As much as I planned, strategized, organized, scheduled, researched, and TripAdvisor-ed (that’s a verb now, right?) before my travels, nothing could prepare me for just how magical Morocco is.
While my preparations painted a brilliant picture of a vibrant and bustling country, rich with history and culture, experiencing things – in this case, a country – firsthand revealed many unexpected revelations that I was thrilled to discover….in most cases.
1/ THE CITIES ARE COLOUR-CODED
Marrakech is known as the Red City as all the buildings were constructed with red sandstone, a compulsory colour out of respect for the King. The northwest city of Chefchaouen is awash in shades of blue as it was established by Moorish and Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Reconquista of Spain. In Judaism blue represents the sky and heavens, reminding everyone to live a life of spiritual awareness. The rumour is that the cool tones also repels mosquitos. The all-white city of Casablanca was originally called Anfa as part of the Berber Kingdom but was renamed to Casa Branca under Portuguese rule, meaning “white house.”
2/ MINT TEA IS MADE WITH SEVERAL SPICES
Traditional Moroccan mint tea – also known as “Berber whiskey” – is the beverage of welcome that you can’t take two steps in the streets of Marrakech without being offered a cuppa. At one of the many shops in the spice souk, we discovered that while Morocco’s national drink is mainly comprised of fresh mint (duh) and Chinese green tea gunpowder, it’s also made up of a variety of additional spices such as lemon verbena (for aroma), wormwood (on cold days for warmth), saffron (for a special flavour), and sweetened with star anise and sticks of cinnamon. So addicted now!
3/ A LOT OF MOROCCANS ARE POLYGLOTS
I couldn’t believe – being so far from home – that most of the Moroccans that I encountered in Marrakech spoke at least 3-5 languages! Not only did shop owners in the souk know enough English to try and barter 3,000 camels for me, but also knew Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, even Chinese and Japanese! This is due in part to tourism but I think it’s also because as the history of Morocco spans several millennia, naturally countries (such as France and Spain) have been fighting for dominion over the amazing Berber kingdom for as long and at one time or another claimed control.
4/ THE DESERT CAN BE FREEZING
Despite being one of the “world’s hottest deserts,” my experience of the Sahara didn’t align with my preconceived notions of scorching hot sand dunes. The reality was me attempting to sleep while violently shivering in my down coat along with every item of clothing I had packed. Despite being in Marrakech in December, the weather was perfectly pleasant, requiring only a light wrap. It was the same during the day in the desert as the sunlight would heat the sand which heats the air but at night the heat escapes into space making the temperature drop dramatically.
5/ A CITY OF CONTRAST
The rough hewn outer buildings in conjunction with the unpaved streets in old Marrakech does not hint at the luxury to be found hidden beyond their inconspicuous walls. Often my senses would be completely overwhelmed by all the sights and shop owners in the souks and would stumble through a plain terracotta doorway to find myself in a tucked away oasis. The bustling streets were a jarring contrast to the opulent elegance of hidden riads, the sprawling palaces, ornate zellij tiles and stone carvings adorning the museums and the Ben Youssef Medusa. I also didn’t expect so much greenery could be found in the red city, from Jardin Majorelle, to the many verdant parks, and lemon and orange trees in the courtyards of restaurants.
6/ PATTERNS IN RUGS ARE NOT MERELY DECORATIVE
If I wanted to bring home one keepsake from my travels to Morocco, it was a traditional, hand-woven rug. As I engaged in stern haggling with shopkeepers, I found that Moroccans LOVE to regale visitors with stories and facts of the rich history of their beloved country. The patterns on rugs are not arbitrary, decorative shapes but all deliberate symbolism relating back to Moroccan cultural beliefs. For example, repeated diamonds represent a ward against the evil eye, snakes are signs of loyalty, and beetles are symbols of hope.