Why Your Next Family Holiday Should Be To Morocco
The density of humanity is rich.
The sites are kaleidoscopic: lights, colours, the bizarre. The noise is of hustling, haggling, conferring, trading and buying.
Everything is for sale, bunched together in a thousand small shops. The carpet seller is next to the tourist knick-knack shop, adjacent to the barber, which in turn is next to the butcher displaying tripe and a row of goats’ heads.
And the smells are of Arabia: poultry, fish, tanneries, donkey dung mixed in with the delights of the sweetest smelling perfumes in the world.
This is the medina: the old town in any given Moroccan city.
The streets are alleyways, far too small for cars, but the cars come anyway. If they physically can’t, then motorbikes take their place, tooting their horns and squeezing past.
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Sometimes there are buildings atop the alleys which means that one moment you can see the sky and the next your head is bowed as you make your way through a small tunnel. And then on the other side a majestic courtyard will reveal itself complete with beautiful bags or pottery or handcrafts.
Life is packed into the medina. In just a few square kilometres, the Fes medina is home to 150,000 people. Unlike the others, motorised transport is not allowed here: the donkey is still the taxi of this medina. As such it is one of the largest urban areas in the world free of cars.
Parts of the Fes medina are over a thousand years old. Workers in the tanneries are simply the most recent generation of families stretching back over centuries who have been engaged in the same pursuit. The continuum of human existence here is palpable.
Australia is a country of space, a continent nation with quarter acre blocks. But the energy of life in Morocco is derived from close proximity. Human herds, jammed together seem required to enable productivity and work, joy and laughter, and the Moroccan spirit to flourish.
Morocco is all about the medina. And seen through the eyes of a child, this is the most startling, overwhelming and intoxicating cup of life they will have ever drunk.
Our family trip to Morocco, involving three kids aged eight, 11 and 14, began with a hair-raising crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar on a very windy and rough December’s day. It added to a simmering anxiety we had about taking our family to Morocco.
The Smartraveller Advisory for Morocco suggests the exercise of “a high degree of caution in Morocco because of the threat of terrorist attacks,” and to "pay close attention to your personal security at all times.”
This is reasonable advice that is wise to accept. But the Advisory also makes clear that "we are not saying ‘don’t go’ to this location. Rather, you should research specific threats and take extra precautions.”
The streets of Morocco are not familiar. We certainly kept an eagle eye on our kids at all times. Some youths tried to pickpocket my daughter. That wasn’t pleasant. And there was a terrorist related incident in the Atlas Mountains a couple of weeks before we arrived. Of course, random violence can happen in the safest of places.
But, that said, we very quickly established that Morocco is a country where the necessities of life -- housing, food and transport which can define a family adventure -- are smoothly navigated and family friendly. And ultimately we did feel safe and it wasn’t long before the anxiety evaporated.
Minivan cabs known as Grand Taxis were easily organised. Our Airbnb accommodation, usually in the heart of the medinas, were astoundingly good and places of refuge when the chaos of the street became too much. And the local cuisine of tagines were lapped up by our kids in abundance and all at a cost of $10 per head.
That you are in a very different place becomes crystal clear as the first sounds of the day come floating into the bedroom at about 6.30am. The call to prayer is the hallmark of the Muslim world. A beautifully solemn chant summons the faithful to partake in one of the five pillars of Islam: the five prayers of the day.
Our first day trip was to the blue city of Chefchaouen. Nestled in the Rif mountains, a couple of hours south of Tangier, this gorgeous town has a medina literally painted blue. Add to this the splashes of colour that come from carpets and textiles being displayed outside of shops, along with sacks of natural powder dyes and spices and the result is the most stunning streetscape.
Chefchaouen is far from the only unique town in Morocco. Moulay Idriss is a holy city perched on twin peaks with a divine panorama. And Ait-Ben-Haddou is a centuries old town built out of mud and clay on the edge of the Sahara that seems to have literally grown out of the earth.
Morocco is also a country of great natural beauty. The highest of the Atlas Mountains were snow-capped during our visit and excursions to them yielded spectacular drives snaking up mountainsides overlooking dramatic valleys. Within a couple of hours of Fes is a national park which contains the majority of the world’s Barbary Apes.
These monkeys will happily jump onto the car in the hope of securing a peanut or a piece of fruit. For the game there are bags of nuts that can be purchased to feed them. They are bold and cheeky and completely at ease with people. For our youngest the visit to the monkeys was the highlight of the trip.
More than most placed I’ve been, in Morocco there is a sense of meeting the people.
This has its confronting side. With thousands of traders fighting over a significant stream of tourists, the pressure to make the sale is intense. Within a minute of walking through the medinas the constant and pressing pitch of the traders will start. But soon enough you’ll find your legs and this behaviour will recede into background noise that you’ll stop noticing.
On the other hand, as I think about the Moroccans I met, the overwhelming sense is of a string of charming people who assisted us along the way and made our holiday a delight.
These were all people with whom the pre-planning of our holiday had brought us into contact. From Mohammed to Fatima, all were friendly, trustworthy and eager to help. They left a lasting impression of a people who liked to connect and went the extra mile to ensure that we were enjoying ourselves.
Our odyssey ended in Marrakech. In the centre of the medina is the Jemaa el-Fna Square.
By day snake charmers and monkey handlers are enticing onlookers to photograph, to touch, to hold. Henna artists sit ready to make their mark. A street dentist had his instruments of extraction ready to deal with any aberrant tooth. And a myriad of stall holders and food vendors attested to the virtue of their goods.
By night clowns, acrobats, magicians and storytellers gathered groups around them as they held court. Sellers of lamps produced beautiful lighted arrays on the pavement which seemed to transform patches of the Square into stained glass windows. Drums were beaten, Arabic guitars were played, symbols clashed, middle eastern oboes were blown. Along with the cooking, the sights, sounds and smells were seething life.
And it is this way in Jemaa el-Fna every night and every day. It is Morocco distilled.
Morocco is out there, which is why kids love it. But with planning and a willingness to just go with it, Morocco can be done with a family. And when you fly home with the holiday over the bounds of your children’s world will have grown immeasurably.
And that is a gift that lasts a lifetime.