Feeding The Hungry Soul: A First-Timer Takes On Morocco

Let’s say you’re in Europe, backpacking. Maybe you’ve graduated college recently (like me). Or you’re in your mid-30’s and running away. Or you’re 75 and have lots of time for adventure. You’re finding the café scene in Paris to be a little stuffy, and you’re in need of an intense injection of auditory, sensual, physical, and emotional stimuli.

Well, there is enormous adventure awaiting you in Morocco. What’s stopping you from hopping a plane, or boat, and having the experience of a lifetime? If your soul is hungry for magic and uniqueness, you’re already ready.

This article originally appeared on AFKInsider.com.

Point of Departure: Algeciras, Spain

I started my recent trip in Algeciras, at the southern tip of Spain. A great place to make the Euro-African transition, from here it’s just a short, cheap hop to Morocco. (However, if you’re not already in Europe, long-haul flights to Casablanca or Rabat are available and can be surprisingly inexpensive.)

A lovely and memorable little port town, Algeciras is a great place to spend the night before getting on the ferry. Lots of nightlife exists; go find one of the tiny bars near the water and down some gin and tapas.Schmooze with locals and other foreigners in transit. Everyone here is a bit strange; you have to be colorful to live in this port town, or to want to go to Morocco. Ask the Norwegian next to you about how Morocco really was for him, because you’re a bit nervous and mind-blown that you’re going to Africa for the first time. The next morning, take a bus to Tarifa, driving through green fog and solar windmills in the hills overlooking the sea. If you’re sleep deprived, your grogginess will add to the effect; you’re about to be reborn.

Point of Arrival: Tangier

Ordinarily a straightforward half-hour ferry ride, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar becomes a more meaningful experience when you ponder the immense history of the area. Romans, Vandals, Moors and Spaniards plied these waters for centuries in their quest for trade and empire. Off in the distance, as your boat zooms along, is Jabal Tariq, Arabic for “Mountain of Tariq,” better known as the Rock of Gibraltar, a towering natural landmark where a Moorish castle stands.

Pulling into Tangier, you are in Africa. Immediately, there are taxi drivers and merchants hollering at you. You might see a small monkey on one of their shoulders. Bargain your way for a ride to the medina (old city center), and find yourself a pension. Now it’s time to explore Tangier.

Paul Bowles’ Morocco

If you lack a literary motive for visiting Morocco, pick up “The Sheltering Sky,” the famous 1949 novel by Paul Bowles about an American couple’s existential wanderings through the country. A night’s stay at Bowles’s first digs at Tangier’s now-luxury El Minzah Hotel (85 Rue de la Libertie) will place you near all the clanging, sense-pleasing souks (marketplaces) and cafes that he wrote about in his sullen, dreamy prose. Get a coffee and open up one of his books (“Let it Come Down,” “Points in Time”), or read a biography about him and his turbulent marriage to wife Jane, herself a writer, who joined him in Morocco. Warning: Bowles’ books can elicit a strong sense of loneliness.

Casablanca for Cinema Lovers

Head south from Tangier on the night train and wake up on the Atlantic seaboard in Casablanca. This is going to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship, or so Rick said to Louie in the classic 1944 film “Casablanca.” The largest city in Morocco, this thriving economic epicenter is a feast of visual splendor. (Bear in mind that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman didn’t really rekindle their romance and evade Nazis in this city — it was all filmed on a Hollywood back lot.) Visit the Hassan II mosque (which features the largest minaret in the world, and is the second-largest mosque after the one in Mecca), and capture from its vast plaza some images of the sea sweeping in. Witness the lights blazing across the ancient-meets-modern cityscape from the tower of the Phare d’el Hank lighthouse. Load up your iPod with some Crosby, Stills and Nash, because Marrakech is coming up…

They’re Taking Me to Marrakech!

“Take the train from Casablanca going south…” sang Crosby, Stills and Nash, your dad’s favorite band from the ’60s, in “Marrakech Express.” It’s a real train to a real city. This will be among the most memorable legs of any trip of your life: during this three-hour tour of wonderment, you’ll experience the arid ruggedness of the landscape and feel the spirit of the hippies who first made this route famous. Make sure it’s a day train so you can see the roadside oddities. Yes, you will see camels chewing and chilling on the side of the tracks, and passengers sharing water bottles with strangers in the heat. With every window open and the breeze in your hair, head south towards a transcendental experience in Morocco’s most exotic city.

Welcome to Marrakech

Park yourself at a hotel overlooking the Jemaa el-Fnaa, the central square of the marketplace in the medina. Venture out into the bustling crowd; it will be sweaty and confusing at first, but just chill out and grab a fresh orange juice from one of the wagons piled twelve-high and ten-deep with fruit. There will be snake charmers here wearing fezzes (cylindrical red hats with tails); you cannot even dream up this stuff. Pick a street and start your labyrinthine journey through the souk. Above you, mesh and netting create a tunnel-like effect. The rays of the sun beat through, picking up the dust kicked up by vendor carts jangling bells and hauling trinkets. Yarns and wools are hanging all around, freshly dyed, some of them dripping what appears to be blood (it isn’t). Don’t even think here; lose yourself so much that when you return, you’re ready for a drink on a rooftop terrace.

Ever Heard of Essaouira?

Ah, Essaouira! This is how it happened (we think): the first plucky foreigner to ever visit here just wanted to desperately escape the sensual overload of Marrakech, and just put his finger on a map. There! That place! Take me to that place I can’t pronounce! And that’s what everyone else has done since. This is Morocco Lite. It’s right there on the Atlantic — so quiet, with the ocean gleaming from your private pension room (which shouldn’t cost more than $18 a night, if you do a thorough search). Traverse the small streets and eat in the small cafes.  Make tons of local friends, and get ready to sleep like you couldn’t in Marrakech. Jimi Hendrix sojourned for a bit here, but it might well be you who stays awhile, finding all kinds of peace and time to write the greatest memoirs of North Africa (or life) ever to be read. Your Moroccan metamorphosis is nearly complete!

Tea in the Sahara (Optional)

Only optional because it’s so far from the linear path. However, thousands of wanderers and adventurers every year go for a caravan in the world’s hottest, perhaps most soul-reaching location. You’ll have to travel west from Marrakech on a bus to the small oasis town of Erfoud, “Gate of the Sahara.” Here, you can rent desert motors with some other travelers, or join a Bedouin caravan and venture out into the vast full emptiness. Your psychological state will soon lock in union with the dark orange undulations of sand, the most carnal geological unveiling you will ever see. Cold at night, sweltering during the day, your desert tour comes highly recommended with a camel and an expert of the dunes to lead the way. It’s a bit off the tourist trail, but you will never be the same after seeing sunrise over the Sahara with some tea.

Water in the Mountains

Are you a painter? A photographer? Ouzoud Falls, located on the road heading north between Marrakech and Fez, is worth the trip. You can travel into the Grand Atlas mountains by bus, but a taxi is more fun (don’t pay more than US$30/290 dirhams per person!), and the local driver may blast some thumping Berber music as you wind up and up into the rugged high terrain. There are few hotels, so book ahead. The entire village hugs the falls from above. When you hike down to the base, take a dip in the crystal pools with village women and children. Le Cascade roars down from above. Have a guide take you up there, or find a buddy. Wear shoes! At night, follow the music, as there’s always some somewhere. Young vagabonds mix with the locals for sebsi (traditional long smoking pipe). Someone may offer you the “water of life.” I don’t really know exactly what it is, but drink at your own risk. Have fun.


Fez! Fez! Fez! Time to head back north and go shopppppping!!! You can get here relatively easily from anywhere by bus. It’s a pretty straightforward Moroccan city: new metropolis, old city, bazaar. You’re almost on your way back to Spain, so it’s souvenir time. Every smiling owner of every open-air shop to your left and your right will offer you traditional mint tea, and until you’ve had your fill, accept their invitations. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to their friendly urges to purchase. Load up to your heart’s content and enjoy the last big city on your trip before taking an easy ride back to wherever you started.

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