A series about how to experience the best of another country without leaving home. This week, how to pretend you’re in Morocco at home.

Morocco is a place you dream about before you know exactly why.

The Kingdom, sometimes called the “California of Africa” for its laid-back lifestyle and openness to Western ways, has an allure that stretches beyond any singular famous attraction. To think of it evokes instead a kaleidoscope of colours — the flaming reds and oranges of its spice markets in Fez, verdant riad gardens of Marrakesh, golden sunsets over the Sahara Desert, the Blue City of Chefchaouen. It’s not so much a geographical location. It’s a vibe.

Liisa poses in Tangiers with signs for the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.
In Tangier, all roads lead to adventure

My first trip to to Morocco was actually for cycling. (You can read about my trip in-depth here on the Intrepid Travel blog.) Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. So much of what North Americans know about the country is filtered through what dead white men wrote about the charms of Tangier back in their day. But on the ground the appeal was immediate, and I fell hard and fast for the country. I don’t know what I loved more, the wild and extreme nature of the countryside or the wild and vibrant culture of the cities. I just know it captured my heart.

My 9 favourite ways to pretend you’re in Morocco at home, or wherever you are

There’s no question I will revisit Morocco, hopefully with all my friends in tow. In the meantime, I have been trying to recreate at home throughout my pandemic lockdown as many Moroccan things that bring me pleasure as possible. (Spoiler: there’s more than argan oil shampoo.) Here are my recommendations for how you too can pretend you’re in Morocco at home today.

Spice is life

Red spices in Moroccan market
Photo by Mark Rowland via Flickr

Morocco’s spice markets are world famous. And while the sights and smells of the souks are unique to that country, the spices themselves can be found all over the world. So the first step in bringing Morocco into your home? Stop. Buying. Spices. In. Plastic. Packaging. At. The. Supermarket.

No shame for anyone who grew up in a household with a spice rack of dusty glass jars well past their best before date (like I did). But your life will be much improved by shopping for fresh spices at local markets, or even the bulk bins at health food stores, and buying just what you need. Don’t have a mortar and pestle to ground your own? Now’s the time.

Morocco has its own spice mix used in many savoury dishes and rubbed on meat, called ras el hanout. Much like India’s garam masala, there is no one recipe, each family/chef/shop would make their own. But you can’t go wrong having paprika, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, coriander, turmeric and aniseed around to mess around with. You might even want to add dried rosebuds. Speaking of which…

Stop and smell like roses

Rose products for sale in the M'Goun Valley of Morocco
Rosa × damascena in its glory in the M’Goun Valley

When I close my eyes and think of Morocco, it smells like roses. The country is one of the biggest perfume rose producers in the world, and our tour group passed near the M’Goun Valley — aka The Valley of Roses — where much of that is grown. It was difficult to resist buying something from the many shops in the area, so I didn’t. I’ve been misting myself with rosewater from the Coopérative Agricole Dades Roses ever since.

Back in Canada, I’ve also found a few cruelty-free rose scented products I can recommend highly, such as a rose water and pomegranate facial toner from Vasanti and the line of Wild Rose skin care and fragrance from Weleda, who have a fair trade partnership with rose producers in Morocco.

If, like me, you’ve never been a fan of strong perfumes, rose is a delicate option that can transport you to another place in a two-second spritz.

Blue for a day

Cat in Chefchaouen Morocco

If you’ve ever fantasy searched for photos of Morocco on-line, you’ve seen Chefchaouen. The so-called Blue Pearl City is awash in buildings painted all the loveliest shades of blue – sky blue, azul, royal blue. It’s a fantastical place. There is also plenty of blue all over the country, from the Majorelle Garden villa in Marrakesh to ornate doorways in every city.

So while there I decided blue was my new colour. OK, accent colour. My wardrobe is black. Like, almost exclusively black. But when I want to feel the colourful energy of Morocco I throw on the blue scarf I bought in Fez, or some shockingly bright blue liquid eyeliner or nail polish. Whatever you have, put it on. It will brighten your day.

Liisa poses with blue door in Chefchaouen Morocco
The obligatory Chefchaouen selfie

Take a guided tour through a Marrakesh market

Screen shot of Local Purse virtual shopping experience
Personal shopping on-line

You don’t need to get on a plane or learn how to haggle to go shopping in Marrakesh anymore.

Local Purse is an innovative new organization offering personal video shopping and cultural experiences that put you in direct contact with local vendors. I attended a test of their Marrakesh Spices and Wellness experience and found myself wandering the medina, visiting a woman’s cosmetics collective, and getting one-on-one recommendations through live video and chat with an English-speaking local guide, all from my own living room.

It’s not the cheapest way to shop on-line, and priced in Euros. But this is about supporting local artisans and businesses who have been very hard hit by the loss of tourism and contributing to the future of retail in a truly sustainable way. Having been there to these wellness markets in person, I’d say it was quite authentic in presentation and would be a unique and feel-good gift for someone who has always wanted to visit Morocco.

You can purchase preselected merchandise through the Local Purse store, or point-and-shop during your session, and there’s no pressure to buy. Hmmm, on that thought, it might actually be better than in-person!

Hammam at Home

Hammam spa in Morocco
Photo by Carlos ZGZ via Flickr

The traditional Moroccan hammam is a community space not unlike a Turkish bath where locals go regularly to get clean and gossip, typically in a series of hot steam rooms. I was fortunate to visit one with few of my female travel-mates in Chefchaouen and the personal body scrub service was unforgettably thorough and a highlight of the trip.

Many Moroccan hotels, especially the higher-end ones, also have luxury hammam services at their spas. They are both wonderful experiences that leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. But I prefer the low-budget do-it-yourself hammam, which you can absolutely indulge in at home.

You need a scrubbing mitt and an exfoliant. The traditional Moroccan product is called black soap, or beldi soap, a kind of tar-like gel made from olives and eucalyptus. You can find it on-line including from Toronto’s Hammam Spa by Céla. The mitt is called a kessa, but any loofah or scrubbing mitt will suffice.

Now create steam in your bathroom. Hang out in there until your skin pores open up, then massage the soap into your skin. Everywhere. Let that sink in for a while before rinsing off. Now grab the glove and start scrubbing. Everywhere. Head to toe. Yeah, there too. Like you mean it. Until the amount of dirty dead skin flaking off starts to freak you out.  Rinse off, then continue with a ghassoul clay for the face and hair. When clean, finish with a whole body application of the oil of your choice. Argan oil would complete the Morocco-at-home experience.

Olives with everything

Olives for sale in Essaouira market, Morocco
Give me all the olives

I’ve heard rumours that some people hate olives. Those people are just wrong. Olives are delicious and in Morocco they appear magically on small colourful plates at just about every meal, Not the crappy olives they put on pizza here either, the good kind. Seek out quality imported Moroccan black olives from your favourite Middle Eastern or Mediterranean grocery and make them your go-to snack.

Tea Time is Anytime

Mint leaves in glasses for Morocco tea
Photo by Massimo Adami via Unsplash

More than once I watched a foreigner get excited at the offer of “Moroccan Whiskey.” It’s tea, guys. Being an Islamic country, Morocco doesn’t have the same drinking culture as North America. But it does have its own elaborate tea ceremonies. This was great news for me since I don’t drink alcohol or coffee but love tea.

To serve tea Moroccan style at home get yourself a pretty metal teapot, some beautiful tea glasses, loose green tea, fresh mint, and loads of sugar. You may also wish to add a silver tray. According to the merchant in Fez who insisted I purchase one, a teapot without a tray is like a woman without a husband. I’m not sure he understood my jokes that this was not a selling feature for me!

As benefitting a beverage at the centre of daily life, making Moroccan tea is a ritual of boiling, pouring, repouring — usually from an impressive height of 1-2 feet with panache, to blend flavours and sugar, oxydize, and create a foam top. Watch this video for a step-by-step guide on making traditional Moroccan tea by locals.

I found that Moroccan tea is presented not only at mealtime, but all the interactions between host and guests. So you should be able to find any excuse to enjoy it since on this pretend trip you are both!

Watch a Moroccan movie (sort of)

Group posing on a set at Atlas Studios, Morocco
Photo on an Egyptian movie set at Atlas Studios by our group’s superstar art director Matt Batchelor

One thing Morocco has in common with Canada is that filmmakers use it to stand in for a lot of other places. It also boasts the world’s largest film set, Atlas Studios. But The Mummy and Prince of Persia aren’t really Moroccan movies, even if they were filmed there, and won’t really transport you to the country from home.

I’ve honestly not seen or read much about Moroccan cinema over the years, and I somehow missed 2015’s Much Loved, about sisterhood amongst group of prostitutes, when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival. I did go to the movies in Marrakesh once – to see a Will Smith movie. Ha. So if there’s a definitive Moroccan film, or even just one of your personal faves, do let me know in the comments below!

That said, some great Western films have Moroccan settings and/or storylines which I highly recommend. Jim Jarmusch’s art house flick Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is one of the absolute best vampire movies of the modern era, and takes place in both Detroit and Tangier. Watch a haunting Tilda Swinton wandering the streets of Morocco at night. You’re welcome.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s dramatic The Sheltering Sky (1990), based on the 1949 novel by Paul Bowes, stars Debra Winger and John Malkovich as a couple trying to work their marriage out in North Africa and the things that can and do go wrong. Pretty much a classic.

More recently, I spent a perfectly fine evening laughing along with 4L (2019) a comedy in Spanish and French (English subtitles available) about old friends recreating a road trip across the Western Sahara desert. It stars France’s Jean Reno, who was born in Casablanca, so I think it counts.

Empower Moroccan girls

Teenage girls study in Morocco
Photo: Intrepid Foundation

In Morocco’s rural areas, it’s estimated that over 80% of women are illiterate. To me, of the most beautiful places in all of the country is the High Atlas Mountains. But I was saddened to learn how much of the indigenous Berber population there, especially young girls, is disenfranchised from the education tools needed to succeed. (Much like Canada, their native language is not taught in school, for one thing.)

I think of those girls often, and was grateful to discover a way to support them from afar. The Intrepid Foundation (a non-profit arm of my favourite small group tour company, Intrepid Travel) runs five boarding houses in the High Atlas, where high-school aged girls have access to books and computers, three meals a day, and study support. The program also employs local Berber women as house mothers. I’m proud to donate to this cause and encourage you to visit Education for All to learn how you can help.

Thank you for joining me to pretend you’re in Morocco at home. I would love to hear about your favourite Moroccan things in the comments!