Journeying through Morocco: From Marrakesh to Agadir

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Both American and European culture—art, literature and cinema—are filled with references to the hauntingly romantic and mysterious part of North Africa that is home to the enchanting country of Morocco.

Not least, Crosby, Stills and Nash, (CSN) a rock supergroup of the late 1960s through to the 1990s, wrote the unforgettable tune ‘Marrakesh Express’. The single reached #28 on the Billboard Hot 100 on August 23, 1969.

The story goes that Graham Nash took a vacation to Morocco in 1966. On that trip, he traveled by train from Casablanca to Marrakesh. Beginning his journey in 1st Class, he was apparently surrounded by people he found to be extremely uninteresting, so left his seat to explore the other train carriages, filled with regular 2nd and 3rd class passengers, and became fascinated by what he saw. People were traveling with ducks, chickens and goats – one Berber man was even accompanied by a pig on a dog lead! CSN simply wrote about the scene that Nash experienced, and a classic rock hit was born.

Morocco is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to its north and the Atlantic to the west. An eastern land border neighbors with Algeria, with the politically disputed territory of Western Sahara to the south. Encompassing an area in the region of half a million square kilometers, a large part of Morocco is mountainous, with the Atlas Mountains in the center and south, together with the Rif mountain range to the north of the country. Both these areas tend to be populated by the Berber people.

It’s no surprise that Morocco (in fact Marrakesh and Agadir in particular) are sought after tourist destinations. The cities are an exotic mix of desert cultures and relatively modern infrastructure. Camels can share the streets with motorcycles and taxis – but the significant impact of French colonialism remains, with parts of Moroccan cities having an air of Paris or Marseille in the 1920s.

For a glimpse of the ‘real’ Morocco, an excellent travelog on DVD is available by the famous English travel broadcaster Michael Palin, who produced a four hour documentary in 2002 called ‘Sahara’. It has become one of the seminal references for those preparing for journeys to North Africa.

Morocco became independent from France in 1956, but French is still an everyday language there, even if the official tongues are designated as Standard Arabic and Moroccan Berber.

Camels, canvases and Hollywood

In terms of its impact on literary influences, cinema and art, many authors, film directors and painters have used Morocco as a place to escape the distractions of their home countries to produce work of searing historical  importance. For example, counterculture guru novelist William Burroughs wrote ‘The Naked Lunch’ in a Tangier hotel room around 1959. Hollywood blockbuster films have used the incredible Moroccan landscape and perfect light to shoot films there on location; from ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, through ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to the ‘Indiana Jones’ series of films to name just a very few.

The painter Matisse visited Tangier in 1912, where, confined to his room by poor weather and subsequent ill health, he painted a series of cityscapes viewed through his hotel room windows. The Bay of Tangier, 1912, remains a seminal classic of the oeuvre.

George Orwell stayed in Marrakech between September 1938 and March 1939, as he was advised by doctors that his tuberculosis would be aided by wintering in a warm climate. So it was that ‘Coming Up For Air’ was written. In fact, the novel has nothing to do with Morocco. It depicts the depressing reminder that dreams and aspirations of youth can be killed off by the humdrum routine of life; work, marriage, and growing old. The climate of Morocco simply enabled Orwell to recuperate and find his mojo afresh.

By contrast, Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ is a thinly-veiled mockery of an American tourist couple, the Moresbys, who set out to travel across Morocco. They would dip their shy toes into Arab culture, then hastily retreat to their unhappy shelter of hotel-room lunches and English speakers.

So how can you avoid being like the Moresbys and enjoy Morocco more like Matt Damon or Harrison Ford?!  By following some of these tips below:

Getting from Marrakesh to Agadir

Both these destinations offer a fascinating insight into the culture and people of Morocco. The two places aren’t very far apart, in fact only about 250 km (155 miles). So it’s quite possible to take a bus from Marrakesh to Agadir

You could, of course, hire a car, but you’d have to pay a one way rental drop off fee, and the hassle of paying insurance and collision damage waivers probably isn’t worth it for such a relatively short journey. And while we’re talking insurance, always ensure that your travel insurance policy covers Africa – it’s a detail that some travelers forget as many people see Morocco as part of Europe.

However, if you did decide to drive for yourself, for the best sightseeing, take the route that doesn’t involve the A3 motorway. In fact, to see a flavor of the real countryside of Morocco, a trip along the R212, the N11 then the very twisty tiny mountain road of the P1713 through Lamnizla would be a journey through the tiniest traditional hilltop villages; complete with seeing goats climbing up trees and breathtaking mountain vistas. Obviously, it’s a longer distance and would take considerably more time than the motorway – but the object is to see as much as possible.

Must sees of Marrakesh

  • Jemaa el-Fnaa is a bustling market square in the heart of Marrakech. At night, it transforms into a lively entertainment area with street performers and street food vendors. Don’t miss!
  • The Saadian Tombs are a true marvel – an architectural masterpiece of marble pillars and inlaid stonework dating back as far as the 16th century. The site was rediscovered and opened to the public in 1917.
  • The Majorelle Garden was created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle, with its exotic flora and incredibly calming, cooling deep-blue color scheme. Even if you’re not interested in plants and such, the photo opportunities make it worth the trip in itself.
  • The Koutoubia Mosque, with its impressive minaret, isn’t open to Non-Muslims, but even those visitors can marvel at the splendor and gardens from the outside. The devout may, of course, enter to enjoy the full spectacle of the hallowed building.
  • The Medina and Souks are narrow alleyways of the old town where visitors can explore the traditional souks. Don’t be ashamed or too shy to haggle. In fact, haggling is part of the selling process, and market traders don’t feel that a sale is ‘complete’ until you haggle to a mutually acceptable price. In the souks you can shop for spices, textiles, jewelry, and much more.

Thank you for not smoking!

In most Moroccan cities, kief, the local type of cannabis, is tolerated by the authorities, while remaining technically illegal.  It’s a custom mostly performed by men in corner cafes, but male tourists should only smoke kief if accompanied by a local resident.  Women or Western couples who don’t have a trusted local friend should stick to guesthouses and hostels where their privacy is secure.

Even locals avoid smoking joints while walking around the streets. If in doubt, just don’t! Remember – in the final analysis, smoking cannabis remains an illegal activity in Morocco and is not a recommended activity for travelers.

Highlights of Agadir

  • Souk El Had d’Agadir is a large market, again where you can haggle for anything from a pack of liquorice to a hand woven rug. You might even pick up a bargain on a sheepskin rug but try not to get fleeced!
  • Agadir Beach is well known for its long sandy stretches with plenty of room and moderate waves. It’s certainly not a surfer’s Mecca, but ideal for putting up a parasol and soaking up the sun with a book. Women should note that topless bathing is definitely not allowed in Morocco, and one piece swimsuits for females on the beach are preferable to bikinis, as this will help to avoid harassment and cat calls from local men.
  • The Marina is a more cosmopolitan area of the city, where cafes and shops are commensurately more expensive.
  • The Vallee des Oiseaux is a peaceful park with lush greenery, a variety of singing birds and a safe play environment for children. An ideal place to find a bit of shade and, literally, chill.
  • The Oufella Ruins of the old Kasbah provide panoramic views of Agadir city and the bay. Great photo opportunities abound at sunset.
  • The Amazighe Heritage Museum is a fascinating glimpse of Berber history and culture, displaying many interesting exhibits and artifacts.

Foodie heaven

To get a literal flavor of the magic of Morocco, don’t forget to experience the amazing cuisine. Both cities of Agadir & Marrakesh are teeming with restaurants. And for those people who enjoy a tipple, the good news is that (according to US and Canadian government travel advice)

“drinking alcohol in the street and anywhere other than a licensed restaurant or bar isn’t allowed and can lead to arrest.”

So as long as you stick to booze with a meal or in a bar, no problem. But don’t walk down the street chugging a Casablanca beer or you’re likely to make some new friends in the local police cells overnight. Not recommended! 

As regards dining, from plain couscous, the staple semolina of Moroccan cuisine, which is often served with meat and vegetables (like curry with rice in India) – to Mechoui with Zaalouk; Moroccan food is a delicious explosion of flavors.

Mechoui is a slow spit-roasted lamb dish, seasoned with a blend of spices. The accompanying Zaalouk is an eggplant and tomato salad with an olive oil and garlic dressing.

There’s too much that’s wonderful about Moroccan cuisine to explore here, but it’s one of the most sought after types of cooking in the world. So when drinking, traveling, sunbathing or smoking, whatever you do in Morocco – just make sure you stay safe out there!

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.

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