Exciting and Surprising Morocco

Two Guards on Horseback
King Mohammed V Mausoleum Guards

I had a chance to visit Morocco in North Africa recently. Morocco sits on the south western part of the Mediterranean and is a country of diversity. It is also a very surprising country and one that I would highly recommend visiting. Africa is a glorious continent but many of the countries are impoverished and or embroiled in war or civil unrest. Police, health standards, and accommodations are likely to be poor in many of the countries. This makes many of those countries unsuitable for all except the most adventurous traveler. This is not true of Morocco, and you will feel very welcome as an American in a country that is 98 percent Muslim. There are many available tours that you can choose from in Morocco, depending upon the time you have and location.

My entrance and exit into and out of the country occurred in Maraketch via Delta Airlines. From there, I took a bus for 60 minutes to the town of Rabat, the present capital and official residence of King Mohammed VI. Our tour included the kings residence/palace and then a walk to the Medina (walled section of the city with many shops and restaurants) and then a visit to the 12th century Kashba of the Oudayas on the Bou Regreg River, the Great Mosque and the Hassan tower. We also visited the Mohammed V Mausoleum which is spectacularly guarded 24/7 by the king’s security force. The gold casket is on display for Mohammed V and his two sons King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah are also entombed there. You drive past the ramparts and walls of Mehuoar that encompace the royal palace.

One of the surprising things about Morocco, is its close relationship with Jews. A bit of history explains why. During WWII, when France fell to the Germans, Morocco, a French protectorate of that time also came under the Germans. But the harsh anti Jewish laws enacted by the Vichy government were not applied in Morocco because King Mohammed V stayed in power. The king refused to send the jews to Germany. After the war, when Israel was established, many of the Jews emigrated from Morrocco and established residence in the new state of Israel. The Jews continue to come back to Morocco to visit where they or their ancestors had lived.

The archeological Roman ruins at Voubilis are partially excavated ruins from the Roman and Berber days. Our guide showed us the parts of the city that were steps from each other. You could go see the Roman bath and then walk to a private home nearby in short order. What impresses the visitor is how far the Roman empire had extended before it collapsed. I did not realize that it extended to North Africa. These ruins are open for those to walk about them and get a sense of life in the third century BC, and the Berber culture in the 3rd century AD before the Arabs arrived in the 8th century. These buildings stood for centuries through many groups of people only to be ransacked in the 17th century and further destroyed in the 18th century earthquake. Today it stands as a UNESCO world heritage site.

We traveled to Fez, the imperial city built in 790AD by Moulay Idriss II. In Fez, we visited the Kings Palace and both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. We visited Al Quaraouiyin University. It is claimed by UNESCO as the oldest continuously running university in the world and the first to offer a degree for studies. It started in the year 859. It is open to both men and women of Muslim faith. One of the requirements is that everyone must memorize the Qu’ran.

From Fez, we traveled to the Middle Atlas region of Imouzar. This is a day trip out of Fez or other Moroccan cities, and worthwhile to see the changes in landscape of this amazing country. We visited the delightful ski resort of Ifrane and then continued on to a Berber village known for its handicrafts and carpet weaving.

From there, we traveled to Casablanca on the bus. We visited the UN Square, Royal Palace, Central Market, the Anfa residential area and the Hassan II Mosque, second largest in Morocco. For purchases, we visited a tannery where you could see them dyeing the leathers after conditioning them. We were given mint leaves to hold in front of our noses to abate the smell of the operation. Many leather goods from belts to purses to coats were available for sale at factory prices. We also visited a tile factory where we saw the entire production which was all by manual labor. There were heavy tile tables for sale, as well as small to large fountains and many Jewish items such as Menorah candle holders. You can also watch the workers handling all phases of production.

While in Casablanca, I met an amazing woman, Kathy Kriger. She was a former travel agent from Portland Oregon. She had come to Morocco as a US embassy diplomat. She fell in love with Morocco and decided to open up Ricks Cafe to pay homage to the Warner Brothers classic movie starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. We had a wonderful dinner at her restaurant. You will instantly be transformed into the atmosphere of the 1940’s during the war and yet you will have a sumptuous French-Mediterranean meal with items like lamb shank and saffron rice to filet mignon and spice roasted tomatoes.

Traveling to Morocco from Minneapolis on Delta can be done by connecting flight in Amsterdam. United, Lufthansa, and Air Canada also have connecting flights but will require three segments. If you already are in Spain for a visit, there are ferries that can take you to Morocco. The most popular one  is from Tarifa in southern Spain to Tangier in northern Morocco on the fast ferry. The ride takes one hour.