A first look at Morocco

MarocMap1As I sit here shivering in an Arctic blast of early winter weather, it’s hard to believe that 7 weeks ago we were in the sunny, dry climes of Morocco. We spent a good chunk of October traveling in Portugal, Spain, and Morocco with my brother and sister-in-law … plus a few dozen new friends who shared our coach tour with us. It was a fast-paced tour covering lots of territory in three weeks. Everything we saw was new to me and, while on the one hand I wish we could have seen everything at a more leisurely pace, I can’t think of anything I would have wanted to miss (well, perhaps a palace or two, and maybe a cathedral every once in a while). I sure wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of our walks through the narrow winding alleys of the medinas of the old parts of the cities we visited throughout Morocco, aka kasbahs. Or our time in the sand dunes of the northern Sahara. Or our drives through the multiple ranges of the Atlas Mountains. We just needed more time, more time!

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Our experiences in southern Portugal and southwest Spain were lovely, including visiting some splendid Moorish architectural gems similar to what can be found in Morocco, a consequence of several centuries of Moorish rule in those areas. However, it was Morocco that captivated us. The story of Morocco is one of which we had virtually no knowledge before our trip, and that is what I’ll focus on in this post.

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The ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar from Tarifa, Spain, to Tangier, Morocco, is a distance of less than 20 miles. This is like the ferry ride between Connecticut and Long Island or Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. But with this ferry ride you’re crossing from one continent to another, and to different cultural realities.

Casablanca!

Casablanca!

Morocco had many surprises for us. We found answers to the question of why it was the only North African country not to undergo the Arab Spring. They had some early rumblings at the time, but the Moroccan monarchy, although an autocracy for sure, seems to understand the need to provide its citizens with progress that translates into improvements in their everyday lives. The monarchy and government have invested in education and housing. Their modern transportation infrastructure and pervasive telecommunication infrastructure is truly impressive.  And they have their eye on employment. Although unemployment is higher than they’d like, it is nowhere near the unemployment rate in Spain, for example.

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If you’re wondering what kind of industry they have, it’s quite varied. Agriculture is impressively diversified, with crops ranging from citrus (oranges, mandarins, and clementines, for starters) to a special resilient strain of bananas growing under enormous canopies of plastic to ingredients for cosmetics to grains. Olive groves are everywhere. Same with date palms. Vast planned cork forests now compete with the aged cork forests of Spain and Portugal for new markets such as cork flooring. And heavy industry is evident along the Atlantic coast. The desert town of Ouarzazate boasts a thriving international movie industry, with Morocco’s largest movie studio and an array of upscale hotels for the stars, supporting cast, directors, and staff that come for their productions. Movies like Lawrence of Arabia and the Gladiators were filmed here; buildings in the desert on the outskirts of town that were former movie sets compete with historic kasbahs. And, as with most emerging nations, Morocco has a significant revenue stream from ex-pats sending money back to their villages. We came away cautiously optimistic that Morocco may become the poster child for a stable and sustainable North Africa.

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If you’re wondering what happened to the housing boom, it moved to Morocco! Regardless of whether we were travelling in big cities (and there are some big cities: Casablanca, for example, is a city of 4 million people) or small desert villages on the east side of the Atlas Mountains, massive numbers of apartment blocks and villas were either newly up or in progress. Some of the building is being done by the government as subsidized housing for civil servants, some by private developers, and some by ex-pats who are changing the landscape and future of their home villages.

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If you’re wondering about education, the government now provides free education to every child, although it needs to work on making early education mandatory, not just free. Its universities are free to qualified students from all walks of life.

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If you’re wondering what the countryside is like, it’s remarkably diverse. There are beautiful beaches and resorts along the coastlines, verdant rolling fields of green throughout the agriculture-intensive Atlantic Plain, extraordinary geological features in the mountainous and desert areas, including canyons, gorges, and sand dunes, and not one but two ski resorts in two different parts of the country!

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If you’re wondering how you will be received by Moroccans, in our experience, very well indeed. The population is a combination of Arab and Berber; languages used include Arabic, French, and Berber languages, and the atmosphere on the streets is relaxed and welcoming. We left Morocco happily impressed.

Pool at our hotel in Erfoud in the desert

Pool at our hotel in Erfoud in the desert

A street in old Fez (the medina)

A street in old Fez (the medina)

A street in modern Fez - a very cosmopolitan city

A street in modern Fez – a very cosmopolitan city

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16 Responses to A first look at Morocco

  1. Such beautiful pictures! What a fantastic time you must have had – brave to ride a camel and all! 🙂

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Jo. It was awesome, but I don’t think I can take credit for being brave. There were some fairly mobility-challenged people in our group who were game. They were brave – and determined!

  2. Joanne says:

    Thanks for sharing some highlights of our adventure. I have been describing our experience in Morocco as modern and ancient at the same time. We saw an abundance of modern development in construction, agriculture and industry, especially in the northern areas and I believe Morocco is a country on the rise. However, the Moroccans have preserved their past culture in the architecture of palaces, mosques and the marketplaces. At times, I felt we were observing a lifestyle which had remained the same for hundreds of years. Moroccans offering trinkets, spices and carpets for sale in the casbahs to travelling strangers……including us.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for this, fellow traveller. Joanne, I think you should have written the post. You’re dead on, it’s modern and ancient at the same time. And I completely forgot to mention about the impressive transportation and ICT infrastructure. I’d better add that. Feel free to become a guest blogger at any time. 🙂

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    Thank you Jane. Your travelogues are always full of information, stuff you actually take time to learn and then impart. Certainly the impression you give is that Morocco is governed wisely with controlled growth for the benefits of everyone, not just those in positions of power.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Roy. This is a place you could go without getting on a plane, and not on a ferry for very long. Just saying! There has to be a subset of the Moroccan population that would fight for more freedom of expression, to say the least; I don’t think dissent is high on the government’s approval list. But it seems to be governed to provide enough benefits to keep most people hopeful. The king is the richest person in all of Africa, so there is no doubt that some of those in power get more benefits than others! Merry Christmas!

  4. You are an amazing travel writer, Jane. What a wonderful anticipation of all the questions I would have asked on such a trip with detailed answers. Thank you. On a west coast storm day, with the wind whipping the trees, the lake an expanse of frothing white caps and rain lashing the cabin, I can’t say how I enjoyed taking this trip through your eyes.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Fran, you do a great job of making me feel good! Thank you. I can imagine your west coast storm; it seems to me that you’re not so far from Tofino, where they make a tourist destination out of the west coast winter storms. We’re due for 30 cm of blowing snow tomorrow – the east coast variety of winter storm. And it’s not even winter yet! Merry Christmas, Fran.

  5. What an amazing time. Lol.. Sitting here in a large classroom taking a break from some work and listening to – 11 degree wind whistle outside making a worse wind chill it’shard nnot to feel a bit of a longing to me on one if the places you just showed 🙂

    • Jane Fritz says:

      What are you doing in a classroom doing work?! What happened to the concept of retirement?! Sitting here with a blanket around me because when it’s -20C before wind chill it’s cold at my desk, and gearing up for 30 cm of snow starting overnight, I couldn’t agree more. But we love winter, right. 🙂

  6. alesiablogs says:

    Amazing trip. I have a friend who just spent a month in Portugal and did not want to come home. HIs son is an exchange student. Maybe one of these days I can travel to this area. : )

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You should. I hope you can. Portugal is a very nice place to visit. After Christmas I’ll write a post about the small amount of it – and Spain – we experienced. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas, Alesia. May the holiday season be kind to you.

  7. DM says:

    I want to go!. 🙂 thank you the virtual tour. I haven’t commented on your recent completion of the 50,000 word novel.A big congratulations on pulling that off!. I loved hearing how the process worked..ie. take the time to firmly develop the characters before you begin and they will drive the story.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, DM. It was an interesting process indeed. And now that I’ve got this far, which turns out to be more of a nice start than anything else, I have to decide what my characters want me to do next! 🙂 Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  8. jennypellett says:

    Definitely on my list! Your pictures are wonderful – I especially like the one showing the cones – of spice or are they sweets? I remember seeing something similar in Jaipur. Also the camel train – how comfortable was that!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Morocco’s been on our list since we lived in the UK in the late 60s! My guess is that we would have found a much different Morocco then. 🙂 Yes, the first cones are spices. I love this way of displaying. The second pic of cones in all different kinds of olives! The camels were OK for the 45 minutes or so that we were on them, and it was a totally awesome experience being in the sand dunes like that, but I thought at the time that being on one for weeks as you crossed the entire Sahara across to Egypt on a caravan would NOT be fun.

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