morocco camel 248.
(photo credit: Steve Linde, Linda Epstein)
If you're staying away from Turkey because of that country's recent anti-Israel actions, you might want to consider another Muslim country for your next vacation.
While it is more expensive than Turkey, Morocco has a myriad of marvels attracting tourists from around the world, especially from Europe. During a recent two-week visit, I ran out of superlatives to describe its seemingly endless and diverse beauty, from the powerful Atlas Mountains and the stunning Sahara Desert to the magnificent Atlantic Ocean resorts and the well-designed cities with their impressive public buildings and parks.
The fall is a good time to visit Morocco, when the summer heat is over, although the weather can get quite cold and rainy in some parts of the country as winter approaches.
Many Israelis don't know that you may apply for an individual tourist visa to Morocco, while others feel safer traveling in groups, a popular pastime for some of the estimated one million Moroccan Jews and their offspring who live in Israel. (There was a large group on our plane.)
You should, however, give your travel agent two weeks to apply for your visa (it costs about NIS 400) and make sure it is issued for the day you are scheduled to arrive to avoid problems at the airport in Casablanca.
Citizens of most other countries, including member states of the European Union, the US and Canada, don't require visas.
Because Israel and Morocco don't have diplomatic relations and direct flights, you need to change planes somewhere en route, and my friend and I chose Rome. Despite a few hitches, including a delay for several hours at the Casablanca airport while we tracked down the representative of the local company that issued my visa, the excitement triggered by the "Smile, you're in Casablanca!" sticker I saw at the airport stayed with me during the entire trip.
We started our trip in Casablanca, which is a fascinating city, and you should ignore the recommendations of some guide books and spend a few days exploring Morocco's commercial and cultural center. We thoroughly enjoyed strolling through the Old Medina market, which exudes an authentic ambiance and is inhabited more by locals than tourists. I had the pleasure of a shave by a local barber on a street of barbers, and we tried the local tea in one of the countless cafes.
We also paid an obligatory visit to the nearby Hassan II Mosque, whose 210 meter-high minaret makes it the tallest building in the country.
You can see the Atlantic through the glass floor in the prayer hall. Ordered as a city landmark by the late monarch in 1980 to mark his 60th birthday, it cost more than $500 million to build. Hassan II is the world's third largest mosque and the prayer hall alone can hold 25,000 worshipers, with another 75,000 in the adjacent square.
King Hassan II, you may recall, was a close friend of Israel, and particularly of Shimon Peres.
We also visited the wonderful Jewish Museum in Casablanca, which - interestingly - is the only museum in the city. Situated in an upscale neighborhood called Oasis (you need to take a taxi there, but it's not expensive), it also happens to be the only Jewish museum in a Muslim country.
The museum tells the fascinating history of the Jews of Morocco. Although most of them made aliya after the State of Israel was established, Jews have lived in Morocco for some 2,000 years, making enormous contributions to the country in a variety of fields, including trade, crafts, literature and music.
In his first speech after declaring independence in 1956, King Muhammad V granted Jews full citizenship and both his son, Hassan II, and grandson, Muhammad VI, appointed Jews as top advisers. (The current adviser is AndrÃ© Azoulay.)
There is evidence of a rich Jewish life in cities across Morocco, and we found that Moroccans generally smile upon Jews and Israelis, even exhibiting a special warmth.
We experienced no overtly anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli sentiments, except for a large mural in a small town with a poem of the urban legend blaming Israel for the death of Muhammad al-Dura, the Palestinian boy caught and killed in the crossfire between IDF troops and Palestinian gunmen (whose bullets were ultimately responsible for his death).
We stayed at a medium-budget hotel in downtown Casablanca recommended by the 2009 Lonely Planet guidebook, whose prices are nevertheless outdated. It cost about 350 dirhams for the two of us (there are about 7.5 dirhams to the dollar, and the correct plural for dirham is darahim).
We were very happy with the clean and attractive room, which had a great view of the city, even if the decor was - like much of the artwork in Morocco - a little extravagant.
We splurged for dinner one night by eating at Rick's CafÃ©, made famous by the film Casablanca, which is shown repeatedly in a lounge on the second floor. Rick's is high-class dining with fine food, and has a jazz band with a pianist on Sunday nights.
From Casablanca, we took a four-hour train ride south to Marrakesh, the tourist hub of the country. Again we stayed in a medium-budget hotel, which we found quite satisfactory.
We were a little overwhelmed by the huge number of tourists packing the exotic Djemaa el-Fna square in the city's Medina, with its snake charmers and storytellers, surrounded by stores selling everything from Berber medicines to shoes made from camel leather.
Of course, we sampled the delicacies at open-air food stalls and regular restaurants offering the traditional Moroccan specialties of tajine chicken and lamb, couscous and harira soup. We also treated ourselves in Marrakesh to a superb rubdown and massage at a local, upscale hamam.
But the highlight of the trip was still to come. We rented a car with a local friend and drove east, via the international film studios in the desert to the staggering Dades Gorge in the High Atlas Mountains, where we spent the night at a luxurious hotel overlooking a river (about 600 dirhams per night for a double room, including dinner), and then to the Sahara for a camel ride into the sunset and a very comfortable night in a private tent with a group of Spanish tourists as our "neighbors."
The desert was breathtaking, and the experience - of which photographs give you only a partial sense - is something that will be etched in our memories forever.
If you go to Morocco, I recommend setting aside at least a few days at a desert hotel in the area of Marzouga to soak up the sun and the beauty. (Most of the hotels also have pools.)
After returning to Marrekesh, we took a bus to the coastal resort of Agadir, where we stayed in another reasonable but comfortable hotel near the sea, and enjoyed a few days of relaxation on the beach, people-watching and playing Scrabble. We also discovered a few good fish restaurants in Agadir.
The city, which once had a thriving Jewish population, has been beautifully restored since its devastating earthquake in 1960, and we were impressed by its lovely parks and gardens, one of which has a beautiful building housing a free library for children that allows kids to take out books and read them in the park. A brilliant idea!
The nine-hour bus ride from Agadir back to Casablanca on a local bus was tiring but fascinating, and we happened to sit behind a young Moroccan man who knew Hebrew and had worked as a chef at a restaurant in Tel Aviv.
In Casablanca, at the Jewish Museum, we met an interesting couple, a Russian Jewish immigrant to New York and his Japanese wife. They were such lovers of Israel that when Operation Cast Lead began, they hopped on a plane and spent the war volunteering at Ketziot.
We spent our last night in Casablanca dining at the superb Taverne du Dauphin fish restaurant and taking our last walk through the night market and the city's shanty town, which is being rebuilt upon the instructions of the king. It was this slum that provided the recruiting ground for the terrorists who carried out the Casablanca bombings in 2003 (which targeted Jewish institutions) and 2007. The current regime has reported some success in cracking down on terrorists and encouraging moderate Muslim parties.
The royal family is by all accounts loved and respected by most Moroccans. People we talked with say the 46-year-old king, who has been on the throne for a decade, is more open-minded, democratic, caring and generous to the poor than his late father.
Morocco currently has a population of some 35 million, with under 10,000 Jews remaining of a community that exceeded a quarter of a million before 1948.
Although the gaps between rich and poor remain stark, the country really seems to care about its citizens, providing a wealth of services to all its people, including the needy.
According to the Tourism Ministry, almost 8 million tourists visited the country in 2008, an increase of 6.4 percent over 2007.
Although tourism is down this year due to the global economic crisis, the ministry aims to reach the figure of 10 million tourists in 2010. Marrakesh is the favorite destination of visitors, especially from Europe, and of the more than 150,000 beds offered to tourists throughout Morocco, almost a third are in Marrakesh.
Because most tourists speak French and Spanish, it is rare to find Moroccans who speak good English, but English is slowly catching on as the youth watch more television, surf the Internet and listen to American and British music.
The Moroccans are warm and hospitable to visitors, and service at hotels, restaurants and stores is excellent. Israel and other countries can learn a lot from Morocco. While many areas outside of the cities resemble a third-world country, it provides first-class service to tourists, and Israeli visitors will certainly find the country as attractive and pleasing as Turkey, if not more so.