“So you travel . . . only?" asked the woman sitting next to me in halting but intuitive English as we sat in a packed compartment on a train speeding through Moroccan farmland. We were the sole unveiled, unaccompanied women in the car.
Traveling alone in this Muslim country in North Africa where public spaces are almost exclusively male, I got that question everywhere, from the frequent flyer lounge in the capital's airport to the kitchen of a riad — a traditional home with a courtyard — deep in Fez's medina, the ancient walled section of the city.
With sexual harassment and assault making news from Egypt to India to Brazil, I was keenly aware that as a blond Western tourist, I could not pass unobserved. And observe, glare and leer many Moroccan men do. A journalist told me his sisters living in Casablanca were desperately tired of being "eye-raped," as they put it.
In January and June, I spent more than three weeks exploring Morocco, from its imperial cities to the desert oases, mostly alone, but at times accompanying a group of students from a U.S. university where I teach. They were all women but one.
As my seatmate on the train and I shared universal girl talk about kohl eyeliner and marrying the loves of our lives, this hairdresser from Casablanca reminded me of the spunky women portrayed in the stunning Roman mosaics in Volubilis, a few miles north of our train tracks in north-central Morocco.
The nearly 2,000-year-old city ruins, with a triumphal arch and rows of basilica columns topped by storks, loom in magnificent isolation amid a rolling landscape of olive trees. As donkeys laden with harvested greens plod along its dusty roads, little seems changed.
But the colorful floor mosaics of skimpily dressed, frolicking gods and goddesses visualize drastically different mores.
In Fez, the medina is a gigantic beehive of windowless, earth-toned homes and shops crammed in a bowl-shaped river basin. In Marrakech, built by the dynasties that ruled Morocco from the 11th through the 13th centuries, the medina's rose-colored walls stand out in the desert against the snowy Atlas mountains.
In either medina, if you like endless haggling, follow the flow of local women through the maze and load up on everything from sweets to expensive leather and metal handicrafts.
If you hate shopping, as I do, absorb the colors and smells while making a beeline for the many madrasas, or Islamic schools. In the centuries-old Ben Youssef school in Marrakech, tiny dorm rooms face a sunny courtyard where every inch is a kaleidoscope of intricate wood carvings, stucco inscriptions and geometric mosaics.
Most tourists in Marrakech concentrate on the souks around Djemaa el-Fna, the medina's central square bustling with food stalls come dusk. That leaves blissfully deserted grand 16th century monuments, like the ruined El Badi palace of pink sandstone and the Saadian tombs, a burial complex covered in blindingly colorful tiles.
The same goes for another former imperial capital, Meknes, less than 50 miles from Fez. I skipped the medina and wandered through the eerily empty, gigantic late 17th century royal granaries and stables.
Rabat and Casablanca
Most trips to Morocco begin or end in the modern political and business capitals, Rabat and Casablanca, where the ocean light suffused art deco districts recall, improbably, the architecture of South Beach.
In Casa, I admit my highlight was a fake: Rick's Cafe, which opened in 2004 to re-create the locale of the 1942 classic movie Casablanca. Channeling Ingrid Bergman, I requested As Time Goes By, but was told it's only played at night. Here's looking at superb shrimp pasta and olive bread, instead.
In Rabat, historic sites line the Bou Regreg River. Just outside the city center is Chellah, a Roman ruin, once a necropolis and later an Islamic religious center, and now the rare green space without ogling hassles.
Walking toward the ocean, you pass the 12th century unfinished Hassan Tower next to the gleaming mausoleum of the current king's grandfather before reaching the white and blue Kasbah des Oudayas. High on a cliff over the Atlantic, encircled by medieval walls and palm trees, it's the postcard shot of Rabat.