It was tough choosing places to go in Morocco. There is a great deal of cities that are of interest to both the wife and I, but I knew from traveling that you have to appreciate your time limitations. It's better to see one or two places well than to see fifteen places in a rush. You have to miss some things and at the end of the day, you have to realize that that’s okay. Maybe you’ll come back, maybe you won’t, but at least you can have a great and relaxed time of seeing some of the sights. To implement this, before we left, the wife and I sat down and wrote out a list of our top spots in Morocco and we shared that with each other. Then we looked at travel options - trains, planes, and automobiles - and did the best we could to respect each other’s wishes. It’s always best to add in the ideas of your partner, since there can always be something amazing that you could have never thought of, and likely your own ideas might end up stale and wanting.
The cities and things that made it to our list:
Marrakech (the wife’s list). It's the most well known of the Imperial Cities - or former capitals - of Morocco. It's also the most touristic and cleaned up, an attempt to give a bright, shiny, and happy view of an otherwise impoverished nation. That said, to see the best examples of the highlights of Moroccan culture, this is probably the city to see, with a cleaned up medina - or old town - and lots of hotels with preserved and interesting architectural flourishes.
The Fes medina
Fes (the wife’s list). Not to be confused with the funny Turkish hat - though some people do wear the hat in Morocco, namely people involved some way in tourism. It's the other well known Imperial City and famous for its giant leather factory, where most of the handmade leather you find sold in European city streets comes from. Some people say it's also what Marrakech looked like before the hotel and tourism boom, and that there are still actual people living in the medina, which is also the largest in the Arab world, and can also claim to be the largest carless urban area in the world - the place though is quickly gentrifying, as many of those people are forced out by hotel developers and many prefer better living conditions that can be more easily afforded in the newer parts of the city. It's also known as the Mecca of the West and has one of the oldest Islamic religious schools.
Chefchouan, the Blue Pearl (my list and the wife’s list). It's a small mountain town where all the buildings are painted blue. They used to be painted green back when it was forbidden for Christians to enter the city on pain of death - at that time only Muslims and Jews were allowed to enter. But then the Spanish came and ended that practice, so for some mysterious reason, the locals changed the paint to blue.
The Chefchouen medina
Meknes (my list). Another one of the Imperial Cities, though one of the smallest. It's only got a mere 1 million citizens living in the city - but not in the medina, which is truly the smallest of the Imperial Cities in Morocco. The medina is supposed to be more charming and friendly than those of Fes and Marrakech, with the people of the markets not so pushy. Nearby is the ancient Roman settlement of Volubilis, which is open to the public for touring. This was one of the top sights on my list for that reason, as I’m somewhat addicted to seeing ancient Roman cities. The other top sight being...
Tangier (my list). My wife had absolutely no interest in Tangier, but I was drawn to it, because of its deep connection with American history. For one, Morocco was one of the first nations of the world to recognize American independence, and even donated a palace to the American government for use as an embassy. The palace - known as the American Legation - is the only U.S. historical landmark located outside the United States. It's now a museum, dedicated to the long history - in American eyes, quite short history in Moroccan eyes - of friendship between the two countries. Tangier was also where most of the beatniks decided to locate themselves. During the mid 20th century, it was called the Interzone and was a kind of lawless, free territory outside of any legal jurisdiction. This meant that drugs, prostitution, gambling and any other number of fun stuff was going on, and so it was a natural draw for the beats, pulling in such residents as Paul Bowles - who would spend the rest of his life there - William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Alan Ginsberg, among others. The city is also one of the oldest cities on the Mediterranean, being first founded by the Phoenicians - and there was probably a Berber settlement there before that - even before Rome's first foundation stone had been lain.
A view of the Tangiers at night
Essouiara (my list). Orson Welles shot his "Othello" in the town, making the Moor of Venice authentically Moorish. It's among the oldest cities in Morocco, having also been founded by the Phoenicians long before the Phoenicians had even started writing things down and distributing alphabetical systems to the people's of the world. It later served as the main harbor town for Marrakech, and there's reportedly nice beaches, medina and castle there. Ruled off the list since it seemed better to visit when not in winter.
The Sahara Desert (the wife’s list). This is mostly in the south of Morocco, as the north is filled by the Rim Mountains and coastlines. There are lots of Sahara tours available from Marrakech and Fes where you can go play as a camel jockey for a couple of days or a week. Most tours are several days or more long, and a day trip really is only practical from Marrakech. Some parts of the desert are still dangerous due to banditry and the currently unresolved issue of the Western Sahara, though for the most part it's probably safe.
Those were our choices. The next step was to figure out how to get to Morocco, and let that decide where we would go from there. The cheapest flights from Prague to Morocco that I could find were on Vueling airlines with a stopover in Barcelona. I extended the stay in Barcelona - a city both of us wanted to visit - and bought tickets for the different legs, actually making the flight prices even cheaper, though not by much. The cheapest flights to Morocco were also from Vueling and went from Barcelona to Tangier, and from Fes to Barcelona. With one week to spend, that pretty much sealed our choice. We would arrive in Tangier, take the bus to Chefchouan, another bus to Fes, hopefully spend a day to see Volubilis and then make it back to Barcelona. We'd have to leave the rest for another visit, if Morocco deemed worthy of another visit.
But as we left the airport in Tangier, leaving that smiling customs official who nearly refused us entry based on their own error of not knowing how to read a passport, and how the taxi drivers had upped the price, and on my own experience with Arabs in Egypt trying to rip me off at every turn, I was beginning to wonder how this trip would round up. I'll prelude my review of Morocco with this: we will definitely return. And next week, I'll go over Tangier.