Morocco – a country that is rich in landscapes, culture, religious diversity, intellectual and philosophical traditions and not to mention the influence it exerted throughout history in the form of (indigenous Berber and Arabic) dynasties and empires that reached Northern Africa and Spain. Today, Morocco has something to offer everyone: from delicious cuisine, gorgeous historic land sites, to just chilling in the dessert with camels – all of which make it a lovely vacation abode (I am not biased – I swear!). With an open mind and a humanist view, I surrendered myself to what Morocco had to offer. A beautiful (road) trip ensued. This travel log (which is long, but bear with me) will offer tips for those wanting to visit Morocco as a tourist and those who seek something more spiritual: I got what you need.
- Marrakech; and
- Kelaat M’Gouna
The Diversity of Fez
We flew from Eindhoven to Fez, Morocco. The first city of our trip. Fez is considered as the spiritual capital of Morocco. Why? Historically, the city was characterized and dominated by philosophical and religious thought: why are we on this planet, why do we act certain ways, what is the purpose of life and how can one connect to God in essence? Fez was home to a great number of thinkers who found answers in Sufism. Sufism can be explained as the as the inner dimension of Islam. It focuses on the soul and how to take care of it. Religion and internal self-purification are seen as building blocks – you cannot have one without the other. I see spirituality as a necessity in cultivating humility and keeping the ego at a distance. Islam is the foundation and Sufism is the inner form. In one word: asceticism. Many Sufi Orders originated in Fez and have left an undeniable spiritual impact on the country. Sufism in Morocco is almost inherent to the country.
(More on Sufism below.)
The Medina of Fez is one of the most preserved historic old towns in the Muslim world. The architecture is vitamin to the eyes. It has fourteen gates of entry to the city (most famous and majestic is the Blue Gate as shown in the photo album) and the interiors of each mosque differ in beauty. The first university in the world was established right here in Fez by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri (what stereotype?). The University of al-Qarawiyyin still serves as a learning center for people all over the world (but mostly from West Africa and Spain) till this day. A beautiful patio connects the University to a mosque and library. Definitely a must see! The famous tanneries in the old medina are also worth a visit. There are a few top hills that provide terrific panoramic views of the city (from e.g. Jnan el Ouard). In terms of nightlife, there are plenty of restaurants, clubs and rooftop terraces in the old and new medina where you can enjoy the nice views while sipping on some Moroccan (na3na3) mint tea or a beer.
Not to forget, Fez is also known as the city of ceramic artistry. They produce the most stunning and impressive ceramics I have ever seen. You cannot visit Fez without stopping by a ceramic shop. It is the place to be to get lost in shopping!
I would recommend visitors to stay in Riads (traditional Moroccan homes) rather than hotels to get the full Moroccan experience, especially in Fez: you will find yourself in ancient times surrounded by the sound of the Adhan (call to prayer) 5 times a day. A lovely getaway in all its simplicity.
| Islam is the foundation and
Sufism is the inner form |
What’s the deal with Rabat?
Moving on from Fez, we rented a car (keep in mind that deposits can be high – ranging from 1000 euros at least) and travelled to our next destination Casablanca (3-4 hour drive) but not without passing through Rabat first (an hour from Casa). Rabat is the (political) capital of Morocco. It is not your average old city with traditional architectural buildings like in Fez, it is starting to get more urban and gentrified. However, there is one place worth to visit: the Andalusian Gardens (Kasbah Oudaia). This Garden is a striking Moorish monument of Al-Andalusian architecture: appreciation of nature through the creation of botanical gardens influenced by Islam. Also, there are a few interesting museums such as the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Besides that, the beaches are beautiful and clean. A drive along the coast with sunset will give you great views. Overall, 1-2 days in Rabat is sufficient.
In terms of gentrification and urbanizing, the same applies to Casablanca. It has become a relative metropolitan city. You either like or you do not, there is no in between I believe. For those who enjoy big and commercial cities, Casablanca is for you. You can enjoy a walk through the little medina, go on a shopping spree (Morocco Mall) or hit up the beautiful King Hassan II mosque (influenced by Al-Andalus) on the coast for amazing pictures. I was very eager to leave this city for nature and old villages, to be honest.
Andalusian Garden – Rabat
Marrakech it is!
A 3-4 hour drive from Casablanca lies the impressive city of Marrakech. Home to the famous and always lively Djemaa el Fna square (for food and entertainment), an epic medina and amazing classic to modern architecture. This city is often called the Red city because of the terracotta coloured bricks of the buildings which add a nice touch. Marrakech is a special city – the air, the smells, the souqs, mosques and mountains all make it a magical place. However, it can be chaotic. It is a city of too many impressions and way too many scooters for my liking. Also, always keep an eye out and be firm in dealing with sales people as a tourist. Visit palaces such as Bahia Palace and allow yourself to be fully subsumed by amazing and majestic Islamic architecture that continues to influence many other societies and cultures today. Another must see is the Yves Saint Laurent Jardin Majorelle and the Musée Berbere.
Feeling overwhelmed by Marrakech, we drove 1,5 hours to Ourika Valley: a valley of splendid nature from mountains to waterfalls. You can buy a tour to Ourika that will bring you to places such as local argan oil producers (they sell the most natural argan products), ceramic producers and traditional self-sustaining family homes. It is also possible to enjoy a sweet camel ride (although I could not enjoy it fully due to my conscious).
Hike up to the Ourika Valley waterfalls. There are cute restaurants at the bottom of the river where you can literally have a seat at a table in the water. Hiking the way up, you will find vendors trying to make a living off of the many visiting tourists by selling for example handmade bracelets to traditional Moroccan clothing. The sound and vision of fresh, cold and clean water coming out of the mountain is breath-taking. Once you’ve reached the top, enjoy a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice while sitting by the water watching the powerful waterfall coming down.
(N.B: Check with your Riad (or hotel) – they usually offer such trips for tourists.)
Sufism – Kelaat M’Gouna
Now to the good stuff. The whole purpose of our trip was to attend an Islamic conference in Kelaat M’Gouna: a wonderful ancient village also known as the Rose City because of the M’Gouna Valley of Roses. The city hosts a yearly rose festival in May and is the country’s largest manufacturer of rose products. The city center is characterised by pink cabs, and obviously roses everywhere! We stayed in a Riad in a beautiful region looking into the stunning Valley. (N.B. make a pit stop in Ouarzazate: a small city that attracts tourists and film industries because of its effortless beauty.)
The (8 hour) route through the Atlas from Marrakech to Kelaat itself was amazing. Being surrounded by nothing more than huge mountains and nature is a soulful experience. It is a reminder of how small we as creatures really are in this world. It is a humble feeling. A reminder of the Greatness of the Lord Almighty. Evidently, I would recommend everyone to drive through the atlas mountains; this in itself can be such a spiritual realization.
As a practising Muslim and someone who continuously seeks food for spirit and soul, I aim to reflect upon my religion with my heart and mind as Islam teaches me to think, analyse and not to submit blindly. Hence, attending the Islamic conference (Moussem), which was a Sufi gathering of Quran recitation and lectures, was an important step in my development.
The emotional and very spiritual international Moussem gathering of Dhikr (remembrance of God, here in the form of Quran recitation) opened my eyes in realizing where I belong as a woman and a Muslim. I have tasted the sweetness of my faith. Even though I travel and meet Muslims everywhere, this was different. I met amazing souls in the country of my roots – a country I consider to not be Islamic. This was a pleasant surprise all due to an open-minded attitude. The spiritual gathering was attended by people of at least 35 nationalities. What made it special is that people gathered from all over the world to worship God. An amazing diverse community, yet all of us had similar goals: strive for the highest ihsan (excellence), humility and taqwa (fear and integrity) for the sake of God. Prophet Muhammad (saw) did not have to withdraw from this world in order to be detached from it. Something deeper and complicated is recommended to us: the detachment of the heart to this world. The Moussem exemplified this.
Having been part of the dhikr conference one month prior to Ramadan 2016 contributed to achieving tranquility and consciousness, not to mention, self-reflection with the heart; a process inherent to Ramadan. Overall, liberation, purpose and respect were defining elements of the trip.
Reminiscing about Morocco and the conference in specific fills my heart with happiness. Kelaat M’Gouna is the perfect location for a spiritual getaway such as the Moussem. I can say with strong belief that Morocco will bewitch you, mind, body and soul and is a nice taste of what the diverse and beautiful continent of Africa has to offer.
With today’s forms of xenophobia and racism, it was a breath of fresh air to see Moroccan Berbers, Arabs, Jews and Christians live together in peace– side by side for centuries. The world needs a lot more of such tolerance, respect and love. Let us not focus on our differences, but instead on our commonalities.
Peace and Love,