This past weekend I was able to travel somewhere I never thought I would be able to reach. My friend and co-worker in my internship in Barcelona (Megan) and I found a Spanish tour group that offers guided visits through Northern Morocco. Now, why Morocco? Arabic culture has fascinated me for a long time. Maybe it’s because it’s so difficult for Americans to experience or because so many Americans completely misunderstand it. Regardless, I want to try to understand.
When I told my parents I wanted to travel to Morocco because it was Spain’s African neighbor to the south, they were hesitant. It’s not exactly the European Union with its long-established infrastructure and deeply rooted history with the United States. Once I pitched them the tour, however, they understood that it truly was safe (Morocco was one of the only Arabic nations to escape the Arab Spring and permits Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together in harmony). Megan and I flew into Málaga in Southern Spain Thursday night and met about 20 other students our age outside Málaga’s city hall Friday morning. From there, we drove southwest toward the Strait of Gibraltar.
Megan and I decided to spend the extra 20€ to include a tour of Gibraltar in our package,
and we definitely made the right decision. Gibraltar is located on the southwestern-most tip of Spain, but it’s been a British overseas territory since the early 1700s. So, when you cross the border in Algeciras, Spain, you end up on Winston Churchill Way standing next to a red telephone booth with a tour guide who speaks English in a British accent. It was very confusing.
The small territory is very militaristic, boasting Europe’s oldest police force and fully-equipped naval and air forces. “The Rock,” which doubles as Gibraltar’s nickname, is actually an enormous cliff that protects a hidden city. There are more miles of roadways inside the rock than outside in the city. We were able to drive to the edge of the city and look across the Bay to see Spain and Africa simultaneously.
If you drive to the top of the rock, you have the opportunity to see the mischievous monkeys of Gibraltar; they’re infamous for pickpocketing tourists. Living up to their descriptors, several monkeys jumped onto the mirror of our tour bus and one pounced on a girl in our group who was holding a small cup of cereal. The monkeys were surprisingly tame and provided us with plenty of entertainment.
A word of advice if you ever find yourself in Gibraltar: Bring some pounds with you! While a couple shops take credit cards or euros, most only take British currency.
After Gibraltar, we headed to the ferry station and boarded our ship to cross the Strait. Another word of advice: If you are worried about seasickness at all, you should bring some Dramamine on this trip. It started raining as soon as we got out onto the water, and almost everyone turned a little green. One hour later, we were officially on the continent of Africa but still technically in the European Union. Ceuta, similar to Gibraltar, is an overseas Spanish territory. So, we had to drive to the Moroccan border and wait in line for customs for another hour.
The border between Morocco and Ceuta is the main passageway from Africa into Europe, so it’s heavily guarded and people are willing to wait for an opportunity to cross over. As a result, when we were leaving Morocco on Sunday, a crowd of children rushed our bus in an effort to clamber underneath and smuggle themselves across. The atmosphere was very tense.
Once we were officially in Northern Morocco, it was only a 20-minute drive to our hotel, which was right on the beach overlooking the Mediterranean! We ate a small dinner and went to bed early so we would be well rested for a long day Saturday.
We had a 7 a.m. wake up call the next morning to leave for Tetuan, Tangier and Chef Chaouen. After a breakfast of roughly 5 different types of bread, we were on our way. Tangier was our first stop to see where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet. We followed that up with a somewhat successful camel riding experience (those things are hard to stay on when they stand up!). Then, we headed to Chef Chaouen, also known as the “Blue City.” I had some preconceptions about what Morocco might be like, but one thing I did not expect was the terrain. Northern Morocco is extremely mountainous, and this affects the residents’ living conditions. Most Moroccans in this region make their income from agriculture or handicrafts like woodworks and weaving. As a result, they are relatively poor. Most homes looked abandoned, but we were informed that they were in fact lived in. Ironically, King Mohammed VI’s and Saudi Arabian King Salman’s ornate palaces dot the countryside.
We needed to drive up into the mountains to reach Chef Chaouen, but once we were there it was breathtaking. The entire city is painted shades of blue, and the buildings seem to grow directly out of the mountain. We ate a fantastic lunch and toured the blue city. Then, we were given a little free time to haggle with the merchants and explore. My friend and I bought a couple things, but our big purchases came on Sunday.
I never felt physically threatened in Morocco, but I won’t lie that the vibe was a little unsettling at times. I only saw one little girl the entire three days, and the women were few and far between. The men, however, stood outside their homes or shops and catcalled in Arabic or what few English and Spanish words they knew. We didn’t let this one negative aspect of their culture get to us, though.
After Chef, we headed back to Tetuan to dine in an old Arabic palace that’s only used for special events today. There was a traditional belly dancing performance and drummers and other musicians put on a show as well. We ate soup, a vegetable medley, beef in a
spiced tomato sauce and couscous doused in chicken and curry. By the time we went back to the hotel, Megan and I were exhausted and fell asleep quickly but satisfied.
We had another early morning Sunday and drove directly to Tetuan for a tour of the city. We saw another one of the king’s palaces and then listened to a presentation about Moroccan herbal medicine. Finally, we were set loose in the leather goods market. Megan knew she wanted to buy a bag there, and I had been on the hunt for a hand-woven tapestry the entire trip. We both emerged successful after bargaining down some Moroccan merchants for our products. It turns out most people in Morocco speak Arabic and Spanish, so we were able to communicate much easier than expected.
When we boarded the bus with our hand-crafted goods, we were extremely sad to be leaving Morocco and left with a desire to see much, much more of the country. The terrain in Southern Morocco is supposed to be very different (I mean the Sahara is down there), and it’s a region better known for tourism.
I wouldn’t trade this trip for anything, though. I’m so thankful I was given the opportunity to experience something so different from anything I’ve seen before.
PS So many details were left out of this blog post because I don’t want to bore you all to death, but please ask me about my trip when I come home! Morocco was incredible.