The Malta Independent 22 May 2019, Wednesday

FIRST: Morocco in the winter

First Magazine Thursday, 14 February 2019, 10:45 Last update: about 4 months ago

This was not my first time travelling to Morocco, however it was the first time that I would be visiting the country during its not-so-sunny months: the months of camel-riding, surfing, camping and other experiences which are somewhat synonymous with Morocco. 

Air Malta has recently launched a direct flight to Casablanca. Before this, it was always necessary to either take two flights in order to get there or fly to Southern Spain, followed by a ferry ride to the North African country.  So when I came across reasonably-priced direct flights during December and January, I was intrigued to see what the country would be like during its cooler period. I carried out some quick Internet-research to confirm that the weather was actually bearable, and then planned a week-long adventure: from Casablanca to Meknes, Chefchaouen, and Fes and then back to Casablanca.

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Meknes, Casablanca, Fes and Chefchaouen all seemed ideal as they included experiencing Morocco's cosmopolitan life (Casablanca), old imperial cities (Fes), the less touristic side of the country (Meknes) and the must-see beautiful part of the North, Chefchaouen.

One ideal thing about travelling in Morocco is that it is relatively easy to get from place to place: it has one of the best transport systems in the whole of Africa. However, if you are only staying for a week or less, it makes sense to visit places that are relatively close to each other, because travelling times can be quite lengthy. My travel buddy and I decided to go to some places in the Northern region, mostly because it was the only part of the country I had not yet visited properly and the fact that Google advises that winter is not the best time to visit the desert in the South and that December would not provide the weather to enjoy the beach life that the West side has to offer.

However, since the sun is present but not unbearably hot, winter is a wonderful time for hiking and wandering around. The weather we experienced was actually very pleasant: you generally needed to wear a light jumper, jacket and trousers during the day, but you could easily stay in a t-shirt when seated in a sunny area. As we made our way north, especially at higher altitudes, to Chefchaouen, the weather became slightly colder during the day and much colder at night, so packing a scarf and hat is a good idea.

Morocco can be experienced properly without the need for a bank-account-breaking budget. You can get some beautiful accommodation in a riad: (a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior courtyard or garden) for around €20-25 per person per night; travelling from one place to another by bus costs about €10 for, say, a four-hour journey and you can also get great food without spending too much. However, be warned: your expenditure might increase with the number of beautiful bits and pieces that you fall for in the markets!

Casablanca

I think the best adjective I can think of to describe Casablanca, Morocco's largest city, is ' soulful'. In the Old Medina, the older, heart of the city, life moves at a different pace to the more metropolitan and westernised hustle and bustle just outside it. Casablanca, although perhaps rather grubby-looking, is filled with architectural, cultural and typographical treasures if you look well enough. In fact, whilst in Casa (as it is called there), one activity I really enjoyed was walking around the streets and spotting old Art deco buildings - eye candy the city is full of.

Another really impressive place to visit in Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque, which is the fifth largest mosque in Africa and is built on reclaimed land. It has a mix of traditional design with modern elements: Moorish and Moroccan influences working hand-in-hand with urban design. Some features of the mosque include an open roof, a lift that takes you up to the top of the minaret and large windows overlooking the sea.

But - grand things apart - what I enjoyed most in Casablanca was just walking around it, through marketplaces and roughly-surfaced streets, stopping for coffee at road-side cafes.

Meknes

You can get to Meknes from Chefchaouen by a four-hour-long coach ride. Visiting Meknes is getting a glimpse of modern-day Morocco - where you do not see a tourist on every corner. It is actually Morocco's former capital city and has an imperial past, noticeable through its architecture and design. Much of it was inspired by the Sultan Moulay Ismail, who turned Meknes into his capital in the 17th century.  One day and night in Meknes is enough to take in most of what there is to see.

Chefchaouen

We reached Chefchaouen by taking an hour-long taxi ride to Fes (which costs about €2) and a six-hour-long coach ride from Fes to Chefchaouen, which is located in the northwest, up in the Rif Mountains. (I would recommend taking motion-sickness pills for those of you who usually need them!)  However, following the long, uphill journey you take one glance at your destination through your condensation-covered window, and know that the motion sickness was worth it. The blue city - called so because of the blue washed walls of the old town - nestled as it is in the middle of a majestic mountain range - is a slightly jaw-dropping sight and the life inside it does not disappoint.

In most places in Morocco, just spending the day walking around a city's streets, and stopping for a mint tea every so often, is enough to get a reasonable impression of it , and the same is true of this blue city. However, if you are up for a mini adventure, I would recommend walking up to the Spanish Mosque, which takes about 20 minutes from the centre, for a stunning view of the city. There are also longer hiking routes in the area, some of them over a number of days and including a potential visit to the Akchour waterfalls.

The December weather was actually beneficial when it came to walking. In Morocco's hotter seasons, which dominate the weather for the majority of the year, it would be stifling to walk uphill for 20 minutes to reach the Spanish Mosque. However, the milder sun and cool breeze made it the perfect hiking weather.  I would recommend staying in Chefchaouen for two or three nights before getting a bus back to Fes - this time downhill.

 

Fes

It was my first time visiting Fes and I was quite dubious about it since literally everyone who had visited before me warned that it is anxiety-inducing as a place, with the maze-like medina and more-than-usual-amount of hagglers trying to get you to buy their bags and rugs. However, my experience of it seemed to prove otherwise. Fes did indeed contrast with the atmosphere in Chefchaouen with its bustle and faster pace of things.

However, it is charming in its bustle, and is seemingly prepared to handle crowds of tourists, both with tidiness and with amount products on offer. The only time we experienced slight hassle was when a young man kept encouraging us to follow him to the leather tannery - a must see place in Fes - whilst expecting to get paid for giving direction - more of a nuisance than worrisome. In such instances it works to inform them that you have been already or don't wish to go there.

I would recommend spending one night in Fes, then making your way back to Casa on a four-hour-long coach ride.

 

 


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