.”
This predominately Muslim country was a French protectorate from 1900-1956. The two cultures, and some 270 different ethnic groups, raise interesting contrasts.
One day I sunbathed at a Casablanca hotel pool with bikini-clad Europeans. On another, I explored Old Town Fez, a walled medieval maze where mules carry goods, and veiled Muslim women sweep through narrow passageways.
One magical night I found myself in a nomad’s tent in the desert, sitting on carpets around a huge, low table, eating aromatic lamb stew and being entertained by belly dancers and horseback riders.
A few days later I was shopping trendy boutiques in Casablanca. The namesake of the famous Humphrey Bogart film is also home of Hassan II Mosque, one of only a few that is open to Westerners.
To me, the excitement of Morocco culminates in Marrakesh’s market square, Djemaa el Fna. In its “Court of Marvels,” snake charmers compete with acrobats and musicians. A turbaned man threw a small chattering monkey on my shoulder for a photo op. A few coins were expected in return, a small price to pay for entering this enchanting world where so many cultures mingle.
Unlike visiting a homogeneous country with one language and one set of traditions, visitors to Morocco will need a few tips for navigating this complex culture. It might feel like a movie set, but there are some things to keep watch for.
Bargaining is standard practice. Offer half the price and work from there.
Shops close at noon and re-open around 2 p.m.
Stick close to your guide in Old Town Fez to avoid getting lost in the intricate maze of passageways.
Reserve the word “imshee” (Arabic for “take a hike”) for overly aggressive vendors and unofficial guides.
Keep your bag or wallet secure and consider a money belt.
Eating is one of the great adventures in Morocco, where you can dine on elegant French or Mediterranean fare accompanied by fine wines in European restaurants, but I recommend trying the flavorful Moroccan dishes.
Try my favorite dish, the traditional lamb stew of raisins, garlic, ginger, cumin, and curry atop a bed of couscous.
Order the sweet tea as your drink. It’s served hot in a glass stuffed with fresh mint leaves.
Never eat with your left hand; it’s taboo. The left hand is the “toilet” hand in many African and Muslim cultures. Never pat a person on the head or take a photograph without permission. Be discreet drinking alcohol in public.
Bring some toilet paper in your purse. It’s optional in Arabic bathrooms, and you might be required to pay for a few squares.
French is widely spoken, and so is Arabic.
Practice these helpful Arabic phrases:
Hello: salaam wa laykoom
Please: afak Thank you: shukran
Where is the bathroom?: Ayna Al Hammam?
How much?: bish-hal?
That’s too much: ghalee
Take a walk/leave me alone: imshee
I had a great time traveling through this country, and I can assure you that it’s an experience you won’t forget.