As we revel in the beautiful scenes that are Paris and London at Christmas, we can’t help be struck by the stark differences in culture, religion, and economic trajectory with Morocco. And as always, we have a renewed appreciation for the happy accident of where we were born and raised.
Strangely, the contrast of travel trips synapses in your brain that heightens the experience on both sides of the divide. Our 25 days in Morocco were a sensory overload at times, but a bustling neighborhood in Paris in the run up to Christmas now feels equally disorienting. There is something to be said for fresh eyes to appreciate your culture.
The Moroccans we met were almost all kind, generous, and friendly, but the culture is very different. Returning to Paris at Chrismas time was a bit like a bucket of cold water being poured over our heads (challenge !?) Morocco is shaped at its core by the religious norms of Islam, leadership by a constitutional monarch, and a history as regional and nomadic traders. These are not things we have a great context for understanding.
But as advocates for car-lite living, Morocco offers an amazing glimpse into urban and village life with little motorized support. The Medinas, Kasbah, and Souks of each place we visited had a distinct personality. Some were lightly touched by tourism (such as Tétouan and Meknès), while others, such as Chechaouen had been reimagined in new colors seemingly just to make perfect Instagram photos.
The larger Medinas, such as Fès and Marrakech are more a hybrid; with tourist influences concentrated to one district (like Jenaa El Fnaa or Bab Boujeloud)
I think Fès, with its size, extremely narrow alleys, constant dead ends, and some significant slopes and stairs was probably my favorite to observe and explore the real heartbeat of modern medina life.
But regardless of the number of tourists in the various medinas, they are all living communities with thousands of residents and thousands more who come to shop, sell, eat, or stroll. The infrastructure often looks precarious and hand methods are frequently the primary construction tool, with small scooter-trucks, hand pushed cart, or donkeys with saddle bags. Nothing is easy, but in land where labor is pretty cheap, and higher end construction materials dear, this is the continued ways in most of the medinas of Morocco.
As someone noted in their review of the Riad where we stayed in Fes., “you walk out the door to the Middle Ages” ok, that might be a little of an exaggeration, as cell phones, some refrigeration, and slightly more modern water and sanitation co-exist: And some parts of some Medinas are downright charming and bougie, with boutique hotels, riads, restaurants, and galleries. The vast and complex medinas have their various neighborhood character, just like any city.
What makes the medinas so unique now on the planet (and almost all are UNESCO world heritage sites) is that they survived the ravages of 20th century redevelopment. Just outside many Medina walls is the Ville Nouveu, and these vary in charm and layout.
The rest of Morrocon urban and suburban architecture is focused inward, and therefore does not provide a rich or pleasant streetscape to the more western eye. Even some middle class neighborhoods look downright barren from the outside, as the scale of three story buildings is not in context with often very wide streets. This inward focus is a challenge to a traveler in Morocco, as you generally are on the outside of family life and local culture.
But less so in the medinas, where you can experience the typical Riad and often gaze down from rooftops and terraces at the Medina life around you.
One of our traveller friends stayed in a room with a family in Morocco for a few days, and that sounded like a great way to get even more insight into “true” Moroccon life. We had some great experiences and especially insightful conversations with Riad and restaurant hosts about the tourism challenges with Omicron our last week as the “only tourists in Morocco”.
We had an exciting journey in Morocco that ended a bit strangely, but we take away the kindness and some of the spirit of so many we met. As with any developing economy, you wish them luck and the good leadership to truly elevate peoples lives. And maybe a bit more help from their American friends.