Going down the pockmarked streets of the Marrakesh medina hits differently — quite literally — when you’re in a motorcycle sidecar.
“The original you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” he jokes about the latter as we jitter over some debris.
It also hits differently when it’s your first international trip in nearly two years.
Days earlier, as I boarded the flight to Morocco, I texted my partner that I couldn’t tell whether I was excited or scared. In my lifetime, I’ve lived on four continents and visited 71 countries, the majority of them solo, but this was the first time I had felt so uncertain about going somewhere new. I felt international-travel rusty. Although I absolutely could have planned a trip to Morocco by myself, I felt as if having my hand held would make for a less anxiety-inducing return to traveling abroad. For the first time ever, I hired a tour company to do the planning. And I’m so glad I did.
Plan-It Morocco came at the recommendation of a friend of a friend. The women-owned company specializes in creating itineraries from the enormous number of locally owned tour companies with which they work. Many of the options are in culinary, art and adventure realms, but the through line is that they’re all culturally immersive. Hiring the company would allow me to be thrust into the unfamiliar, while also having a safety net.
We settled on two areas for exploration: Marrakesh, a buzzy major city known for its imperial architecture, crowded souks, street performers and mint tea; and Essaouira, an artsy fishing town full of sinuous, wind-blocking roads on the Atlantic Ocean.
When asked what I was interested in doing, I told my guides that I wanted to learn and that I wanted to be surprised. I suppose that’s why I found myself standing in a pen of 160 goats on the third day.
“You need to know the goats before you can make cheese,” Abderrazzak, the owner of La Fromagerie, a goat farm and cheesery outside Essaouira, said matter-of-factly from the other side of the gate. What trying to keep the hem of my dress out of the gnashing maw of hungry, glassy-eyed goats has to do with making burrata, I’m not sure, but after I darted around the pen for a few minutes, Abderrazzak ushered me into the kitchen to learn the finer points of crafting the Italian cheese.
He and a helper showed me how to squeeze and knead the product until it went from being a wet, clumpy mess to having the consistency of taffy. As the whey seeped between our knuckles, he shared his life story: how, after studying in Canada, he came home, learned how to make cheese and quickly built a goat milk product empire by selling to restaurants across Morocco. By the time we got to folding in the creamy innards of the dish, he had explained why he had traded it in for a quiet life teaching cheesemaking classes in the countryside.
“A good life is about meeting people and sharing something,” Abderrazzak explained.
In addition to cheesemaking and tootling around in a sidecar, my adventures included visiting Le Domaine du Val d’Argan (one of the few wineries in Morocco), participating in a yoga class, taking a late-night street food tour and going for an early-morning tour of Essaouira, where the only other souls we saw in the glow of dawn were the myriad street cats.
I liked that beyond just taking care of the logistics of getting from Point A to Point B and booking activities, the company lined up experiences I wouldn’t have found on my own or wouldn’t have had the chutzpah to try by myself. I also appreciated that it took on the headache of finding locally owned, quality lodging. During the week, I stayed at Riad Dar Maya, a quaint five-room accommodation within Essaouira’s medina; Les Deux Tours, a lush resort outside Marrakesh’s city center, with oodles of gardens and private pools; and Riad de Tarabel, a French colonial-style mansion turned posh hotel with cozy nooks and a secret hammam hidden behind a mirror in Marrakesh’s medina. Each was a beautiful oasis of calm in the otherwise frenetic cities. It really felt as if I had a true insider’s guide.
Before the bone-rattling sidecar adventure, two Plan-It Morocco staffers picked me up for an art tour of Marrakesh.
“Today will be a taster,” one of the guides said, explaining that we would see a bit of everything, including the Khalid Fine Arts gallery, the Yves Saint Laurent Museum (the fashion designer was heavily influenced by Morocco), a pop-art-themed cafe and many artisan workshops.
Two of those artists were husband-and-wife duo Larbi Cherkaoui and Rebecca Wilford. Cherkaoui is a contemporary artist who uses unusual materials — such as henna and bits of a computer’s motherboard — in his paintings. His work is widely acclaimed; he has even received commissions from the Moroccan royal family. Wilford is a designer who works with women from a local village to craft tajine-shaped crochet lamps, as well as handbags and jewelry inspired by the Berber ethnic group. Their multilevel studio is an airy, albeit paint-splattered, ode to all things creative. Each partner’s work adorns the walls and ceilings, and spare materials practically spill out of closets. However, you’d never know if you were just passing by. There’s no sign outside the building, no indication that innovative and inspired work is taking place behind the drab brick walls.
“That’s the thing about Morocco,” Wilford said. “A lot happens behind doors that look like nothing. You kind of need someone to show you around to really appreciate it.”
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.