I love to travel the world as much as I love to capture it with my photography. I am most happy when I am able to embrace both of my passions at the same time. Earlier this year I set off to Morocco, a gorgeous, diverse, Muslim country in North Africa that I have been wanting to visit for years.
My husband Philippe, son Elie, and I explored various parts of this historic, breathtakingly beautiful country, even traveling part of the road that served as the original Trans-Saharan trade route. Trade routes across the Sahara Desert were a crucial part of the global trading network in the medieval era, crossing between the Mediterranean coast of Africa to the empires in the Niger River basin. Similar to those that travelled this route thousands of years before us, we relied on caravans of camels and native Moroccan guides to assist along the way.
Our memorable journey took us from the bustling city of Marrakech to the remote Sahara Desert, the coastal resort of Essaouira, and trekking through the majestic High Atlas Mountains. The incredible culture and landscape of this historic country can not be overstated.
Marrakech, Morocco’s capital city, is a truly magical place, overflowing with markets, gardens, palaces and mosques. We walked along the bustling streets of the Medina, meeting local vendors and indulging in the sweet and savory aromas of the city’s vibrant spices and the gorgeous textiles and handmade fabrics draped throughout. We stopped to hear the monotone sounds from nearby mosques calling for prayer, reverberating across the Medina’s maze and up the mountainside.
As customary, we were often greeted with a Moroccan mint tea offering–green tea steeped with lots of spearmint and noticeably sweet–any time we met someone or visited a new place. Our love for tea deepened with this symbol of hospitality, not to mention the flavor was simply delicious. We further enjoyed the country’s traditions by visiting a Moroccan bath house known as a hammam, tasting delicious tagines or slow-cooked stews packed with things like lamb, prunes, cinnamon and chili, while also respecting the Muslim custom of not drinking alcohol. We soaked it all up.
To further appreciate the local culture we hired a friendly tour guide and anthropologist named Afrahim of Atlas Journey Tour Company to escort us from Marrakech to the Sahara Desert. Afrahim was an immensely valuable resource and educated us on many local traditions we otherwise wouldn’t have known. Figs, he said, must be eaten with olive oil, and are a known remedy for high cholesterol and digestive health. Nuts and dried fruit are incredibly popular across Moroccan cuisine and are readily found lining the city markets. Afrahim informed us that its also customary to eat dates in odd numbers, as it creates balance in one’s physical and mental state, ensuring a happier life. Food is essential to Moroccan culture, and as Afrahim stated “when your stomach is empty your mind does not work,” to that we fully agree.
Morocco is known for its food, but above all its landscape, especially the majestic Sahara Desert. We began our journey there with a drive to the edge of Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco’s Saharan ergs–impressively large seas of dunes formed by wind-blown sand. As we approached, the landscape turned from a rocky, gray mixture to a brilliant, orange colored sand. A line in the sand was literally drawn before us, signifying the beginning of our journey on camelback.
We trekked to our camp as the sun went down, the sky first changing from pink, to orange, then blue, to purple–warming up then cooling down as we rode on. We passed quaint oases and amazing dunes–smooth, perfect, uniform colored crests against the striking blue sky. The peaceful silence of the desert was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and the absence of sound so overwhelming it felt as if I was underwater.
Eventually we arrived to our camp, a comfortable, colony of tents nestled among the sand. We approached the main entrance, and a pathway of colorful woolen carpets led the way to a dining tent where we gathered to eat and enjoy a hanging fire. As the almost full moon rose up, we sat back to enjoy the soothing music of djembe and conga drums under the stars. According to Afrahim, the desert can be navigated by the sun, the color of the sand, the smell in the air and, when the sun goes down, most accurately by the stars. Luckily for us we had him to show us the way and we were able to appreciate every moment.
From the desert we travelled to Essaouira, a bright and breezy port city on the Atlantic Coast, offering a more laid back alternative to the frantic streets of Marrakech. Essaouira boasts a noticeably European vibe, explained by it’s French influenced history. The present city of Essaouira was built during the mid-eighteenth century by the Moroccan King Mohammed III, who hired a French engineer, and several other European architects and technicians to build the fortress and city along modern lines.
Essaouira also maintains the elements of a romantic, resort community, and the beaches are a popular surfing destination, something Philippe and Elie took full advantage of. Morocco is known as one of the best winter spots for European surfers, and Essaouira carries the local title of “the windy city,” making it relatively consistent for good surfing conditions year round. While my family rode the local waters I embraced the local food scene, educating myself in the authentic style of tagine cooking, a technique I brought home and have been experimenting with to get me through the winter months.
From Essaouira we trekked to the High Atlas, a.k.a Grand Atlas Mountains in central Morocco, a magnificent range that stretches eastward from the Atlantic Ocean to the Moroccan-Algerian border. Again we enlisted help, this time a four legged sherpa named Charlotte to help carry our luggage and food, and were rerouted due to heavy snow. Along the way we encountered several Berbers, a group of people whose culture dates back to prehistoric times. Amazingly, Berbers have remained uncolonized, and have managed to preserve their own language and culture, while living in the mountains of Morocco. We met Berber nomads and visited several Berber villages, where we were again greeted by friendly faces with Moroccan mint tea.
When I think about our range of experiences and the many people who contributed to our journey I am filled with gratitude for our time there. From the stunning architecture of its ancient cities, to its sweeping deserts, and epic mountain ranges, Morocco is a place that fills you with warmth and vitality wherever you go. The opportunity to explore a place so different than our daily life is a gift, and Morocco is a gift to the world.
To learn more about life in present-day Morocco and the country’s diverse culture I recommend reading The Lost Treasure of King Juba.