One question I’ve often asked is: where is the nearest and cheapest place to fly to from the UK, for a short trip, to really experience a different culture? Well, I think I found the answer: Morocco.
Ryanair flies to some of Morocco’s main cities for dirt cheap, including Marrakesh, Fez, Rabat and Agadir. Fly London Stansted to Fez in October from just £56 return (at time of writing); bargain! And the flight only takes 3hrs 15mins.
Morocco has a very rustic feel, and mostly remains un-westernised. The country’s cities are a beautiful mix of crumbling, winding streets, wild markets and fabulous mosaic-covered mosques; the seaside towns, such as Essaouira, provide the pristine beaches. At the centre of every town or city is a medina, meaning ‘old town’. Each is different and unique, and overwhelmed with colours, smells, and people. Most do not allow cars to enter, meaning that streets are narrow and reserved for the hordes of pedestrians that often fill them, and you should set out with the expectation of getting lost. Small shops are crammed in alongside each other, selling pashminas and extravagant lamps, and most locals tend to wear traditional Muslim dress. Expect to see towering pyramids of spices and boxes of chickens for sale. With this and the lack of motor vehicles, walking through Morocco’s medinas can give the feeling of having been transported back in time.
Chefchauen’s medina in particular is incredibly unique, its walls painted a wonderful pale blue, which makes for quite a fairy-tale experience. The town sits in Morocco’s richly forested mountains in the north, adding to the fairy-tale feel; in contrast, the flat, southern regions of the country are mostly barren, especially during the scorching summer months. Essaouira’s white-washed medina walls, right by the sea, provide a fresh, seaside feel. Head out to the ramparts to see great views of the clifftop walls hanging over the sea below, and the busy fish market. Essaouira’s beach is huge and totally unspoilt; it’s not in Moroccan tastes to sit on the beach all day, and certainly not to sunbathe, making it a tranquil spot for a stroll. Thrill-seekers should head to the end of the beach, where numerous companies can organise quad-biking on the sand dunes.
Fez’s medina is less picturesque than Chefchauen’s and Essaouira’s, but far bigger and more thrilling – you could spend a day getting lost amongst its meandering streets, browsing the shops for rugs and decorative mirrors, and taking a breather to overlook the city with a mint tea in a rooftop café. Marrakesh is in some ways similar to Fez, but smaller and arguably less rustic, with surging tourism and the income opportunities that it provides clearly becoming a local obsession; in Fez, locals are less likely to give you a thought, going about their own everyday business as always.
Marrakesh’s main square, Jemaa el Fna, has a food market every evening, selling traditional Moroccan food at cheap prices – couscous and tagine (slow cooked meat in a sweet, fruity sauce) are a staple – where you can sit in the steaming square and watch the live entertainment that appears there every night. Marrakesh’s medina really comes alive at night; it’s the best time to wander around and take it all in, especially at the height of summer when temperatures can reach 45 degrees C during the middle of the day.
For a cultural experience that is cheap and easy to get to, Morocco fits the bill.