8 minute read

Kingdom of the Lost Lion

Morocco. Hot sun, sizzling sands, busy markets as far as the eye can see. Hand-woven carpets, colourful spices, the intoxicating scent of mint, citrus fruit, and roses. Deep green forests, endless olive groves, snow-covered mountains, hot springs, and villages keen on preserving ancient traditions: Morocco’s geographical location, rich culture, and convoluted history make it a country that will never cease to surprise. Photographer and traveller Tomáš Slavík is our guide here, taking us through this nation of lions, sardines, and argan oil.

The city of Chefchaouen is located in the northwest, at the foothills of the Rif Mountains. The earliest settlement was established in the late 15 th century, as a fortress for fighting off Portuguese invaders. In mediaeval times, many Muslims and Jews settled here after the Spanish Reconquista, and the city once again became a refuge for Jews from the south of Europe during the Second World War.
Chefchaouen is especially popular among travellers for its blue-painted buildings, which have earned it the nickname The Blue Pearl. There are several theories as to why the walls were painted this colour – some say that it is because blue symbolises the sky and heavens, reminding people to lead a more spiritual life; others claim the reason is purely practical, since blue keeps mosquitoes away.
Morocco is not all desert; forests cover about 12 percent of the country. The Middle Atlas mountain range is covered in primeval cedar forests. The Cèdre Gouraud Forest is home to the Barbary macaque, which also happens to be the only monkey existing in Europe (a small population lives in Gibraltar). Despite huge conservation efforts, Moroccan fauna and flora have suffered considerably over the past years.
Produce and items of everyday use are sold at markets known as souks. Haggling is common practice: with enough persistence, an experienced haggler will manage to get the price knocked down by as much as two-thirds.

From the southernmost outposts of Spain or the lighthouse on the rocks of Gibraltar, the African continent is clearly visible: the shores of Morocco are only some fifteen kilometres away. Two Spanish enclaves near the country’s northern border – Ceuta and Melilla – make Europe and Morocco near neighbours. The two towns are the last vestiges of French/Spanish rule. In 1956 the country regained its independence, establishing itself as a constitutional monarchy with Mohammed V as king. His grandson, Mohammed VI, is currently the ruling monarch, sharing some of his executive and legislative power with the Prime Minister.

Morocco borders Algeria in the east, and Western Sahara in the south, the latter being a territory Morocco partially occupies and claims as its own. Approximately one-fifth of the country, however, is currently controlled by the liberation movement known as the Polisario Front, which has been battling since 1976 to establish Morocco as an independent democratic republic. The United Nations is not entirely clear on Western Sahara’s status: the region recognises neither Moroccan sovereignty or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic established by the Polisario. The international community considers it a non-autonomous territory, and the current truce is tenuous at best.

Tourists are often surprised by the cleanliness of Moroccan towns: there’s not a single piece of rubbish, leftover food, or cigarette butt in sight. Shopkeepers regularly sweep the pavements outside their stores and spray the dry roads to prevent the dust from stirring.
Cannabis is grown in most of the Rif region. Marijuana and hashish have been cultivated, produced, and utilised in Morocco for centuries, and the nationwide ban on narcotics has done nothing to undermine that tradition. It is an open secret that Morocco’s economy depends on cannabis exports to Europe, which adds to its attraction as a tourist destination.
Mountain villages and desert oases are home to the Berbers, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. They live in small, often inaccessible communities, speak their own unique language and maintain ancient customs.
In a Berber village you can observe traditional arts and crafts; taste spicy dishes; and wrap a ten-metre-long scarf round your head to protect you against the sharp wind before mounting a camel and setting out to explore the surrounding sand dunes. Afterwards, you can simply enjoy the starry skies, amazing silence, and rolling sands as far as the eye can see.

Morocco’s climate is greatly affected by its location amid the Sahara, the Atlas Mountains, and the Atlantic coast. The northwestern part of the country has a decidedly Mediterranean climate, lush forests and moderate temperatures. Morocco’s most prominent mountain range, the High Atlas, stretches across the entire central region, all the way to Algeria and Tunisia. Its tallest peak is the Toubkal, at 4,167 metres. Except during winter months, it’s fairly easy to climb. The name Atlas derives from ancient Greek mythology: Atlas was a Titan who held the entire celestial heavens on his shoulders. His punishment was briefly alleviated by the hero Heracles, who sent him to fetch golden apples from the goddess Hera’s garden. Some of the oldest cave paintings, dating back to the Neolithic Age, have been found in the caves of the High Atlas – a testament to the region’s long and elaborate history.

Morocco is a country of distinct contrasts. Coastal areas boast resorts that could just as easily be in Florida; on the other side of the country, the parched landscape conceals underground adobe houses. And at the confluence of the mountain rivers, palm tree groves and plantations flourish.
Feeling a bit peckish? Just follow your nose. Food is often prepared in the street, with neighbours and passers-by happily stopping to savour freshly baked bread or roasted meat.

The territory defining today’s Morocco was first settled by the Phoenicians, followed by the Roman Empire, the Muslim Arabs, and then by the Spanish and Portuguese during the age of great sea voyages. To this day, the country remains an extremely attractive travel destination, thanks to its charm and its many contrasts.

Alleyways between the ancient, dilapidated adobe houses are kept meticulously clean. And even in the poorest mountain village, the locals will gladly share a piece of khubz flatbread with you. Other staples of Moroccan cuisine include couscous, tajine, and kefta. Mint tea is offered on literally every street corner – its preparation is a very involved affair, usually entrusted to men. The recipe combines green gunpowder tea, fresh spearmint leaves, and sugar. “The first glass is as gentle as life, the second as strong as love, the third as bitter as death,” claims a Maghrebi proverb.

Religion and tradition play a very important role in Moroccan society. As a visitor, respect and humility toward the local culture will always earn you a warm welcome. Interestingly enough, the liver, not the heart, is considered the symbol of love in Morocco, and white is the colour of mourning. The royal coat-of-arms features two majestic Barbary lions. The lion is Morocco’s national animal, unfortunately now extinct in the region – the last one was shot in the wild in 1922. Even so, Morocco’s abundant fauna and flora offer a lot for travellers to admire.

Morocco has over 100 thermal springs offering healing properties. After a lengthy trek with a heavy backpack, you will be overjoyed to find one.
With such a varied landscape, Morocco’s weather patterns are diverse. In the mountains, extremely high temperatures can quickly drop below freezing. Make sure you have proper gear and sufficient information before setting out on a mountain hike.
text: Patrik Florián
photos: Tomáš Slavík, www.tomasslavik.cz