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.

The Hidden Beauty of Goulmima

These days everyone seems to want a new experience that isn’t ‘touristy’ and is ‘off the beaten track’,the town of Goulmima in the province of Errachidia is a real tropical desert oasis the home of an old Berber Judeo Ksar in agricultural land fed by the Wadi Gheris and overlooked by the High Atlas Mountains. You won’t find much on the internet about this place which is part of it’s charm, it is waiting to be rediscovered.

I have been lucky enough to visit twice, and as a place to stop on the way to desert adventures it beats the most popular stop Skoura hands down (unless you have the money to stay at Dar Ahlam of course – but even then, I still prefer Goulmima). So why is it so great as a little town, well you get the full experience if you stay with a Berber family, as this is the home of original Berber tribes who still live in many ways like they did centuries before with the same cultural traditions.

One thing you notice straight away are the tribal shawls of the local women called Taharouyt, every woman has one, embroidered black material, often with additional mirrored features or foil coins sewn onto the edges for a tinkling effect – there are new designs out every year so if you are young woman you want to have the latest thing (a mix of tradition and modern consumerism!).

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The people are so lovely in this town, warm-hearted Moroccans to the core, and the best cooks – food and fire is the centre of life here, the baking of daily bread and Moroccan pancakes a common ritual and many houses have their own livestock, sheep fattened up for Eid (the main festival that follows Ramadan), chickens and a couple of goats. I was staying with family there over Eid, I found the preparation and respect given to the animal the night before slaughter quite touching; although seeing the killing was daunting, friends and neighbours come to help with the laborious process of butchering and preserving the animal. I was told a common chat was to ask what you found inside the sheep, the answer usually includes some ridiculous element, a fridge, an oven, a boot, a million dirham…sadly inside our sheep was an undigested plastic bag, a sign of the times.

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If you are lucky like I was, you will be invited to a Berber wedding – now this is something else, usually at least 3 days long. The bride and grooms family begin separate celebrations, with a Henna night for the ladies which includes the main females at the party, and features along with henna a big meal of roast chicken and lamb tagine with prunes – ensure you have a kaftan with enough room for expansion! With Moroccan weddings (like my own) everything is arranged pretty quickly, its not like English weddings which require at least a year’s planning, a Moroccan wedding can be turned around in days with a few friends and phone calls to arrange bands, music and a tent.

The stand-out feature is the singing and drumming, the singing ritual involves the women singing on one side and men singing and drumming on the other, this goes on at times throughout the wedding, and creates a kind of euphoria, you don’t need alcohol – you get high from the drumming and energy around you. On the day of the wedding, all the men are invited to eat, and then the women separately – while they are waiting the women sing and start dancing, tying their scarves or Tahrouyt just under their bums, this has the effect of creating the need to wiggle. Big and beautiful shimmying bottoms if you know anyone in Morocco are seen as very attractive – my puny white bum just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid.

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All this goes on at the Brides house with her friends and in parallel at the grooms house with all the friends, family and hangers on gathering to enjoy the feasting and dancing. The band gives way to a DJ playing ‘Tschk Tschk music a kind of eletronic arabic beat’ this is a signal for the younger girls decked out in Kaftans to join in the fun. Then at some point in the night well after midnight, there is the dancing of a suitcase, this case is then driven to the brides house to pick up her belongings (and dowry), arriving at her house I saw a girl with her face covered kissing goodbye to her father (a real tear jerker) then we brought her back in a motorcade for a ritual which involves the application of henna to the hands of bride and groom.

We left it there – about 5am after everyone had surrounded me as the stranger for more singing, dancing and drumming, I was suprised it was 5, it didn’t seem so late!

Apart from the local customs and rituals the beauty of Goulmima’s date palm groves is worth witnessing, you can walk for a long time without seeing buildings or from one house to another. This is where the most prized dates are grown and food and fruit are in plentiful supply. You can also explore the old Ksar the origins of Goulmima where many local families began their life here in small dark thick walled houses, now these families have been given land to build houses near the tropical gardens. A short trip from Goulmima there are many nice places to visit; an outdoor Oasis pool between Goulmima and Errachidia full of kids in the Summer, a thermal natural Hammam on the road to Fez, and the Mountains and river for sunset views and picnics.

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This is the real Morocco for me – the rural places far away from the main cities and the tourist trail. If you want more tips or a place to stay, tap me up.

Riad Eye Candy

I have always loved glamour and design, so this is a great place to be because you can work or relax in elegant and romantic surroundings sipping on a beautifully prepared and poured mint tea or mojito depending on your preference.

There are some amazingly beautiful Riads, here are a few examples that have been recommended or I have found which are distinctive because of their design specifically, there are Riads which differentiate on other things – these I will cover separately, and of course great examples I probably haven’t seen yet!

Riad 72
I loved this Riad the moment I stumbled upon it turning off Dar El Bacha, it stands out even from the outside with a modern edge lit base. This is one of the more understated and just damn cool Riads, inside the staff are handsome and polite and the overall ambience is chic, moody and stylish. The tea that was served was probably one of the best I’ve had and I didn’t even have to lift a finger as my glass was automatically and discreetly topped up. This, I was told is an original Riad not one which has been created by joining houses together, these original Muslim Riads didn’t have any windows on the outside so the women inside couldn’t look out – but they do have stunning Italian style courtyards. Of course it is owned by an Italian – who else could style something so seductively!

Riad 72 Tea Moment

Riad BE
I was recommended to visit this Riad, it is owned by Nicole a Swiss National and managed by Mohammed. It combines the cool fresh feel of a Northern European designed villa with ornate Islamic design, overall it is light, airy and artistic. I loved the mint colour theme throughout, the rooms are pretty and light and there is a great terrace with a homage to desert visits in a Berber tented area. Staff are very relaxed and friendly, they don’t have to wear the typical clothes of waiting staff in Riads which is refreshing and levelling – you feel like a friend rather than like you are being ‘served’.

Fresh and Artistic Riad BE

Riad Palais Sebban
If you want to see a typically ornate Riad decorated in the traditional Islamic style, then Riad Palais Sebban is a must – it is really beautiful and a great example of Moroccan craftsmanship, there is a lot of detail here – of the kind you see at the Medersa Ben Youssef Islamic college. It was owned by a Frenchman (and now taken over by his family) it took 1 year to completely renovate in the classic style, which is amazing when you consider the detail. The pool area is something else but the piece de resistance is what I call the blue eye at the centre of the ornately carved dome of the entrance hall around which the Riad rooms are dispersed. The Riad is licensed with a Cocktail Bar.

The blue eye of Palais Sebban

So you want to buy a Riad?

If like me, you come to Marrakech, love it, and you have an eye for architecture and design, it will most likely cross your mind that you would like to buy a Riad. If nothing else so that you can furnish it with all the lovely artisan arts and crafts that you see in the city but can’t fit in your Ryan Air suitcase.

There are thousands of Riad’s and Dar’s here, many of which have been bought and renovated by Europeans, but what is really involved in buying and running a Riad? I spoke with a few Riad owners and with Colin Bosworth from Bosworth Properties for a view. I’ve summarised some of the themes here:

Be Cautious
Invest only what you can afford to lose and make sure that within that you’ve accounted for an uplift and additional costs beyond the price of the Riad itself.

Be Prepared
If your Riad needs renovating it will be a costly and time consuming process, there are also many cultural considerations to take into account (like the Moroccan difficulty with saying they don’t know).

Buy with a Title
Buy a place with a Title, because finding the paper and people trail to make this a reality is otherwise very difficult – you might save money in the first place but lose money and time later on.

Experience Helps
If you haven’t run a guest house and if you aren’t in touch with what is required to market the property it’s a lot more risky, account for some consultancy and help with this if its not what you are used to.

Live Here
Don’t rely on the 3 month visa rule and coming and going to renew, although it’s not required to buy – get residency, this is not as difficult as it sounds if you have some money and a local business of some sort.

Be Fair
Europeans can sometimes expect the same from their staff here as they would at home, however the heat and dust here can make work much more tiring, hence many Riads have more staff than rooms – respect your staff, and be aware of severance pay rules.

Overall my observation is that ‘cutting through‘ is an issue for a commercial Riad proposition, Riads can tend to blur into an amorphous mass of stylish pads, so creating a brand and marketing with a distinctive differentiator (whether its design, food, art, yoga etc) is essential. However the rewards are apparently very good – so it’s worth the investment.

If you are interested in finding out more – watch my interview with Colin Bosworth, I will also be reviewing some of the Riads which stand out to me in an accompanying series of features.

Buying a Riad from Sara Marshall on Vimeo.

Thanks to Colin Bosworth, Edwina at House of Fusion, the manager of Riad Sebban and Riad BE (pictured)