As I lay on the beach last summer, I started to muse aloud about going to Morocco for our next holiday. Since my husband is French and we live in New York, we try to go to a place every summer where the children are immersed in a French-speaking culture. Morocco fit the bill in that respect, plus, I really liked the idea of the children, Jules, 12, and Manon, 8, experiencing a culture outside of our own. But my husband, Philippe’s, first reaction was less than enthusiastic, and more along the lines of, “Morocco? No, it’s too dangerous. Not in this political climate.” So, I let it go. But then a few months later, my husband called me after having spoken with a Moroccan friend and said, “Maybe we should think about going to Morocco this summer.” I got over needing credit for the idea and immediately went online and started looking for airfares.
We decided to spend the first half (of a 3-week August vacation) in a small coastal village called Oualidia, about 2 hours south of Casablanca, and just relax and get acclimated to the culture, the food, and the climate, and to recover from our jet lag. In Oualidia, the long golden-sand beach wraps around 2 sides of the village, with the Atlantic’s waves chasing kids up onto the sand on one side, and a long protected lagoon on the other. When the tide goes out, sandbar islands pop up, creating long pools reflecting the sky. The view is stunningly beautiful. Some days, when the sea is rougher, waves crash into the craggy cliffs and rocks jutting out of the water, and send spray into the air over the people clamboring up the rocks. On either side, the beach is filled with, mainly, Moroccans on holiday – playing soccer, fishing, collecting mussels, strolling, picnicking, and swimming in the cold Atlantic waters. It’s August, after all, and, as in Europe, everyone is on vacation. A few times, we have a boat take us across the lagoon to other, quieter beaches that look back at the village.
On our first day, as I am walking on the little promenade overlooking the beach, I come across a little surf school that has just opened 3 weeks earlier. It is jointly owned by a young Frenchman and a Moroccan from Oualidia, and all the instructors are locals. I sign the kids up for a lesson the next day, and – after a little bit of, “Well, I’ll do it if he does it,” and “I’ll do it if she does it” – they go, and they’re hooked. They end up surfing every day. They meet other kids there, as we had been hoping, and as we sip mint tea in the little garage-sized surf shop while the kids suit up every day, the instructors and their friends who pass by become our link to local activities and food, and an in to the culture of this small Moroccan village, and to Morocco, in general.
But even before we discover surfing, we explore the souk. Our first day in Oualidia is souk, or market, day. We have already had a couple of lovely meals, but I am ready for something super AUTHENTIC. And I’ve decided that that is going to be in the market. Manon is having none of it, however. She is completely jetlagged, and overhungry, and doesn’t want to leave the hotel. After much cajoling, and copious tears, we manage to make it to the souk. We walk amid the usual selling of mechanical items, live chickens, fruits and vegetables, and through the aromatic smoke of sardines being grilled, and find a little hut where tagines are being prepared in conical earthen pots. We sit down at the tables set up next door and order a chicken tagine and a fish tagine to share. With the first bite, Manon has completely come around, and is now dipping bread into the sauce, licking her fingers, and asking if we can eat here every day.
But of course, we can’t, because we have other eating to do! I have been eyeing the families picnicking on the beach, which is not exactly the picnicking I’m accustomed to:
You just bring a beverage and the rest is provided, courtesy of the sea. Hawkers will fish and collect mussels, crab, sea urchins, razor clams, (or they’ll bargain with the fishermen as they come up on the beach with their day’s haul) and grill it on the beach for you as you sit and watch the sun go down. They serve a platter of the freshest seafood, with lemon wedges, Moroccan bread, and tomato and onion salad, with melon and sweet mint tea for dessert. My children, who are not generally fish-lovers, try everything (I’m so proud!), and eat it up. Environment is everything, I guess. And we just act as if the exotic things they’re tasting are mundane: “Here, just scoop that sea urchin right out of the shell with your bread. Right, like that. Good, isn’t it?”
Our eating adventure continues as we tearfully say goodbye to our surfing friends in Oualidia, and move on to Marrakesh. We arrive in Marrakesh (after much driving around in circles trying to find our guest house in the medina, or old city, and then finally asking a taxi driver who has us follow him through more windy streets and impossible traffic, park, and walk through alleyways that we fear we’ll never find again if we ever leave our room) at 9pm, exhausted and starving. We’re told that we’re not far from the place (the main square, Djemaa el-Fna) and we should head over there for dinner. So we wearily head in that direction, and find, upon arrival, that we are all completely reinvigorated and excited at this vision before us: the place is completely lit up and filled with long, white, communal tables and benches, and smoke issues from grills and stalls serving kabobs and tagines and couscous and tomato salad and grilled vegetables and olives and bread. Not to mention the Moroccan specialties of snail soup and sheep’s head. In our ravenous state, we’re not very discerning, but it doesn’t matter. We sit down at the first table we see, order a sampling of as much as we think we can eat, and it is. . . heavenly. We even find we have enough energy afterwards to walk around and join the crowds watching the storytellers and musicians and games. Jules and Manon are particularly interested in playing a nearly impossible game involving a fishing pole, a line, and a ring you’re meant to hang around the neck of a soda bottle on the ground. In the daytime, all of these entertainments disappear, along with the tables and food stalls, and are replaced by snake charmers, veiled women decorating hands or legs with henna designs, horse-driven carts and donkey carts. Lucky for us, the stalls selling delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice which we’ve become addicted to, remain on the place, day or night. We spend our days in Marrakesh in the shady respite of the labyrinthine souks, shopping and haggling, jockeying for space with the crowds of people, bicycles, motorcycles, and donkey carts. We find areas where items like slippers (babouches) or lanterns are being made. In the Souk Sebbaghine, wool that has been freshly dyed hangs overhead to dry. The smell of spices announces our arrival at the mellah, or the old Jewish quarter, and we are invited into a shop for an explanation of all the different spices for sale, and a lesson in medicinal herbs. The energy of Marrakesh is palpable, and fun and exciting, and even the kids have learned to haggle, as haggling is required for nearly everything. We are loving it, yet so grateful for the soothing calm of our riad, a Moroccan guest house built around a courtyard. Right in the middle of the medina, in the midst of the craziness of the souks, we enter into a tranquil, cool oasis where we can rest, have a cup of mint tea, and read or just watch the little turtles who live in the courtyard.
We end our trip in the charming coastal town of Essaouira, enjoying the laid-back, friendly atmosphere, the sunlight shining on the whitewashed buildings, the dramatic views and the cool breezes. We love to walk on the beach, especially just before sundown, watching the soccer games, the windsurfers and kitesurfers, and the camels and horses finishing up their day giving rides to vacationers. We succomb to our kids’ requests for both of these things: an early-morning camel ride on an empty beach in the nearby village of Sidi Kaouki, and a horseback ride on Essaouira’s own beach, also in the tranquility of the early morning. And the day before we leave, we all go to a hammam, or public bath (Philippe and Jules together, Manon with me, as the baths are gender-segregated) to be washed and doused and scrubbed in the dark, steamy, tiled room. Many of the women we see outside are covered up, as Morocco is a Muslim country, so it is really quite beautiful to see them reveal themselves in a perfectly natural and unselfconscious way in the hammam. After being attended to in such a luxurious way, Manon and I walk out fresh, clean, and dreamy-eyed, and Manon says, “Let’s come back here tomorrow.”
But it is not to be, as “tomorrow” is our departure day. It has been a perfectly balanced vacation for our family, with a little driving, but not too much, seeing a few different towns, but staying long enough to get a real feel for each place, and action and fun combined with relaxation and rest. Jules and Manon have come to think that Oualidia is the only place in the world to go surfing, and have been angling to go back there. And there is something special for all of us in the experience of discovering Morocco together as a family. But our attachment aside, I now know that we are ready for any new travel adventures that come our way, and I think the kids have come to see the world a little differently. I couldn’t really ask for more than that.
In Marrekesh we stayed at the Riad Chorfa.
In Essaouira we stayed at the Residence El Mehdi.
Deborah Donenfeld is a photographer living in New York City.