Just a hop, skip and a jump from the South of Spain -although going by ferry is more relaxing- Morocco offers a cocktail of hustle and bustle and chill time. Fixed prices? Customer service? Forget it. You want, you haggle. You don’t haggle, you probably won’t get.
If you’re foreign, expect aggressive sales pitches in any city you go to. If you’re foreign and female, prepare yourself for the stares, the gropes and the comments. If you’re foreign, female and easily offended by the reactions of hot-blooded males, Morocco probably isn’t for you. If you’re foreign, female and blonde - shave your head before you go.
Travellers complain about the hassle. Hassle there is and lots of it, but this is understandable in a country where much of the population is poor. A firm ‘non merci’ usually does the trick - although I guess being 1m 95 helped my cause. But the hassle is part of the atmosphere. Take the main square in Marrakesh - Djemaa El Fna- a melee of salesmen, snake-charmers, musicians, dentists, barbecues and orange-juice stalls. Soak it all up at ground level and then rise above it all to a restaurant terrace and soak it up again. The place is electrifying.
Another favourite was the Medina -old part of town- in Fez, another of Morocco’s four imperial cities. Basically a giant market built along a sloping maze of narrow streets hiding architectural wanders such as Koranic schools, the place is fascinating. You can buy anything there and see just about anything related to the arts and crafts including leather jackets and sheepskin coats in all their different stages of production - not for faint-hearted vegetarians.
But once you’re exhausted, you can easily escape and chill out, even in most of the big cities. Mint tea helps relax the muscles and the mind, as do stunning gardens adorned with fountains and flowers. Arabic art and architecture is also somehow soothing with its emphasis on patterns rather than pictures or forms.
The landscape is surprisingly varied for a country often know best for the dunes of the Sahara desert. But camels and English Patient filmsets are only part of the story: greenish Rif mountains in the North punctuated by whitewashed towns such as Chefchaouen; golden beaches along the West coast; the towering Atlas mountains with its arid ridges and lush green oasis valleys.
If you can get to Ouarazazate you’re in the Hollywood of Morocco. Don’t laugh now, they were filming a major Hollywood movie while I was there which will be coming to a silver screen near you soon. Venture a few hours South and you’re in the Sahara proper.
Politically, Morocco is not the most tolerant place in the world. The state controls practically everything and you won’t go into many buildings and not see a picture of King Hassan. Big brother Hass is most definitely watching you. But there’s plenty for the traveller to watch too, most of which will make you want to come back for more of Morocco’s mellow madness.