Morocco: North Africa's Cultural Mecca

Morocco is a unique country located in northern Africa, just south of Spain. It has influences of European (having been a French territory), Arabic and African cultures. Its rich Berber cultural heritage and varied landscapes ranging from beaches and mountains to the Sahara make it an exotic travel destination.

Although one can spend months exploring the cities and countryside starting, from the ancient city of Tangier in the north to Tarfaya, a small village located on the Atlantic coast that marks the end of the surfing races (The Dash), there are a few must-see sights in Morocco. Casablanca is the economic capital and where most international flights fly into. It is best known for the Hassan II Mosque, which is one of the largest and most extravagant mosques in the Arab world. It is one of the oldest cities in the world and the biggest city in Morocco which you will soon realize from the number of people, congested traffic and abundance of trade.

A couple of hours’ drive from Casablanca is Rabat, the political capital and home of the King’s parliament. The Kasbah des Oudaias by the Atlantic is a beautiful lush garden with a lookout point, beach and old ruins. You can easily spend a whole day here taking in the sights while paying close respect to the people who left behind their imprints from thousands of years ago. Another site to visit is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V where the current king’s father and grandfather are buried. Look at the intricate carvings of marble and take a picture with the Royal Guard.

Three hours north of Rabat is Fes, the art capital of Morocco. The Medina in Fes has 9,500 narrow winding lanes full of artwork and tiny shops selling them as donkey carts pass you by. A fair warning is to hire a guide to walk you through or you may end up being lost in the maze. It’s a great place to people watch and take photographs.

Marrakesh attracts mostly tourists and is often seen in movies and photos with colorful crowded shopping areas selling beautiful items at dirt cheap prices. The Marrakesh Medina is the largest one in Morocco with tanneries, wood carvers, smelts, etc. and is a paradise for shoppers. Just walking through the Medina is stimulating for all of your senses. The Medina ends at the Jamaa el Fna, an iconic square bustling with snake charmers, street performers, food vendors and more. Just south of Marrakesh is Essaouira, where Moroccans go for weekend getaways. It has beautiful seaside resorts where you can soak in the sun, relax on the beach, swim in the Atlantic and try water sports.

The Sahara is located in the southeastern province of Morocco. A must-experience adventure is to go on a camel trek into the vast, open desert and camp overnight under the stars. Tour guides can arrange a private camp for a romantic duo or you can go as part of a small group. Watching the star-studded desert sky in peaceful silence is an experience you will cherish forever.

If you have visited a traditional Moroccan restaurant, you may remember a very communal atmosphere with bright colors, dim lights and informal dinner tables. Although European influence in Morocco is strong (French and Arabic are two of the main languages), it is still a country of distinctly Arabic tradition.

The Moroccan meal is not a quick affair. You are expected to leave your shoes at the front door and sit on either the floor or on a “pouf” (a circular leather ottoman). A circular knee-high table is used as a dinner table in every Moroccan home. Family and friends sit together around the table, eating communal style, sharing plates and using their hands instead of silverware.

A typical meal is served in five courses. The national soup, harira, is a rich stew that is classically made with beef or mutton stock, onions, saffron, and walnuts. Alternatively, a vegetable or lentil soup may be served. An assortment of salads (carrots, beets, eggplant, lima beans, etc.) served with Arabic bread comes next. You are required to share all dishes with your table and scoop the food with a piece of bread or the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand. A popular appetizer is pastilla, a layered pastry filled with ground chicken, scrambled eggs and almond paste and topped with cinnamon and sugar. Think of a savory baklava! The main dish consists of couscous, a dish made with granulated semolina grains and topped with mutton, veal, or beef and a variety of vegetables such as zucchini, turnips, and carrots. The desert environment is not conducive to sweets. Desserts are usually fresh fruits (pomegranates and tangerines), cookies and hot tea. Being a primarily Muslim country, alcohol is not served except in restaurants catering to foreigners.

The Moroccan tea is minty green with lots of sugar. You will find people sipping tea throughout the day and tea ceremonies are an important part of all celebrations.

This Thanksgiving think of how you can incorporate this unique culture from a world afar into your festivities. You can share your love for food by throwing a Moroccan-style Thanksgiving dinner party. It is easy, fun and a great way to break bread with your near and dear ones. Create an authentic ambiance with lots of cushions on the floor around a low table, put on some belly dancing music in the background and serve a traditional Moroccan meal.

For information about Morocco, visit http://www.visitmorocco.com/index.php/eng.

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Sucheta is an award-winning food and travel writer who has traveled to 70+ countries and is on a mission to see the entire world. She is also the founder of the nonprofit organization, Go Eat Give and the author of a series of children's books on travel, "Beato Goes To" that teach kids about different countries and cultures. To learn more, visit suchetarawal.com.