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Mystical Morocco
Added On : 08 April 2010

Mystical Morocco

Mike Harrison

1534 words

5 April 2010

Oman Today



© 2010 Apex Press and Publishing. All Rights Reserved. Provided by Syndigate.info, an Albawaba.com company.


Morocco is the sort of place that leaves a deep, wistful impression on all but the most jaded traveller. To most visitors, the question, "What is Morocco like?" tends to produce a gush of superlatives along the lines of 'marvellous', 'magical', 'utterly memorable'. It's a country that for centuries has held a magnetic appeal for the curious and the seekers of adventure and escape, capturing the hearts of its visitors who return again and again for its natural beauty, bustling souqs and the hospitality of its people. It certainly captured my heart on my first visit over 30 years ago and I have been visiting it at regular intervals ever since. Like the sands of its southern desert, Morocco gets under your skin, and remains there.

But Morocco has always been far more than just an exotic destination for its northern neighbours. For centuries, Arab and Tuareg traders crossed the Sahara from east to west, carrying wares from Tangiers to Mecca and from Khartoum to Marrakesh. That most famous of early travellers, Ibn Battuta, was himself a Moroccan - a 'Tangerine', to be more precise.

The country lies barely an hour or so across the Straits of Gibraltar from Europe's southernmost tip. It's the gateway to the Arab world and the dark continent of Africa. In the 1960s, Morocco was a magnet for writers, artists and musicians, all of whom used the country as a backdrop for their various canvases, inspired as they were by its rose-tinted houses, hidden palaces and sleepy palm gardens. Playwright Joe Orton and his crowd were attracted to the hedonistic opportunities of Tangiers.

Like Aswan at the north-eastern end of the continent, Morocco also had an appeal for the affluent. The Mamounia, an elegant colonial hotel in Marrakesh, was one of the favourite winter destinations of Winston Churchill and various European aristocrats and nobility.

It would seem that Morocco really does have it all, from its beguiling southern Mediterranean climate and azure seas in the north, to the skiing opportunities it offers in the Rif and Atlas mountains in winter. The deep south has the vast emptiness of the Sahara, which appeals to another type of traveller.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the marketing gurus have not got a difficult task. Good marketing and an excellent product have meant that Morocco has now become one of those global must-see destinations. Because it seems to have everything in abundance, it really does offer an escape of whatever sort the visitor seeks. The Moroccan 'brand' has recently begun to be exported around the globe, too. Moroccan is sexy. Interior designers talk of giving a property a Moroccan touch, which means giving it some nice arches, a few painted tiles and the liberal use of vibrant colours, the main one being, of course, terracotta!

From vibrant colours to vibrant flavours, Moroccan cuisine has recently gained a somewhat belated global recognition, with restaurants springing up from Buenos Aires to New York, offering sumptuous tangy tagines and an array of dishes with a couscous base. Like the Ottoman court, the royal Moroccan court was a culinary centre for chefs to experiment with elaborate fusions of fruit and meats. This abundance of creativity in the kitchen permeated the local cooking styles, allowing for an elegant range of dishes to be developed, honed and given exquisite touches of finesse over time. An invitation to a Moroccan household during Eid, Ramadhan or any other celebration is always a memorable occasion.

The arrival of various budget airlines, giving access to the country to every income bracket has not yet been as disastrous as it might have been. But the weekend visitor from London or Rome is the one who loses out the most, since Morocco needs to be savoured at leisure, and a whirlwind visit to the clubs, bars and boutiques of Marrakesh hardly gives the visitor a real taste of what is on offer.

So what else does the country have to offer? The ancient cities of Fez and Meknes, with their warrens of alleyways, conceal elegant tiled courtyards and fountains behind huge, elaborately carved doors. To the north, there are its unspoilt, rather windswept stretches of deserted Mediterranean beaches, meandering alongside narrow, windy roads, sharp escarpments, brightly coloured mosques and small stone farmhouses surrounded by cactus and olive groves.

To the south lies the commercial capital of Casablanca - a name that evokes images of wartime romance. The famous film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman is arguably one of the greatest love stories ever presented on screen.

A little further on lies the real capital of Morocco, Rabat, with its beach of crashing waves and Atlantic swell, its broad creek, and solid stone, Portuguese-built ramparts. Further down the coast, the vast bay of brilliant white sand upon which is built the touristic enclave of Agadir, pulsates with its bright lights and lively social scene.

The intrepid traveller may venture even further south, to the former Spanish enclave of Sidi Ifni and the ramshackle coastal town of Gulimine, where, if you're lucky, you might encounter one of the famous Blue Men. The name was given to the Tuaregs who crossed the desert wearing dark indigo turbans around their face and head for protection against the sun and sand. When unravelled, the turban leaves behind a permanent, indigo stain on the face.

Other places of note: The sleepy coastal town of Essaouira with its ramparts and cannons and vast, open squares of fish restaurants; the Berber villages of the Atlas with their vast almond groves, all of which are blossoming as I write; the quirky town of Ouarzazate, where dozens of Hollywood movies have been filmed, including Alexander the Great, Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator, among others. Filming there, the likes of Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and other members of the Hollywood Brat Pack would make their way to the nearby Marrakesh nightclubs on their evenings off!

For many of Morocco's visitors, myself included, Marrakesh is the heart and soul of the country. And the Place Djema'a El Fna, a vast, vibrant square on the edge of the old medina, is the heart and soul of the city. Named 'Meeting Place of the Dead' because it was formerly the place for public executions, the square is the place for a very different range of entertainment today.

Marrakesh has attracted its share of traders, tourists and eccentrics for centuries. For the Arab caravans crossing the Sahara, the city provided welcome respite at the end of an arduous journey: a place to relax, trade and replenish. Today, local crowds mingle effortlessly with tourists, yet the place retains its essential character, which has not changed in centuries.

On a leisurely stroll across the square, you are likely to encounter acrobats and snake charmers, story tellers and traditional drummers playing their blend of African and Berber rhythms, with veiled dancers swaying to those same rhythms. The square is a wondrous place, offering a breadth of exciting street entertainment. While the drummers will happily receive your tips of dollars and euros, the story-tellers are recounting their tales to rapt listeners in the earthy language of the street, with no concession to the visitor unfamiliar with Moroccan Arabic. However, if you decide to stop and have your palm painted with henna, or read by the veiled lady sitting on a little box, you'll probably find that she can read your future in several languages!

Stroll away and peek behind the nondescript, pink walls, and you'll discover a set of hidden riadhs (typical Moroccan houses containing a courtyard), beautifully and sensuously renovated with great attention to tradition. Drop by the Bahia Palace and sit by the trickling fountains built a hundred years ago for the Grand Vizier's wives and concubines. Admire the delicate stucco work and tiled courtyards, then wander back through the maze of bazaars, stopping to haggle over a dizzying range of embroidered jelabiyas, camel whips, lamps, spices and earthenware tagine dishes.

Exhausted by the retail therapy, there's no need to go any further, because dinner is brought to you! As the sun sets behind the rose-tinted walls, the square undergoes a complete transformation - like a living theatre stage between acts. Benches are rolled out, groaning with grills and cauldrons of hearty harira - a wholesome soup of chickpeas and slivers of lamb. Try bstilla, a sweet pie, stuffed with almonds, cinnamon and threads of chicken or pigeon.

Dive into a plate of couscous served with seven different vegetables, all arranged artistically around the bowl to provide vibrancy, colour and texture. If, like me, you're a tagine aficionado, then follow the scent of cinnamon and apricots bubbling away with chunks of lamb under a conical clay lid.

Finish off with a throat-tingling ginger and cinnamon infusion from a great brass samovar before making your way through the alleyways back to your cosy riadh, where against the soft night breeze, you drift off to the sound of trickling fountains and the earthy aroma of one of the world's most magical cities.

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