Romans, Berbers, Arabs and the French: They have all left their marks on Morocco making it an eclectic mix of the old and the new.
Thirty-three hours of missed connections, delays and almost losing my luggage should have left me hallucinating. As I finally sat in the taxi to be driven to Marrakech (Morocco) from Casablanca airport, my tired eyes refused to close. Wide empty roads broken sporadically by the presence of over zealous cops ensured the two-and-a-half hour journey took till eternity. The deafening silence of a midnight blue inky sky did little to alleviate my fears of travelling at 3 a.m. in a country where I knew no one. But perhaps it was the presence of a larger than life moon chasing the car that kept me sane.
Nothing quite prepares you for the sights and sounds of Morocco. It is a tourist's haven with its easily manageable souks (street shops) beckoning everyone to come and buy. English is not the preferred language and if you are not conversant in French or Arabic, constant miming, gesticulating or some broken Spanish may see you through. Bargaining is a way of life here and in fact has been raised to the status of an art form. Conducted over endless glasses of their famous mint tea, especially in the carpet shops, it can take anything from an hour to two days to strike the right deal.
Study in contrasts
Located in North Africa, its salubrious climate, lush highland valleys and fine beaches and its history in the north are closely linked to the Mediterranean than the rest of Africa . The south peters towards the Sahara with its forbidding kasbahs and sandy tracts. The Berbers are considered the original inhabitants and are said to have been in this land for over 5,000 years. They were pushed to the far mountains by the Arabs in the 7th and 11t h centuries, who in turn pushed out the Romans. Then came the Vandals, the Spanish and the Portuguese. Finally it was France that helped regain a semblance of propriety under the protectorate. Today Morocco has a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The King (now Mohammed VI) has wide and sweeping powers
Morocco's main cities like Fes, Rabat the capital, Casablanca and Marrakech are neatly divided into two parts — the old cities which house the medinas and the city nouvelle built under the French protectorate. For those interested in sampling the local life, staying at a riyad in the medina is the best option. Riyads are old Moroccan style houses, which have now been converted into bed and breakfast hotels. It could cost from $100 upwards and the cost determines its location, as well as the amenities that the riyad has to offer. A $175 to $200 a night riyad is comfortable. Usually run by French expats, they provide sharing rooms. Hotels abound too but these are in the new part of the city. The riyads offer their own history, and some stunning architecture.
Marrakech has a lot to offer. The centre of the town is La Place Jemma el Fna. In 2001, this famous square was proclaimed a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of mankind” by UNESCO. Once there, it is easy to see why. The Fna comes alive at 10 a.m. and as the day progresses, becomes more and more cacophonous with various street performers and the famous and unique food stalls being set up. These stalls are simply the best places to sample authentic Moroccan cuisine at the lowest possible prices. Such is their popularity with tourists and locals alike that seldom is there place on the makeshift benches in front of each stall. As the evening progresses the el Fna is a riot of colours. There are local singers and dancers, magicians, drummers, women applying henna, shoe polishers and others selling herbs and medicines. Shops piled high with mounds of various spices assail the senses and it is not unusual to see tourists walk in just to inhale these.
You could spend your days at the Fna and the nearby souks, but Marrakech has a lot more to offer. There is some serious sightseeing to be done with visiting the the Medersa of Ben Yousef, in the heart of the medina. It is the biggest Koranic school and its amazing green earthenware tiles flanked by graceful inscripted columns make it the most beautiful sight in the city. Close on the trail are the Saadian Tombs dating back to 1578 that shelter the bodies of the Saadian dynasty. The Palais de la Bahia is a masterpiece of Moroccan architecture and was built around the end of the 19t h century .
La Koutoubia is the single most visible defining structure of the city. Standing tall at 77 meters it soars past a mosque of the Almohad dynasty and at night seems to glow over the medina. There are the historic Jardins de'l Agdal and the Majorelle Gardens. The Museum of Marrakech is a 19th-century palace devoted to contemporary art.
The city is surrounded by various babs (doors) that demarcate the limits of the old city. There are numerous day trips which can be done from Morocco. The most exciting is a 160-km drive to Ait Ben Hadou which houses an original Berber village. The Berbers continue to maintain their distinct identity and language whose script is different from Arabic. Most have now embraced Islam. Ait Ben Hadou's stunning locales and amazing light made it a favourite with cinematographers and many movies like Lawerence of Arabia and The Gladiator were filmed here. A few kilometres out, Ouarzazate is Morocco's film city housing studios of many of the well-known Western film studios. Ouarzazate also is home to the grand Kasbah, and the famous artisans' centre where one can buy Berber kilms or carpets. Traditionally it is only Berber women who weave and do so in their spare time.
Not to be missed is Essaoure, the beach village out of Marrakech with its grand fort and gardens. On short drives from the town one can see the Atlas mountains in their splendid beauty. To approach the Rif Mountains or the mid Atlas regions requires more than a day's travel. But like all of Marrakech, this too is worth the time. Strongly recommended is the desert safari. However the weather plays a great part in this excursion and one would require at least four days of travel time.
Marrakech's magic is such that travelling anywhere else within the country almost pales in comparison. An abiding and lingering memory is the city's unique colours and sounds and if you are Indian, then you are made to feel more than welcome. Should locals ask you “Hindi?” be sure to nod because their faces break out in smiles and either they will shout “Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan” in glee or some will even hold your hands and serenade you with Hindi film songs. This is one place where Bollywood enthrals and Indians are told that they “are welcome”. Bidding goodbye to the city of Alladin and his flying carpet is not easy and as one starts on the onward journey to Fes, we wave out to our hosts who sign off with “maa salam”, which simply means come again.
Getting there: Air France and Emirates offer connections to Casablanca from Delhi or Mumbai via Dubai. Connections are usually good.
Language: Spoken Arabic, Berber or French. English is very basic and not understood in most places.
Travelling in the country: The CTM luxury buses are good. There are trains but preferable are tourist taxis which can be booked once you are in the city. Your hotel or riyadwill help.
Food: Basic Morrocon food is non-spicy and non-vegetarian. Vegetarians may have a problem so carrying those MTR food packets is a good idea. Fruit juices are aplenty.
Safety: That did not seem an issue anywhere. In cities like Fes you may find yourself being accosted by all and sundry offering their services as a guide. You can either ignore them or refuse.
Photography: Moroccons don't like being photographed without permission. So be sure to ask even if it is to photograph shopware. Do not take picture of the king's many palaces or of the police.
Clothes: Morrocco is modern. You can wear your jeans or skirts. But too much exposure is frowned upon. Carry a hat or head-cover, it can get hot in the sun.
Other places of interest: Fes, Meknes Casablanca, Ifrane, Volubilis, Chefchaoun, Rabat.