Smithsonian Journeys: Considering all of the incredible stops on this journey and your two plus years residence in Morocco, what would you say is the single most breathtaking destination on the itinerary?
Moshe Gershovich: Having to choose just one breathtaking spot in Morocco is almost akin to choosing one of your children as more beloved than the others. Once you get out and about into the countryside, the beauty of the landscape appears to pop up from every curve in the road. One of my favorite stretches of road is the fifteen-minute drive from Ifrane to Azrou. It is surrounded by a lush evergreen forest of trees, the road twists and turns throughout the ride. Occasional breaks in the woods reveal magnificent scenery miles away in the distance. Another great vista point is the start of the Ziz Valley on the road to Erfoud. You can see thick groves of palm trees hugging the curve of the river below as it flows toward the Tafilalt Oasis.
Still, having to pick my ultimate breathtaking spot, I can think of no experience that could rival the majestic splendor of the sun setting behind the sand dunes at Merzouga. What better ending could there be to a busy day spent mostly at and around the Tafilalt with its bustling center of Risani, than the silence of the open dunes, climbed by foot or atop a camel just in time to see the twilight falling on the endless desert. The eerie silence engulfs you and the warm sand threatens to flood your shoes as you turn to descend back to your awaiting bus.
SJ: During your tenure at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, what became your favorite way to spend a free day? Exploring medinas? Treks in the High Atlas Mountains?
MG: When free of teaching and other academic work for AUI, I used to travel towns and villages in the Middle Atlas interviewing Moroccan veterans of the French Army who had fought in WWII and other wars. My travels brought me to places that few foreigners had ever heard about, let alone visited. In these research trips I came to know the “real” Morocco, the one rarely seen from the main roads and famous sites.
For recreation and pleasure I used to wander the woods around Ifrane, where mighty cedar trees form the natural habitat of the Barbary Apes. A short distance from there is the quiet town of Azrou. There, I would frequent the shops of the marketplace and chat with the vendors. My absolute favorite shopping experience was on Saturday morning, during the local Farmer’s Market of Ifrane. I enjoyed strolling among the mountains of fresh fruits and vegetables and marveled at their quality and affordability. It gave me the opportunity to practice my conversational skills in Moroccan Arabic, peppered with French expression whenever I’d get stuck. What’s the perfect way to conclude such a morning? A chilled glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice made from locally-grown fruit from a nearby orchard.
SJ: How did tea -- made from Chinese “gun powder” tea – become such a major part of Moroccan culture? Did the early Parisian salons de thé have anything to do with it?
MG: The manner in which tea became such an important staple of the Moroccan diet remains an open question, as is the time it happened. One thing is clear: the origins of tea’s popularity precede the arrival of French influence in the country. Most likely, it dates back to the 18th century if not earlier, and it’s linked to the opening of Morocco’s economy to foreign trade, mainly with Britain.
Tea drinking is a social ritual in Morocco. Whenever you visit a Moroccan home, regardless of how affluent or poor the household may be, you will always be offered a hot and steaming cup of tea. It is served in a silver (or tin) pot with thin, colorful glasses (always one more than the number of drinkers; the hostess would use it to pour tea back and forth to the pot to enhance the strength). No matter how hot the weather may be, or how full you are from your previous meal, refusal to drink is unthinkable, an affront to the host. The pouring of the tea is done while raising the pot higher and higher without a single drop of the trickling hot liquid missing the glass.
On the third day of their trip, members of the Moroccan Discovery tour will get a unique tea drinking experience. Late in the afternoon, they will gather at the outdoor salon de thé in the Kasbah of Oudaias. There in the Andalusian Garden that faces the walls of Salé, the tour group will enjoy drinking sweet mint tea and munch on some of the yummiest pastries and cookies in all of Morocco (at least according to my mom, who visited Morocco nearly a decade ago and still savors the taste to this day). The view is beautiful as the last rays of the setting sun settle on the horizon.
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