Things I learnt about Morocco

I spent sixteen days travelling around Morocco from Casablanca to Marrakech via the edge of the Sahara Desert and through the Atlas Mountains, visiting seven of Morocco’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here are some of the observations and insights I made along the way.

All mosques in Morocco, other than the epic King Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, and Tin Mal Mosque in the Atlas Mountains, are off limits to non-muslims. Oddly in the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan I had no issues visiting mosques, nor in any other muslim majority country I’ve visited (Syria, Turkey, Kosovo, Malaysia). Somewhat frustrating given their amazing architecture but it is what it is, and should be respected.

I don’t think I’ve been anywhere with as many cats. Particularly in the cities there were street cats everywhere, fed by the locals to help control the rat and mice populations. Far preferable to street dogs, of which there were some in the more remote areas but almost none in the cities other than Marrakech.

Tourism is the second largest export earner after phosphates. Over twelve million tourists visited in 2018, heading toward the King’s goal of 20 million visitors by 2020. This is not an off the beaten track destination. The upside is decent infrastructure for tourists, but popular attractions were heaving even during the shoulder season in November.

There have been some terrorist attacks targeting tourists, including a bombing in Marrakech in 2011 that killed 15 people, and the murder of two hikers in Toubkal National Park in December 2018, but this is in the context of millions of visitors annually. As tourism is such an important part of the economy the penalties for hurting tourists are severe, and there is a lot of security around. You’d frequently see two armed soldiers and one policeman together. You might get some hassle in Marrakech but the chances of being hurt are extremely low.

Shop keepers were generally less pushy than I was expecting but I know to avoid eye contact, walk with purpose, and don’t take close up photos of stalls (unless you are willing to pay). I can see how many people do have issues, and have unpleasant experiences, particularly in Marrakech which was easily the worst place for it. Morocco isn’t as bad as Egypt, but that’s a pretty low bar.

It was sad that children, particularly outside of the cities, would approach you for money, sometimes obviously reluctantly but at their parents insistence. Morocco remains a mostly poor country, and the contrast is clear against relatively wealthy tourists.

Flash new tram systems have been installed in Casablanca and Rabat in the past decade. Moroccan trains, particularly between the main cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier, Fes and Marrakech are a great way to get around the country.

Although busy in the cities Moroccan traffic was relatively sensible compared to driving I’ve seen in South East Asia and the Middle East. You still needed to be pretty careful crossing roads though, particularly in Casablanca.

Minarets at mosques in Morocco are square and they only have one, even at Hassan II Mosque, the third largest in the world.

Many of the apparently must see places around Morocco were closed for renovation when I visited in November 2019, including Ali Ben Youssef Medersa and Almoravid Koubba in Marrakech, National Archaeological Museum in Rabat, Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail in Meknes, and almost all of the churches in Casablanca. Some will reopen in early 2020 but others have been closed for years. It is worth planning ahead before visiting places to check that they are open.

Morocco can be surprisingly cold, particularly if you head into the mountains or desert areas where overnight temperatures can easily drop below freezing. A great line I read somewhere is that Morocco is a cold country with a hot sun.

Moroccans love their bread, it’s a staple part of seemingly every meal, either baguettes thanks to the French, or local round bread. A typical breakfast is almost entirely bread, a rather heavy start to the day.

To go with all the bread Laughing Cow cheese which seems popular, judging by it’s frequent appearance and huge displays in supermarkets.

You need to watch your knees when you sit down. It seems like Moroccans don’t have legs judging by the typical space between seats and tables, not very comfortable…

Morocco  was once home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. The vast majority left after WW2 for Israel, where Moroccan Jews are the third largest group after Russians and Poles.

Plastic bags were banned in 2016, a welcome move, and outside of the cities there wasn’t much plastic waste. There was however a lot of green broken glass from beer bottles. Clearly smashing them into pieces is the done thing here unfortunately.

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