Things to see in Morocco

Marrakech to Essaouira – Goats in Trees and the Moroccan Coast

The last town we visited in Morocco was the coastal city of Essaouira, as a day trip from Marrakech. It was a 2.5 hour drive each way (177 km or 110 miles). The highway was good and you see some interesting sights along the way (see below). While we had a rental car, you can also find a bus tour out of Marrakech.

Morocco has a long coastline (1835 km or 1140 miles) and Essaouira was one of two stops we made along the coast (the other being Rabat). Most of our itinerary took us to vast and varied interior of this fascinating country.

Moroccan Coast (2)

An old mosque on the coastline just north of Essaouira.

The Moroccan coast does offer spots for surfing, swimming and windsurfing; however, since we were going on to the Canary Islands (which has some terrific beaches), we did not spend a lot of time on the coast in Morocco.

Essaouira Beach (29)

You can take a camel or horse ride along the beach.

Essaouira had a unique feel, with 18th century ramparts that give the town a Mediterranean European feel.

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A view of Essaouira’s ramparts.

Essaouira (21)

Cannon and an old gate along the ramparts.

Essaouira has a quaint old quarter with numerous restaurants and artisan shops.

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A gated entrance into the old part of Essaouira.

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One of the narrow alleyways in old Essaouira.

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One of the many shops found in old town of Essaouira.

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Fishing boats in Essaouira’s old port.

Essaouira is the third largest fishing port in Morocco. In the 18th century, it was a major trading port with Europe, along with Tangier.

One of the most interesting sights we saw was on our way to Essaouira. There are numerous argan trees along the highway, and imagine our surprise when we saw goats standing in the argan trees!

Goats in Trees (2)

Goats in the argan trees, seen right off the road between Marrakech and Essaouira.

The goats climb the trees, and eat the argan fruit. The seeds/nuts are then “pooped out”, and then processed into argan oil, a highly valued ingredient in many hair care and other products for which Morocco is famous. Next time you get shampoo with argan oil, you’ll know where it comes from!

Marrakech (or Marrakesh) – The Hub of Morocco

One of the most visited cities in Morocco is Marrakech, and with good reason. There is a lot to do and see here. Marrakech was the crossroads of North African trade routes and the capital of Morocco for centuries. The city dates back to the 12th century.

A street scene in the Medina of Marrakech.

A street scene in the Medina of Marrakech.

Like many old Moroccan cities, the oldest part (called the Medina) of Marrakech is surrounded by a wall with numerous gates. Inside the gates are a maze of narrow alleys and interesting sights.

You have your choice of lamps at this shop in Marrakech's Medina.

You have your choice of lamps at this shop in Marrakech’s Medina.

Outside the Medina, you’ll find the modern Marrakech with beautiful apartment buildings, trendy shopping boutiques and even McDonald’s. It’s like two completely different worlds.

We happened to arrive on the day of Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice), an Islamic holiday where thousands of sheep all over the country meet their maker, and families cook and share the meat – almost like Thanksgiving! In the city on this day there were small fires everywhere with roasted (and burnt) sheep flesh (including heads and entrails) – what a wonderful smell greeted us!

Some of the sheep fires. Hard to describe the sights and smells through a photo.

Some of the sheep fires. Hard to describe the sights and smells through a photo.

Loads of hides from the freshly slaughtered sheep.

Loads of hides from the freshly slaughtered sheep.

By the end of the next day, most of this celebration mess was cleaned up and the city was pretty much back to normal.

Here are some of the major sights:

Bahia Palace. This palace is not old by Marrakech standards (mid 1800’s) but is beautiful and contains a number of interesting chambers. It was built for grand advisors to the sultan.

One of the reception rooms in Bahia Palace.

One of the reception rooms in Bahia Palace.

One of the many beautifully decorated ceilings in Bahia Palace.

One of the many beautifully decorated ceilings in Bahia Palace.

In the Harem courtyard. Four wives and 24 concubines inhabited this part of the palace.

In the Harem courtyard. Four wives and 24 concubines inhabited this part of the palace.

The quarters of the

The quarters of the “favorite wife”.

El Badi Palace. This huge palace complex is a testament to the wealth gained from the African caravan routes that came through Marrakech. It was built in the late 16th century and is largely in ruins now, but does retain its huge outer walls and some other remnants of structures worth visiting.

A view of the walls and an entrance into the El Badi Palace ceremonial grounds.

A view of the walls and an entrance into the El Badi Palace ceremonial grounds.

The large pool at El Badi Palace.

The large pool at El Badi Palace.

What a place it must have been in its heyday! One of the treasures housed on the grounds is the original minbar (or pulpit) from the Koutoubia Mosque (discussed below). It is an incredible work of art, with thousands of intricate wood designs and carvings, which took eight years to complete. It was crafted in the 1100’s.

The 12th century minbar - eight years in the making! An incredible piece of art and history.

The 12th century minbar – eight years in the making! An incredible piece of art and history.

Jemaa el Fna (The Main Square). This is an open area in the center of the Medina and the hub of Marrakech nightlife. It was interesting to watch it come alive as the sun set.

Sun setting over the Jemaa el Fna.

Sun setting over the Jemaa el Fna.

Food stalls in Jemaa el Fna.

Food stalls in Jemaa el Fna.

This is a city that comes out at night in the main square – with numerous food stalls, snake charmers, a variety of other entertainers, games and all kinds of locals and tourists mingling. A number of surrounding restaurants provide a view over the square, but eating at one of the food stalls is a bit cheaper and provides a good option to rub shoulders with fellow travelers and locals.

Koutoubia Tower & Mosque. Considered the “most perfect minaret” in North Africa and the symbol of Marrakech. The Mosque is not open to tourists, but there are lovely gardens around the mosque. This is an old structure, dating back to the late 12th century.

A view of the Koutoubia Tower.

A view of the Koutoubia Tower.

The Souks. These are mainly just north of the Jemaa el Fna and are fun to wander through. There are hundreds of shops containing all kinds of goods. One wonders how they all stay in business. They are more or less organized by craft. Early morning or late afternoon are the best times to visit.

One of the alleys in the Marrakech souks.

One of the alleys in the Marrakech souks.

City Gates. Bab Agnaou was one of the two original entrances to the citadel or Kasbah of Marrakech – which was the main royal residence or fortress.

The Bab Agnaou gate.

The Bab Agnaou gate.

Saadian Tombs. Near the Bab Agnaou is the Kasbah Mosque and the Saadian Tombs. These beautiful tombs were constructed by the same dynasty (the Saadians, who ruled Morocco from 1554 to 1669) that built the El Badi Palace.

The Kasbah Mosque and minaret.

The Kasbah Mosque and minaret.

Interior detail of the Saadian Tombs.

Interior detail of the Saadian Tombs.

There is usually a line for viewing these tombs, but it moves pretty quickly. Have your cameras ready so you can take your pictures before others are pressing for their turn.

Practical Information: We stayed at a lovely riad (Riad Alnadine), which are old wealthy merchant houses turned into guest residences in the center of the Medina. It’s owned and run by a French couple and was comfortable, with a great rooftop terrace for breakfast and relaxing and enjoying the open air.

Our lovely French hosts and traveling companions in Marrakech, in the courtyard of their riad.

Our lovely French hosts and traveling companions in Marrakech, in the courtyard of their riad.

While no visit to Morocco would be complete without a visit to Marrakech, be sure to visit other parts of this fascinating country. We spent a day and a half exploring the city and then took another day trip to the coastal city of Essaouira (highly recommended) which I will share in a separate post.

Reference: The Lonely Planet Guide to Morocco

Morocco – The World’s Movie Set

Thankfully, Morocco is a country that is not yet overrun by tourists. It is a land of surprising variety, including a long coastline along the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, high rugged mountains (which get snow in the winter), vast deserts, and amazing jagged gorges, oases and beautiful ksars (villages) and kasbahs (noble person’s “castle” or home).

The Atlas Mountains.

The Atlas Mountains.

The stark contrast of the green palms with the dry mountains near Todra Gorge.

The stark contrast of the green palms with the dry mountains near Todra Gorge.

Given the beautiful natural scenery, ancient cities, villages, and friendly people, it’s not surprising that Morocco hosts a lot of movie crews.

A movie studio in Ouarzazate.

A movie studio in Ouarzazate.

Gladiator, The Mummy, The Son of God, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, Alexander, Sodom and Gomorrah and many other movies set in historical and Middle East locations have Moroccan backdrops.

Tamdaght Kasbah, near Ait Ben Haddou, where the surrounding countryside  and ksars were used in the filming of the movie Gladiator, with Russell Crowe.

Tamdaght Kasbah, near Ait Ben Haddou, where the surrounding countryside and ksars were used in the filming of the movie Gladiator, with Russell Crowe.

In fact, while we were there, Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg were filming the next Mission Impossible movie in Rabat, the capital city. We just happened to come upon some chase scenes being filmed in the old part of Rabat with Tom Cruise at the wheel of a BMW.

Tom Cruise at the wheel with Simon Pegg next to him, filming in Rabat.

Tom Cruise at the wheel with Simon Pegg next to him, filming in Rabat.

Most of the tourists seemed to be hanging out in Fez and Marrakech. Outside those locations the country felt almost untouched.

We highly recommend Morocco as a bucket list destination. Here are some things to know if you decide to visit Morocco:

Parlez vous français? In addition to Arabic, many Moroccans speak French, since Morocco was a French colony for many years. When locals first meet you, they will assume you speak French. It’s certainly possible to get by on English, but you may end up using a lot of gestures to get your message across. A little French vocabulary (if not Arabic) is valuable, or brush up on your Berber, also spoken in many mountain areas.

The lower two lines are in Berber, in the holy town of Moulay Idriss.

The lower two lines are in Berber, in the holy town of Moulay Idriss.

Getting Around. Morocco is not a difficult country to navigate on your own. Auto is the best way to see the country. The roads generally are in very good condition and signs are in Arabic and French, so they are not hard to read. Except in the towns, roads are well signposted.

Our rental car in Morocco.

Our rental car in Morocco.

In the towns and cities, drive carefully – you see all kinds of vehicles and foot traffic (although autos have the right of way), call ahead to your accommodation for specific directions and you should not have any problems.

Typical road sign.

Typical road sign.

Note: There are speed traps along the highways so be careful and stick to the speed limit, even if its open road. We spent two weeks driving around the country, being very careful with our speed. On our last day I got nailed with a speeding ticket, in a ridiculously slow section of road outside a small town. The police have radar cameras and you will be fined on the spot, so carry some cash. My ticket cost about $35. Gas at the time was about $4 gallon. We had a diesel powered vehicle and got great mileage. Traveling continuously for two weeks cost us about $150 for diesel.

Locations we visited in Morocco are highlighted. We flew in and out of Casablanca.

Locations we visited in Morocco are highlighted. We flew in and out of Casablanca.

There are a few trains, but only between the larger cities. The other way to see the country would be with a tour group. We did not see many large tour buses, mainly smaller groups in vans.

Accommodation and Cost. The country is relatively inexpensive for accommodations (most common are small guest houses called Riads). Most of our Riads were about $75/night for very nice rooms, most with breakfast included and wifi.

Typical Riad room, this one is in Rabat.

Typical Riad room, this one is in Rabat.

Every host was very kind and observed the local custom of offering tea and biscuits on arrival.

The tea and biscuit welcome at our Riad in Fez.

The tea and biscuit welcome at our Riad in Fez.

Our room in Fez.

Our room in Fez.

Food. We thought the food was decent (and inexpensive), it’s just pretty much the same everywhere you go. Most restaurants serve the same kinds of food: brochettes, salads, frites (fries), and tajines (clay pot slow cooked dishes).

Typical Moroccan meal - the food is generally very good.

Typical Moroccan meal – the food is generally very good.

Typical Moroccan menu.

Typical Moroccan menu.

After a couple weeks, it gets a bit monotonous. There is the occasional Pizza Hut or McDonald’s, but they are just in the big cities.

Religious Observance. The prevailing religion is Islam. Most mosques and some monuments are off limits to tourists, but other shrines are open to tourists. Your guidebook can point these out.

Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, one of the few active Muslim shrines that non-muslims may visit, in the city of Meknes.

Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, one of the few active Muslim shrines that non-muslims may visit, in the city of Meknes.

It’s a good idea to be aware of the local festivals that may be occurring during your visit. We had a very interesting one while we were there that I will explain in a future post.

Baksheesh. Plan on paying lots of small tips for all kinds of services (porting your luggage, getting directions, etc.). This is similar to Egypt and India and many other less developed countries.

Safety and Other. The country felt very safe, we never had any cause to worry. Follow the usual precautions of protecting your valuables, knowing your surroundings and not displaying expensive jewelry or loads of money. The larger cities are somewhat chaotic (for example, crowds, rubble, interesting smells), but not nearly to the extent one finds in India.

Argan oil for sale - used for a number of skin and hair applications.

Argan oil for sale – used for a number of skin and hair applications.

Shopping is good for certain things – ancient sea fossils, argan oils, spices and leather goods can be found in abundance.