Coming attractions: Morocco

Morocco isn’t exactly off-the-beaten-path for many Europeans– in fact, this North African country lies only eight miles away from Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar. But it’s a world away in terms of culture, language, religion, geography, and just about everything else.

Americans, who are much more scarce in Morocco than Europeans, are missing out on perhaps the world’s safest Muslim country, a small but varied landscape filled with mountains, valleys, deserts, beaches, and the most hospitable people you’ll probably ever meet.

The best way to see Morocco is by spending time with the people who actually live there. Even more so than in other countries, Morocco offers a whole range of experiences to locals (and friends of locals) that are simply not available to casual tourists. The markets, for example, are notoriously labyrinthine, and only locals will know the best places to shop and eat. Going shopping with a local will keep you from getting out-haggled by a canny carpet vendor, and eating a traditional meal– with delicious bread, olives, dates, tajine, and couscous– in a Moroccan family’s home is an experience unlike any other.If you want to spend time with native Moroccans, I cannot recommend Couchsurfing enough. Over a thousand locals– in the imperial city of Fes, the booming metropolis of Casablanca, in spectacular Marrakesh, and dozens of other cities– are registered on Couchsurfing and they’re eager to show you around their country.

Whether you stay with a local or not, here are some of the places in Morocco you absolutely shouldn’t miss:

  • Marrakesh, with its one-of-a-kind Djemaa el Fna (pictured above), a massive central square that buzzes at night with snake charmers, impromptu boxing matches, magicians, and some of the best street food you’ll ever taste.
  • Chefchaouen, a northern hill town known for its light blue color (pictured right) and the kif (hashish) that grows in its surrounding fields
  • The imperial city of Fes, home to the mesmerizing medina of Fes el Bali
  • The intimidating, gritty, and still sorta’ charming port town of Tangier, where travelers just off the ferry from Spain disembark– and are confronted with indefatigable taxi drivers and touts.
  • The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the world’s largest mosque outside of Mecca and Medina. Daily tours (except Friday) offer non-Muslims a rare chance to peek inside the usually off-limits place of worship for Muslims.
  • Beautiful Essaouira and Agadir, coastal towns that offer visitors Atlantic beaches, wonderful weather, and tasty seafood. They’re also great places to begin an excursion into the Sahara Desert just to the south.


Ferries travel daily from Algeciras and Tarifa in southern Spain to the Moroccan port town of Tangier. The ride lasts about an hour and is inexpensive.

As for air travel, Morocco’s main hubs are Casablanca and Rabat. Flights are also available to Marrakesh, Agadir, Fes, and several other cities.

For more up-and-coming destinations, check out the rest of Gadling’s series “Coming Attractions” here.

Coming Attractions: Iran

My first night in Tehran, reeling from a 55 hour bus ride from Istanbul, I staggered into the closest restaurant I could find for some dinner. The waiter was very curious to see me and we chatted a bit. I quickly found my mediocre Arabic was useless in this Farsi-speaking nation and we got by in what limited English he could muster. After dinner I went up to the register to pay and the cashier said, “Never mind, your waiter paid for you.”

“Wow, that was nice! Where is he so I can thank him?” I asked.

“He’s gone home already.”

That was my first sample of Persian hospitality.

It’s a casual, instinctive form of hospitality. They don’t make a big show of it like in some countries. Instead the Iranians have an intellectual curiosity about the outside world and feel a genuine warmth to outsiders.

Wait. . .Iran? That country with the leader who denies the Holocaust and wants to build nukes? Yeah, that Iran. I’ve been to more than 25 countries and I’ve never seen such a difference between a people and their government. The regime is crap, no doubt about it (there goes any offers of a press trip) but the people are something else. In a month I never got an ounce of attitude, not even in the mosques and madrasas (religious schools). One director of a madrasa even confided, “I wish the government didn’t force Islam on people. It turns people away from the faith.”

To anyone brought up on Western television, Iran is a constant series of surprises. It’s quite safe and is home to ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites, easily accessible via an efficient system of clean, modern buses. Top sites include the old Persian capital of Persepolis (where the guard gave me a tour in Italian because it kinda sounded like the French I tried on him), medieval Armenian churches, and the mosques of Isfahan, simply the most beautiful Islamic city I’ve seen.

There’s a saying in Persian, Isfahan nesfe jahan, “Isfahan is half the world”, and it certainly gave me half of my best memories of Iran. The mosques, with their cool blue tiles and sleek minarets, are as soothing to the eye as the city’s lush gardens. Perhaps it’s because so many Iranian buildings are made of bare concrete that Isfahan creates such an awesome contrast, but I spent days admiring the architecture. Isfahan is also home to many traditional crafts, their stores divided into separate streets in the customary fashion of the Middle East. The carpet bazaar was as much of a visual treat as the mosques, but the coppersmith’s street, while having traditional appeal, is not a place to go while nursing a headache. A hundred guys hammering away at metal lacks any cultural interest at that point.

Oh, and the food’s good too, especially if you have a sweet tooth. The Persians are big on desserts. I wish I could remember the name of this one concoction made with ice cream topped with honey and walnuts, topped with whipped cream, and then another layer of ice cream topped with honey and walnuts and whipped cream. . . and on and on to the top of a dauntingly tall glass.

Get there

While there are no direct flights from the U.S. or Canada to Iran, there are numerous flights from all major European hubs. Or you can try that horrible bus route I took from Istanbul. It’s grueling, but you get to see many long miles of rugged Anatolian and Persian scenery on the way, and meet lots of dodgy money traders too. One guy offered me $7,000 cash for my Canadian passport. I have to admit I was tempted, but the idea of being without a passport and having to lie to Iranian cop kept me honest. It’s even possible for U.S. citizens to get visas to Iran from the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Pakistani embassy in Washington, DC. Read the website carefully, though, as there are lots of restrictions.

Coming attractions: Tomorrow’s next big destinations

Don’t you wish that you would have gotten in on that vacation rental property in Barcelona before the Euro and the depreciated dollar? Or jumped in on that investment in Costa Rica before the cruise ships brought the Central American country to its tacky, souvenir-decorated knees?

Hindsight at 20/20 is a cruel, cruel mistress, and as one gleans the profits that savvy investors can make in an up-and-coming country, it’s hard not to think about destinations that are at their respective tipping points of tourist attention.

Oracles we are not, here at Gadling, but we have spent a fair amount of time on the road visiting those off-the-beaten path destinations — those places to where few westerners travel and where many can still score a great deal on a dirt cheap vacation. As many of us believe, these are the true gems of the road — where it’s still possible to grab a beer in a restaurant surrounded by locals, buy trinkets really made by indigenous artisans and stay in a stranger’s guest house for free.

Starting with Sarajevo, Bosnia yesterday and Iran today, we’ll take you on a brief tour through lands not far off the radar — places where not too long ago it was forbidden or outlandish to think of a visit. Hopefully with our help you’ll consider them for your future travels. You can follow along through next week at this link.

Coming attractions: Sarajevo

The memory of the Yugoslav Wars is too fresh for many of us to think of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a tourist destination, but in the ten years since the conflict, the country and its capital city, Sarajevo have made enormous strides. Long gone are the days of ethnic conflict, strife and war crimes — 2009’s Sarajevo is a charming, cosmopolitan city surrounded by hills, cafés and culture.

A great deal of momentum has been building in the travel community around Sarajevo and its surrounding country, perhaps most notably garnering heavy praise among the Lonely Planet brands. As the ever-balanced Wiki-travel gushes:

Sarajevo is a cosmopolitan European capital with a unique Eastern twist that is a delight to visit. The people are very friendly, be they Bosniaks, Croats, or Serb. There is very little crime. Also there are not nearly as many tourists as on the Croatian Dalmatian coast and a wealth of architecture (not to mention history) to see.

Outside of the rich culture that you can simply soak in by loafing around the city, there is plenty of tourist fodder to consume. Among the most famous are the Latin Bridge, where archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated to start World War I and the Bosnian Historical Museum, a stunning tribute to the tumultuous past of the former Soviet-state.

More inspiration can be found in Stephanie Yoder’s article over on Twenty-Something travel. Her photos alone are worth the visit, deeply contrasting with all of that war-torn CNN footage that many of us still have in our heads. Reading the captions and narrative along with the photos, one begins to realize the depth and charm to the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sarajevo unfortunately isn’t the easiest European capital to get to. Any voyage from the states to the Eastern Mediterranean nation is going to require at least one layover, and tickets can be pricey. As a result, it’s best to plan your vacation well in advance and spend some solid time in the city — else you risk spending all of your time in transit.

As an alternative to the oft expensive mainline routes into Sarajevo Airport (SJJ), it also may be worth buying a ticket to a major hub like Frankfurt or Amsterdam and then connecting onward on a low cost carrier. Check for possible routes.