The second night in Morocco, we were treated to a “cultural dinner” which was essentially ‘Morocco’s Got Talent’. Absolutely no offence, and I understand the complexity of performing cultural traditions for tourists becoming very cliche and somewhat erroneous, but you do have to take these tourist activities with a grain of salt. I was intrigued with the belly dancing in Morocco. Throughout the streets, women are covered up from top to toe, but somehow belly dancing is approved? I did a wee little bit of research, and have found that belly dancing stems from the “Jahiliyyah” period of Islam, now considered the “Time of Ignorance”, referring to the period before the prophet Muhammed redirected the practice of Islam. Social morality was somewhat questionable, with the strong taking advantage of the weak, and drunkenness and consorting with dancing girls glorified. This is the period of belly dancing. It has continued, although strongly religious Muslims refuse to partake in the practice or celebration. I found this fascinating.
Amongst the belly dancers, there were musician groups, a magician (I know, how Moroccan), and a slightly odd performance where three guests were dressed up for a mock wedding and danced around the stage in a box on the shoulders of three women. All in all, it was a bit of fun, and good to see, but wouldn’t necessarily say integral to go to such a show to understand the Moroccan culture.
The following morning we were up for some more history and sightseeing. We were off to Volubilis. What a mouthful, but such fun to say. Volubilis. This ancient site was believed to backdate to the Roman Empire, which conquered much of modern Europe and Northern Africa. Volubilis was occupied by the Romans until approximately 400AD. Why the Romans abandoned the city is unclear, but in the 18th century it was destroyed by an earthquake. The site was World Heritage Listed in 1997, but is still waiting on funding for further excavation efforts. Volubilis means “Morning Glory”, also the name of the purple flower growing in the area. The city was linked with Tangier (300km away) and the Atlantic Ocean (100km away), which provided means to link with the rest of Europe, deeming the saying “All roads lead to Rome” insightfully true. The ancient mosaics, columns, archways, bathhouses, temple (fully equipped with evidence of animal sacrifice), were incredible to see, and I’m sorry to say that the photos just do not do any of it justice. The timeframes are simply incomprehensible- these civilisations were thriving here 2,000 years ago. Crazy.
We stumbled across this tiny little cafe at Volubilis at the end of the tour and being a shack in the middle of nowhere, we were definitely expecting the absolute worst. However. Much to my surprise, it was one of the most delicious cups of coffee I have had in Europe to date. Another lesson learned about judging books by their cover.
Next was Meknes. Meknes was the old Jewish quarter in Fes. One of the remaining gates to the city, called the “Gate of Thursday”, after the weekly market nearby, was our entrance to the old city. The Kasbah (meaning citadel/fortress) was initially built in the 16th century and was once the home of the Moroccan monarchs, with double walls standing 40m high with royal guards in watchtowers, you can see why it was the safest place at the time. Meknes is one of the four imperial cities in Morocco, along with Fes, Rabat and Marrakech.
The grainary within Meknes is the most visited historical site within the Kasbah. It was built in the 17th Century, with incredible high arched ceilings and wells to keep it cool, perfect as the major food storage for the city. The old prison followed, which was closed in the 18th century. It housed up to 3,000 prisoners, purely male prisoners mind you (who knows what happened to the women who committed these sorts of crimes- our guide simply said that “women at that time were not involved in such offences” *cough*). They slept on the floor, with their feet chained, using piles of hay stacked in the corner for toilets, in an underground prison that would get rather humid in the middle of summer. Presently, there are pieces of artwork on cloth representing some of the struggles of the prisoners hanging throughout the space, adding a somewhat eery human feel to being down there.
Top tips for Morocco
- If female, cover up. It’s bad enough having paler skin and different hair/eye colour walking through the streets, especially in the Medina, but if you don’t want to be called names every five seconds, long loose pants/skirts, tops that cover the shoulders +/- a shawl over the top would be ideal. (We have a redhead in the group who has been called SATAN. Just saying.)
- If possible, don’t go alone. Morocco is the one place so far that I didn’t feel overly comfortable venturing out to explore solo. A major hit to solo time.
- If possible have a group with a male. It’s just the culture for some staff/waiters etc to expect to see a male as a part of the group, especially if wanting to go off the tourist track a little.
- Get coins. As soon as possible, break your notes and get change- everyone expects a tip.
- If you get lost in the Medina, find a small child to show you the way out/point you in the right direction. But don’t forget to tip or they’ll send you round and round in circles until you do tip.
- Go to a Hammam. I’m fairly body conscious, but it was such a hilarious and fun experience, something I couldn’t possibly forget (no matter how hard I could try). Your skin will also feel supple as a baby’s bottom afterwards.
- Keep in mind that the “cultural” stuff is a little kitch and aimed at tourists. As long as you keep that in the back of your thoughts, it’s still enjoyable and interesting! (Eg. the “Cultural” Dinner and the camel rides). What is exploring the world if you’re not a little ripped off by the locals?
- Be aware of pickpockets and stowaways. I live in a VERY different society to Morocco and am very aware of the privilege I come from. Be prepared to see something different, no need to be scared, but simply aware. Carry your belongings on your front where you can see, (like in most typically touristy places there are pickpockets around), but also check the car/bus that you’re travelling on, especially for the return trip if you happen to be ferrying back to Europe. We saw four people pulled from buses and trucks as they drove onto the ferry.
- Learn Arabic or French. If that fails, just speak English and use gestures, that works fine too. And remember “Shukran”- thankyou in Arabic.
- Get your barter on. If you are inclined to some of the local delicacies and crafts, shop around. Don’t be afraid to walk away, because there’s a high chance you’ll find something similar around the corner. Don’t pay the first price they give you.
- Don’t take photos or videos of the police. Ever.
Back to Sevilla, Spain, for a quick stop to refuel on Sangria before heading to Lisbon for the end of the trip and the WEDDING!