Autumn is the perfect season for a visit to Morocco. Ciara Dwyer returns after 20 years, and finds the taxi fares haven't gone up a cent.
Twenty years ago, I went to Morocco for the first time. I wanted to go to Italy but I couldn't afford it, so this was plan B. It was cheap and unlike the disastrous package holiday I'd been on previously, the travel agent assured me that I would find everything I wanted there.
I told her that I was looking for something different. Of course, I wanted some sun but this time, a bit of culture too. And most importantly, I didn't want a place full of lager louts. Morocco is a Muslim country, so drink isn't on the agenda. I remember that it was September and just as there was a nip in the air, I was heading off to the sun. Autumn is the perfect season to take off.
When I look back on my first time there, I was clueless; a gligeen, if ever there was one. I had a vague notion that I was going to North Africa but that was about it. The first morning when I heard the muezzin from the mosque calling people to prayer, I thought that I was near a farm and it was the sound of cows mooing. It wasn't long before I learnt that the first muezzin says it is better to pray than sleep. I'm not so sure about that. But anyway, I lapped up the culture and more.
I was on holidays on my own and I suppose I ticked every stereotype for a single twenty-something girl. I met a man on day two, a Moroccan, and fell in lust instantly. I like to think that it was a little different in that he wasn't a waiter and he chatted me up while I was swimming in the sea. But that was it. I was smitten. He showed me around and even brought me to wonderful Marrakech for the weekend, where I was mesmerised by the endless souks and the snake charmers. He taught me all about Morocco and I was grateful for that.
They have lovely customs, like they all eat from the one plate because everyone is equal at the table. And the food is glorious, just simple, healthy and fresh. We had tagine - which is a kind of stew - and couscous, which is a dish they usually have on Fridays. They believe in siestas - shouldn't we all - and there is a great emphasis on family life. In the evenings, you see families out together, just going for a walk. Good weather encourages such activities. But also, they honour old people. They treat them with huge respect for reaching a great age.
Yes, Morocco is a Muslim country and you see the women in bright coloured djellabas - those hooded coats which cover their full bodies - but it is not hard-line Muslim. Also, Morocco was colonised by the French, so there is that influence there too. You'll find great cafes and patisseries with glorious cakes. And bread is always fresh and bought daily. Moroccan Arabic is the main language and there is Berber too but they also speak French. Thanks to Morocco, my Leaving Cert standard French improved vastly and now, I am more or less fluent. They speak slower than those in France and it is easier to understand. They encourage you to talk and they appreciate when you make the effort with the language.
That first time I went home to Dublin with henna tattoos on my feet - my mother said they were the colour of kippers - and I vowed that I would go back for a romantic reunion. And I did a few times until the enthusiasm waned. Years later, we even called a cat after the Moroccan. That relationship fizzled out and when he couldn't find a wife, his family arranged a marriage with some young virgin.
Years later, there was a second, more serious Moroccan romance which came to an end round about the same time that I came to my senses. But I have no bitter baggage. I have belly-danced in Fez with local girls and chatted to naked women in hammams, their version of a steam room, where the girls catch up, as they sweat and scrub themselves down. The Moroccan lovers are long gone but they were simply the start of a lifelong romance with the country.
I have been there in winter and summer and even during Ramadan, where they don't eat or drink from dawn until dusk. The guide books don't warn you that they don't have sex during those hours either. I found out the hard way and then by the time we were able to go to bed, we were too heavy from all the lovely food. Ramadan is easier for them to do in winter than summer but as a tourist, it is a very interesting experience. I brought my parents to Morocco back in the 1990s and my mother said that she didn't want to go anywhere else. It reminded her of Ireland in the 1950s when people had very little but made do with what they had. My Dad adores it too.
I never tire of the country and its people. They are warm and friendly and like us, they love to chat. Somewhere along the way, the Irish have fallen in love with Morocco too. The most ordinary Irish people have become regulars and it's easy to see why. There is an awful lot of waffle about change being part of life but there is something very comforting about a place that stays the same.
Agadir, the main seaside tourist spot in the south of Morocco, is exactly like that. It's a very easy, hassle-free holiday. The flight is around three hours, then you are brought to the hotel by bus which takes about half an hour and there you are. Let the holiday begin.
The minute you get off the plane, you feel the warm breeze and it's as if there is something in the air which makes you relax instantly. Everything is very easy-going and you don't feel that anyone is going to die of stress here. I remember seeing an airport policeman shuffle out in his shoes. He had stamped on the heels of them, making them into slippers of sorts.
In Agadir, the taxi fares haven't gone up in 20 years. This may not be good for the drivers but if you have had several pay cuts and are struggling, you could probably still manage a week in Morocco. You could live off the skin of an onion there. The currency is dirhams and it's about 10 dirhams to one euro. One time in Marrakech I had harira soup every night for 3 dirhams.
No wonder the Irish like it. While there are improvements, like a great promenade by the beach in Agadir where you can walk or run, a lot of the place has stayed the same.
At this stage, I think I have been to Morocco about 20 times. I have arrived clapped out after working too hard, another time with a broken heart but on this occasion, I was travelling with my baby boy, Telmo. One decade the men are whistling at you and then the next they don't bat an eyelid when you have a buggy in tow. I didn't mind that at all, especially as they cooed over my boy instead. Some cultures are crazy about babies and Moroccans are up there in that bracket. For them, a baby is not a hindrance or something to be endured. Telmo was cherished right from the start.
I was staying at the Argana Hotel, an elegant hotel, situated close to the beach and local cafes. The minute I arrived, there was help on hand. The porter brought me to the room, made sure that the cot was up to scratch, but more importantly than all those essentials, he bonded with my boy. He was smiling and playing with him in a way that Irish men don't. At first, I thought it was just this particular man but they were all the same. The doormen greeted him in his buggy, made faces at him and by the time we made it down to breakfast each morning, we were treated like royalty.
One waiter scurried around getting everything I needed. He showed me pictures of his own boy and knew how to humour a baby who was reluctant to eat his breakfast. We all talked about teething.
Each morning, the maitre'd would take Telmo's toy mobile phone and play with him. At one stage, he and two others stood in front of my son, all with their mouths open, encouraging him to do the same for the next spoonful. That's service for you. It's the small things that matter. One waiter sang the Fields of Athenry and Molly Malone and declared that Telmo was a "buachaill alainn."
When you're on holidays with a baby, it's all about the baby. That's the only way to do it. We swam in the pool together. The phone was off the hook for his afternoon naps and I ended up going to bed shortly after I put him to bed. Then the next day I woke at dawn, on his first cry. But the most shocking thing was my transformation.
On day two, I had his baby-grows on my makeshift clothesline on the balcony, while I marvelled at the great drying conditions. The gligeen had become an Irish mammy. A lot can happen in twenty years, but I wouldn't change a thing.
Ciara Dwyer travelled to Morocco courtesy of Sunway and stayed in the the 3* Argana Hotel in Agadir.
Sunway currently has an offer of €439 per person for 7 nights in the Argana Hotel including flights, transfers, B&B accommodation, 20kg checked in baggage allowance, and resort rep service. The Argana Hotel also doesn’t charge a supplement for single travellers. For this and other offers to 70 destinations worldwide check out www.sunway.ie or phone Sunway 01-2886828.
Take a trip to Marrakesh and if you can, try to stay overnight. You can do this as a solo traveller and it is not expensive. There is a red-bus tour of the city. Watch the snake charmers, the dancers and then visit the souk - the market. Make sure to enjoy the haggle and then have a bowl of harira soup in Djemaa el Fna, my favourite place in the world. It has all human life and it’s noisy as hell.
Find a hammam. It's like a steam bath. Bring a towel, shampoo and soap and something to scrub yourself down. The women are all shapes and sizes and they sit and chat in their knickers, or nothing at all. Some like to go once a month to zap their period pains. You can even pay someone in there to scrub you down. The men have their own section too, where they sweat and chew the fat. A very civilised tradition.
A holiday is not the time to go on a diet. But after a trip to Morocco you will find that you have probably lost weight by the end. The dishes are divine — simple stews called tagines, which have been cooked for hours and couscous with meat or vegetables. The secret is in the great ingredients and the spices but nothing is too spicy. It is simple food. Buy some spices to remind you of your holiday, long after the tan has faded.