This is the map of our September 2006 Grand Tour of Morocco's imperial cities, free ports, mountains, deserts and the seaside. The itinerary Casablanca - Rabat - Tangier - Fès - Marrakesh - Aït Benhaddou - Ouarzazate - The Dades Gorges - The Draa Valley - Marrakesh - Essaouira - Casablanca was this time covered by a combination of airplane, train, bus and rented car.
Pro's: Exoticism personified, beautiful people, stunning landscapes, Arabian Nights kind of cities.
Con's: One huge 24/7 hasslorama, the food is good but somewhat monotonous.In a nutshell: Overwhelming, diverse, sightseeing-rich country, well worth visiting if you know how to ward off those pesky salesmen.
Morocco truly is a fairytale land. Pushy market touts, dignified poverty and dubious hygiene may never merit a mention in fairytales, it is a fairytale land nevertheless.
A step away from the swank Art Nouveau boulevards packed with latest import cars there are sun-scorched comely men in jellabas and pointed-nose slippers pensively drinking fragrant mint tea in fountain-cooled tiled patios while storks watch them perched in their nests on top of half-crumbled minarets. It's exactly the kind of Orient you thought only existed in 19th century travel books. Dive into the baffling maze of a medina, breathe in the ubiquitous gentle whiff of spices, mix in with the colourful jostling crowds in the souks and it's so easy to imagine yourself in a Hauff's fairytale.
Morocco is abuzz with great home-grown music. Local styles - rai and chaabi - married with modern beats produce some really catchy tunes that unfortunately do not make it outside the Maghrebi world. Moroccan Arabic sounds beautiful sung.
Casablanca is a convenient arrival point rather than a tourist destination in its own right but it does have its charm: stylish government buildings dating from the Protectorate era, the Sqala fortress, French Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture on Boulevard Mohammed V, the frenetic markets of the Old Medina. The second largest religious building in the world, the Mosque of Hassan II sending laser beams towards Mecca is the only one in Morocco which non-Muslims can visit.
First it shocks you, then you get used to the sight, but you still want an explanation: the peculiar Moroccan custom of banging your weenie against the wall, fence, or a tree after peeing. Is it a hygienic measure or a sort of territorial assertion? We did not summon enough guts to enquire...
The charming kasbah in the Old City picturesquely perched over a busy beach is a real tourist delight. The houses are painted white and deep sky blue making you feel as if you were swimming in a fish bowl. The Andalusian Garden offers a Moroccan folk art museum and a welcome shade from the scorching sun while the café right next to it - delicious drinks, snacks and pleasant sea views.
Rabat is Morocco's official capital and the never-ending white walls and gleaming green (the Prophet's colour!) gates of the vast Royal Palace remind you of the King's presence in the city. The palace is not open for casual visitors but you are welcome to the dazzling Mausoleum of Mohammed V guarded by remarkably good-looking horsemen in traditional military outfits. Designed by a Vietnamese architect, the Mausoleum overlooks a gigantic square that was meant to be the praying hall of the largest mosque in the Muslim world back in 1195. However, only its monumentally tall minaret, the Hassan Tower, was finished. All that architectural exuberance is situated on top of a hill that offers panoramic views of the city and the Atlantic Ocean.
The abandoned Chellah fortress on the outskirts of the city dates back from the 14th century and has a sadly nostalgic air about it, straight from a Hauff's fairytale. Even from the ruins, that have never known any restoration, you can appreciate the scale and sophistication of what used to be the Sultan's palace. The site claimed to be founded by Carthaginians, contains such unlikely neighbours as the ruins of a Roman city, a Sultan's mausoleum and derelict tombs of Muslim saints. Stork nests perched on top of forlorn minarets overlook a lovely flower garden - the only signs of life in this once mighty stronghold. A true necropolis - city of the dead - it is a poignant reminder of the transience of human ambitions and aspirations.
Safe, clean, efficient and inexpensive railway system is one of the good things Morocco inherited from the French Protectorate era. There are a plenty of excellent photo ops as the train unhurriedly chugs along but these days may be numbered as plans for a high speed train link have been revealed.
Famed for its romantic and sensuous exoticism during its heyday, Tangier was the place where "throbbed the heartbeat of the world", a sort of North-African branch of Paris, then the intellectual and cultural capital of the world. Its bohemian lifestyle attracted and inspired the likes of Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Degas and Henri Matisse and later Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William Burroughs, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
These days the once infamous Petit Socco is only alive with afternoon coffee sippers and the floridly ornamental Hotel Continental once patronized by the mighty and famous is now more full of charm than guests.
The tombs of Phoenician seamen who established a port here in the 8th century BC can be found on the sandy beach next to the medieval kasbah. Half-worn letters engraved on the ancient tombstones are remarkably similar and, in fact, directly related to Morocco's native Berber alphabet. On top of the hill, the graceful white-washed Palais du Mendoub boasts a charmingly unkempt Andalusian garden and mosaic fountains. From there one can enjoy sweeping vistas of the busy haven and the hazy shores of Spain.
Palm tree lined Avenue d'Espagne, running along the seashore, is where local residents go for paseo, a customary evening stroll, or a cup of flavourful mint tea in one of the many cafés. A powerful mix of fresh mint and green tea, it goes perfectly well with traditional Moroccan sweets, of which there are tens of sorts, all richly sweet and delicious. Pungent and colourful fresh markets in the ever busy medina hide underground from the heat and overflow with tantalising produce.
One thing I learnt in Morocco is to be generous. There is no social security like in Western Europe, the powers that be do not care and people work hard long hours to support their families, so a few dirhams you give a craftsman or a professional story-teller for taking a picture of him can make a difference for that day. Just don't go ego-tripping and feel rich and mighty! Your humility is the purpose of this exercise.
Houses in Fès are fascinating the way all the design and architectural style is present only on the inside - and it is very often truly stunning - while on the outside you will see but faceless mud-coloured walls. Only the richly decorated doors may betray what wonders are hidden behind them.
World's oldest university in continuous operation, the Al-Qarawiyyin, was founded here in 859. While Europe was still suffering through the Dark Ages, Arab scholars were receiving scientific degrees and upholding Classical learning tradition in Fès.
Moroccans are easily one of the best-looking peoples I have ever encountered. Genetically close to Iberians, they come predominantly from the ancient Berber stock, hence the ubiquitous green, grey and even blue eyes. Genetic studies confirm that Arabization was mostly cultural so, technically, it is not even completely correct to call Moroccans Arabs. Whether lighter tinted or with Black African traits as in the South, they are a gorgeous looking nation. As you walk in the streets, you are confronted with scores upon scores of stunning men and women, a true feast for the eye.
Outside the traditional quarters, go to be amazed with the modern architecture of Marrakesh. It is always a tasteful mix of the old and modern: Whether a faithful copy of the typical Maghrebi style or a Moorish-inspired Neo-Classical, Moroccan Art Deco or functionalist structure. Local architectural and decorative traditions easily blends with modern building techniques and aesthetics but a lot of credit should be given to the artistic sense of beauty and measure and a mindful adherence to native heritage.
- Tizi'n'Tichka, Ouarzazate and Aït Benhaddou
The road from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate goes via the perilous Tizi'n'Tichka crossing lying at the altitude of 2,300 metres. It consists of hundreds of hairpin turns, none of them with any trace of railing. It can be very treacherous at night, what we discovered when we nearly fell off a precipice in a torrential rain that was washing off huge boulders onto the road surface. That may have been the closest brush with death I have ever had.
The fortified city of Aït Benhaddou lies not far away from Ouarzazate. Its spectacular appearance attracted generations of film-makers as it served as a location for, among others, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ and Gladiator.
- The Dadès Gorges
As we drove back from the Dadès Gorges, the sun sank down beneath the horizon and soon total darkness engulfed the rocky desert. The only sort of light now were the headlights of our car. When we stopped and turned them off, the world vanished into complete blackness and our stomachs plunged. It was so terrifying, we could not take it for more than a minute, a dip into nothingness our brains were not prepared to take. As we sped away, I cranked up the radio as a reassurance that the populated world is out there and put the spine-chilling experience behind.
- Zillij - Maghrebi mozaic
Real zillij is made by hand - coloured tiles are broken into even pieces and then are painstakingly arranged in beautiful patterns. This bone-breaking job is by far underappreciated and underpaid and, unfortunately, the craft is slowly dying out.
- Moroccan countryside