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Thoughts from
Spiritual England

Spiritual England in Morocco

Moroccan Flags

Our journey began in Marrakech, where we landed and stayed for a few nights at a beautiful Riad on the edge of the Souk. The Souk is pure, unadulterated chaos, with narrow roads consisting of encroaching shops, two lanes of foot traffic, and two lanes of motorcycle traffic, all within the width of a single English countryside lane.

donkey souk
marrakech souk

The city centre is a different story - well developed and pristine clean. It's very modern and I was very surprised to see some places offering designated drinking areas for those wanting alcohol. The roads are just as chaotic, however, with road signs and traffic lights being more decorative than functional. We discovered the only safe way to cross a road is to boldly walk out and make eye-contact with your potential killer. Only once that human connection was made, did you know you were safe and they would stop to let you cross.

We survived long enough to have our first meal at a little restaurant slightly off the beaten track and met the nicest waiter, Abdul, and chef, Omar. We liked them so much we came back on our last day just to stop by and catch up. He gave us far too many free extras and we loved his shenanigans, such as playing English love songs on the café speakers for us. They had no problem making some vegan dishes for us and it was so good and so cheap I ended up giving a 100% tip for the first time in my life.

Next up was Rabat, travelling via train. Imagine the famous Harry Potter train carriages, then reduce their size by 50% whilst doubling the occupants, finally adding 45°C temperature into the mix. It’s a testament to everyone’s temperament and patience there were never any real disagreements. We also experienced a quality double-decker train with comfortable seating and godly air conditioning.

Rabat is Morocco’s capital city, the second largest behind Casablanca, with both situated on the western coast. The Souks here are mercifully less hectic and the beaches are pleasant, albeit far too overcrowded for my liking. The city centre is as modern as Marrakech, but we could see a pattern emerging - so many of the buildings in Morocco seem to remain forever unfinished! It was also decidedly less traditional here regarding clothing and lifestyle; I was shocked to even see lingerie on display in the Souk.

Rabat Sea
Rabat Coast

Access to places of worship is forbidden to tourists, so I'm unable to provide much information here other than from the outside and what I managed to glimpse in passing. I was surprised just how many there are, seemingly every 10th doorway in the medina leads into a prayer room. One can see why too, as when the call to prayer sounds, music stops, everything slows down, and many make their way to go to pray. As this happens numerous times every day, quick access to a quiet place of worship seems prudent.

The mosques are as beautiful as they are numerous, with a rooftop view showing a tower/minaret within a stones throw in every direction. The call to prayer was a welcome moment of peace every time, and I imagined how a similar thing could work in a secular or non-religious society. Regular pauses throughout the day in which everyone could down their tools, put their arguments on pause, and linger in feelings of peace and gratitude... I can only imagine it would have a beneficial impact in any given society.

The next destination was meant to be Chefchaouen; however, to get there one must travel to Tangier and take a bus, for which you can only buy a ticket at the station and it was fully booked for the next 3 days (due to Eid - more on that later). As such, we were stuck in Tangier with no plan except for tickets to Chefchaouen in three days time. The ticket seller mentioned how he and his wife enjoy visiting a little coastal town called Asilah.

I had checked this place out online before the trip and we'd decided it was too far out of the way, beautiful though it looked. Without direct trains, we would have to have gone all the way up to Tangier before heading back down again. Now that we'd found 3 days free, we thought we might as well check it out, and we ended up having the best time in the entire trip. We stayed in an apartment ran by two brothers I can’t say enough good things about, with air con, rooftop, and a basic kitchen.

Asilah Coastline
Asilah Coastline

Asilah was described to us as being the tourist destination for Moroccans, and we can see why. It’s a small coastal town with a great beach, minimal tourists, and a quiet, traditional, peaceful vibe. We couldn’t get enough of it, especially after the chaos of Marrakech and the overcrowded beaches of Rabat. Alas, it was also Eid al-Adha and, though I worked for a Muslim-owned and ran company at the time and there were plentiful signs, we had failed to appreciate entirely what it would entail.

On the eve of Eid, whilst eating lunch on the roof of our apartment, we noticed there were sheep on nearby balconies, all sounding rather unimpressed with their new elevated views. The following day, my girlfriend got to the rooftop before me and came back to suggest we eat somewhere else - the carcass hanging on the neighbour’s balcony likely to put me off my breakfast. Alas, it was the same throughout the town, with the bloody remnants of sheep everywhere to be seen.

Fair enough to say animal sacrifice and vegan ethics are somewhat at odds… This was a long way from the Eid celebrations I’d experienced in England and I’m sure a great deal closer to the original traditions.

Chefchaouen Kittens
Chefchaouen Kittens
Market Turtles
Market Turtles

Animal welfare in Morocco is fairly mixed bag; religious practices aside, people are people and have unique ways of interacting with our animal cousins. Cats are absolutely everywhere and they’re clearly looked after by the majority of people. I could be wrong, but I imagine this symbiotic relationship has something to do with the complete absence of any rats, at odds with the apparent nationwide litter issue.

Wild Kittens
Wild Kittens (Asilah)

Wild dogs roamed the beaches and cemeteries, and were both friendly and harmless for the most part. A local told us many of them are actually pets, but people don’t have the land or space in their properties to keep them indoors; thus, granting them a great deal more freedom than they ever get in the UK. On the other hand, donkeys were treated abysmally, and the square in Marrakech still displayed chained monkeys and snake charmers.

Wild Dogs in Rabat
Wild Dogs (Rabat)

After Asilah, we finally made the trip to the famous blue city of Chefchaouen; it’s every bit as beautiful as everyone says it is and well worth the effort to get there. It’s also where we most enjoyed the call to prayer from the mosques scattered across the city and up in the mountains, where they echoed across the rooftops and harmonized above the streets.

Chefchaouen Sunset
Chefchaouen Sunset

We spent our late nights sat up on the roof, looking out over the city and listening to the myriad sounds of life bubbling up from below.

Perhaps due to the heat, reaching 50+ degrees Celsius when we visited, Moroccan cities seem to come alive after sundown. The streets are so well lit, it’s like walking around in daylight, and it’s busier than it ever gets during the day. Even at midnight, the cafes are still full of men drinking espressos and people-watching, seemingly the most popular hobbies for Moroccan men over the age of 40.

Midnight Double Espressos
Midnight Double Espressos

I was kept awake at night in Chefchaouen by children playing Tag in the streets until 3am, and it wasn’t unusual to come across young children going about their business by themselves in the middle of the night. In truth, we never felt any unease in walking the city or

medina streets after sundown, a feeling almost unique to Morocco. Still, it was strange seeing young children roaming the inner cities late at night with no parental oversight.

Kids Marrakech Streets
Kids in Marrakech

Food and drink prices were a mixed bag depending on where you went. Anywhere catering to tourists was massively overpriced (English prices) and looked like poor quality, whereas there were always great options just off the beaten track. We discovered the price of an espresso was a great metric to spotting the local places, with a tourist trap costing 2-5 times as much. For example, the photo below was taken from a rooftop café where this double espresso, mint tea, and fresh orange juice cost around £2 in total.

Mint Tea_Espresso_Orange Juice

Just behind that mint tea is a tourist spot serving single espressos for £2.70. Using French, constantly smiling, and having learned a few Arabic phrases, we were generally welcome everywhere we went. The exception was in Marrakech when someone told us to leave and the café was for locals only. The waiter and a customer had some harsh words with him and assured us we could stay... the customer was even kind enough to offer us some of his hashish, something apparently very common in Morocco.

Cooking in Morocco is a joy; the fruit and vegetables are plentiful, and the spices are fresh and full of flavour, not to mention the price of everything is ridiculously low. Baguettes are about 10p each and we bought enough food at a market for 3 days for less than £5. We also bought a tagine and some spices in an attempt to recreate some authentic Moroccan cuisine. As it turns out, I’m not a big fan of tagine cooking, thinking it likely suits meat and fish far more than vegetables, and I ended up writing a rather disparaging song about them to the tune of Jolene by Dolly Parton (see end of article).

We had a great eating-out experience when searching for a restaurant which turned out to be someone’s house. As we arrived, a man was playing with his daughter in the entrance and informed us he was the owner. He quickly hurried inside to rouse his wife, who was asleep on the sofa, and ushered her into the kitchen. We ate some local foods, which were tasty enough, and were greatly entertained by the aforementioned daughter’s creative games.

Upon returning to Marrakech for a night before catching our flight home, we ventured out once again into the Souk. After the peace of Asilah and relative quiet of Chefchaouen, I was little prepared for venturing back into the chaos of the Marrakech souk. We had different accommodation to before and were staying on the other side, farther from the city and closer to the ‘posh’ areas. Some words of caution then, for any future visitors.

Moroccan Markets
Bartering in Marrakech

Young locals will try to tell you roads are closed for various reasons, that you’re going the wrong way, and various other things to get you to follow them in return for money. The shops mostly sell poor quality items, many still with ‘made in China’ written on them, whilst trying to convince you they hand-made them that very morning. We were also often followed by multiple people and it made for less than comfortable journeys.

We knew bartering was a mandatory component of shopping here and we were advised the initial price would be 2-3 times the genuine price. Unfortunately, the process of getting something to 1/3 or 1/2 the price was tiresome and often impossible. If you managed to finally get there you almost didn’t realise you were still paying more than you would in England for an item made in China. By the end, we were rather fed up with all the lies, not to mention trying to avoid being run-over with every step, and I can safely say I’ll likely not return to Marrakech.

It was, however, absolutely fascinating to travel a predominantly Muslim country, one ostensibly in Africa, and there were certainly some culture-shocks making for a far more interesting trip than for most countries I’ve been to in Europe. We’d go back to Asilah again tomorrow, but give the larger cities a wide berth; it would also be nice to return to Chefchaouen, if only to spend more time exploring the surrounding area.

I could easily write 10 more pages on this 10-day trip, which should tell you everything about how much Morocco has to offer. A final tip for any travelling vegans - stay somewhere with a kitchen and try to avoid going on days of mass ritualistic animal slaughter.

I’ll leave you with the Tagine/Jolene song, which is bound to offend the entire nation of Morocco.

Tagine, tagine, tagine, tagine The cooking vessel of the Moroccan Tagine, tagine, tagine, tagine I'm wondering if you're better than a pan

Your cooking skill, it does not care Cooks your food, but never rare With just two parts, it's not too bad to clean

What's going on, can't see a thing Your cooking time’s a bloody pain And I cannot be using you, tagine

My vegetables, in you they steep And there’s nothing I can do to keep Them melting into soggy mush, Tagine

And I can’t clearly understand How you defeated the frying pan You’ll never make any sense to me, Tagine

Tagine, tagine, tagine, tagine The cooking vessel of the Moroccan Tagine, tagine, tagine, tagine I'm wondering if you're better than a pan

The health effects of clay I ken To religious roots I say amen But you’ll never be the one for me tagine I couldn’t help but tell it true I’m not the biggest fan of you Always nice to try something new, tagine

Tagine, tagine, tagine, tagine The cooking vessel of the Moroccan Tagine, tagine, tagine, tagine I'm wondering if you're better than a pan

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