Comparing the North and South of Morocco

This Summer we stayed in Morocco again – having enjoyed last Summer’s easy temperatures late August saw temperatures soar into the late 40’s and 50’s apparently because of the thermals from the Sahara. However, although hot, we’ve had plenty to discover with exploration first to the North and the Northern beaches, cities and towns, and then to the South again to the gorgeous Ghris Valley with its warm Berber villages and endless date palm groves.

Here are some of the differences I saw:

THE NORTH – Cooler, more modern with a rich history to explore

Spanish and Arabic Influence
The North is a place which is much more Spanish and Arabic in influence, you won’t find many locals who speak French quite as fluently as they do in Marrakech for instance – and people look different to the more Berber and Sub Saharan inhabited areas, with lighter skin and sometimes lighter eyes and more Spanish or Arabic features. There are also more Spanish inflections in architecture as cities such as Tetouan have been both Spanish and Moroccan at different times.

Striped Traditional Dress
The traditional dress is distinctive and worn mainly by the more rural Rif Mountain women who you see in the markets and in the mountains going about their daily life. The main feature is a vertical striped woven apron typically in red and white which serves as both a tribal signifier for the region, and useful protector of clothes, set off often with a straw hat with colourful pompoms adorning it. You’ll find lots of opportunities to buy these along the coast and in the more touristy towns like Chefchouen.

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More Plugged in Cities
Towns such as Tetouan appear a bit more flashy in a sense, people are more concerned about money, cars and appearance; a kind of Miami of Morocco, but not unappealing we really quite liked it and it was cleaner than Marrakech (which can be said of a lot of the North) with the exception of the old medina which is a bit run down but houses some really great example of Spanish influenced riads. Towns are predominantly white in the North a stark contrast to the earthy hues of the south, its a very different looking place.

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Larache was a drive through for us but seemed to be really well groomed and pretty and off the tourist trail generally, although there is a renovated Roman site, Lixus, which is an interesting stop – with a visitor centre which is nicely designed and has two rooms of exhibits and facilities (although the Cafe is now closed). At the top of the hill at Lixus you can view the river and city and imagine you are a Roman Emperor or Empress for a moment, or that Hercules is coming to find the fabled Golden Apples from an orchard which was believed to have been situated near Lixus.

Lots of Historic Monuments to visit:
Meknes was well worth a stop (albeit impromptu as our car broke down), the legacy of the fierce Sultan Moulay Ishmail dominates the old town which features a Palace, Cavalry, Sudanese Slave quarters and many ornate arches (some of the decoration for which was taken from Palais Badi in Marrakech I believe). There are many stories including those about the underground prison which sounds fit for a Minotaur with its labarinth of underground tunnels. Legend has it no one ever escaped this prison and that some members of a French team who set out to map the tunnels in modern times also got lost somewhere in the darkness. Meknes has 3 old medina’s to visit; one Berber, one Arabic and one Jewish which are each quite distinctive – we stayed in the Arabic old town at a nice riad – Riad Zahra quite near everything and wondering the streets you can see the tradition of embroidery at work, with spools flying and beautiful patterns adorning shop windows. I was less comfortable in the old Berber town, I’d prefer to go with a local or a guide there as it’s a bit more off the beaten track and you don’t want to get lost there.

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Tangier was a quick stop for us this time, we drove directly to the Caves of Hercules, where the Greek and Roman legend Hercules was meant to have rested his head on the way to complete his 12 challenges. There is one cave you can go into for free which still takes your breath away when you go down into it to emerge looking at a cut away rock face which frames an azure sea.

Great Beaches:
Going up North in July in August is a challenge as there are so many Moroccan tourists coming back home for the Summer that the beaches can get pretty packed, although there is a holiday vibe about the place with large stretches of sand peppered with umbrellas and donut and tea sellers strolling up and down. We were lucky enough to be shown around by Ali’s Nephew who is a dentist up there and has good local knowledge, so we ate at some pretty fantastic seafood places in and around Martil on Tetouan. One in Tetouan was really outstanding in its choice of seafood – the best Prawn Pil Pil I’ve ever had, but to look at it you would have just driven past it. Others had more of an upscale stylish restaurant vibe. The nephew (Simo) also took us on a drive to a quieter beach which is a lovely drive with the coast on one side and Rif Mountains on the other, these less discovered beaches are also becoming popular in the Summer months but are worth visiting and I can see will become quite upscale over time.

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Local Delicacies
There is a kind of chickpea flan called Karane or Kalinti which is Moroccan / Spanish in origin, sprinkled with Cinnamon we tried, it makes a really delicious snack and is sold by the slice freshly baked by street vendors. We found this in Asilah and Meknes and I’m sure its in the other Northern Cities in different forms – but I’ve never seen it in the South.

THE SOUTH – warmer, rural with a rich culture and landscape

Berber, Roman, Jewish Influences
While Arabic and Arabs are obviously an important feature across Morocco the Berber populations dominate in these Southern regions alongside Jewish tribes. Within Berber or we should say Amazigh culture there are different tribes also, some more from Mauritania or further south originally. Europeans have also influenced these areas quite heavily from the Portuguese to Italians (via Romans) and European Jews who both have left legacies and monuments in the local area, as well as influences in the way people look. One friend of the family claimed his mother had blue eyes (an Italian throwback) and you will find when you are driving in the more remote places that the locals call out to you ‘Romani’ – short hand for a European.

Black Taharout Traditional Dress
As you drive through the towns of Kalat Maguna, Tinrir and Goulmima you will see the women wearing various different forms of wrap which are used partly for badging and partly as a cover up and general purpose wrap, blanket and throw. They vary in small ways from place to place, with a uniting feature of being made from black cloth. These shawls become part of daily life providing protection from the heat and harmful rays of the sun, or offering a make-shift covering to those (usually children) who need to take a nap and they can be beautifully decorated with embroidery and mirrors, or they can be more sheer and lace like. While fashion is a bit more important to the younger next generation, most women in the region have been wearing similar clothes for centuries.

Rural Building Skills and Rural Life:
The towns and villages of the Ghriss Valley have mostly been built using the earth from the land which when mixed with straw and baked into bricks creates a warm and empathetic addition to the landscape around it, as well as providing practical warmth as a building material. You can see old Ksours (walled villages) which use this technique and feature many recurring Berber architectural themes in the construction. This use of local resources including the local wood is very attractive but many of the old Ksours have not been well maintained so have been shut down so they don’t cause harm, in their place families have moved into new homes which are a bit more practical but thankfully still retain some traditional features. We were lucky enough to be taken around by a local friend who is a builder and decorative artist, he showed us some of the more recent building with traditional skills and the paint work he had carried out using traditional pigments which you can find in the ground like a rich burnt sienna colour he had painted on one wall.

Warmth of the people:
People here help each other, they are so friendly and welcoming – I was invited into tea many times with strangers, fed with bountiful local produce and watched as people who have been born into an arable way of living lead their day. One thing I noticed was the balanced and important roles of men and women and in particularly the strength of women in these areas, physically their days are long and there are very few convenient short cuts but they take everything on whether butchering sheep or carrying large bales of animal feed on their backs. It’s a badge of honour being strong and getting on with it here, a far step away from the traditional European view of muslim women who are demure and repressed, although there certainly are rules when it comes to husbands and wives.

Nomadic Life
We met nomads and shepherds in these parts. Rachid was a camel hurder, he hurded 60 camels which we had happened upon during a trip down to the river for a walk and possibly a swim. It was a beautiful sight, seeing the camels drinking from the river living naturally in the wild. Rachid’s living is hurding camels which he then takes to Camel souks to sell, the largest of which in Morocco I’ve heard is held in Tan Tan on the coast every year.
Aziz a nomad was a pixie like fellow who popped up at our car window for a chat and a lift, he told the tale of how he faces frequent theft of his goats, and that the gang that stole his last goats ended up in prison and then stole again as retribution when they came out and had left him bound and gagged. Apparently excepting for rustlers, when he is not there the goats do not move, they know their place in the mountain when he comes down to town for a rest and something to eat he usually finds them there when he returns.

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Beautiful journeys
There are some great routes you can take out of the town of Goulmima, past Tadighoust and into the mountains through the Ghris Valley, where you can stop at a local village, some of which have old Ksours which seem to be carved out of the mountain, or take a picnic down to the river. Its a rich arable land full of Pomegranates (called Romain here after the Romans who most likely brought them here), olives, figs and of course dates including the increasingly popular Medjool dates. The irrigation systems alone are worth a visit for the more engineering minded, the ones in Goulmima were apparently created by a Jewish European and have created rich groves of palms and lush gardens along the back of the town and the old Ksour which transformed the local area.

Local Delicacies

Among many of the local delicacies to be enjoyed are local breads such as Khobz Shayma which is created to a secret recipe using herbs sourced locally. Homes often have their own small livestock and fresh fruit and vegetables are freely available at the local souk, local dishes tend to be Chicken stuffed with olives and vermicelli, lamb with prunes and lamb barbeque skewers. Some of the biscuits made by local women are worthy of a high end patisserie as making biscuits tends to be one way to show love and demonstrate your skills in the kitchen.

This has been a whistle stop tour of literally some of the first early observations when you go North and then do South but you could write a book on it! Like any country the people and landscapes are so diverse it’s sometimes difficult to say it’s one country – but one thing that unites all of Morocco is the Moroccan hospitality you find on the way.