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Like Webster's Dictionary, We're Morocco Bound
When dusk falls on Place Djemaa el Fnaa Square each night, the most popular meeting place in the old city, Marrakech undergoes a metamorphosis. Pick-up vans, pack donkeys and packhorses loaded with trestle-table components and portable cooking equipment are joined by groups of men manhandling laden trailers. This ballet of activity brings life to the square, which has been almost empty all day. Now the workmen are assembling open-air food stalls and, once they have completed this task, dishes of ingredients to make Moroccan meals appear as if by magic.
At some invisible signal, the tourists and locals also appear out of nowhere. So do the actors on the most public of this town's stages: jugglers with their rings, balls, cups and saucers and usual paraphernalia, snake-charmers with their trained and de-fanged cobras and unreasonably long pythons, traditionally costumed water-sellers whose hats seem to look as Mexican as sombreros, fortune-tellers in flowing white robes, looking wise and trustworthy, Gnaouan dancers, descendants from former Guinean slaves, circle the air with their heads to activate the long tassels on their fez hats which then swing around in unison, monkey trainers with their animals on long chains, the latter leaping somersaults on command, musicians with ancient and somewhat roughly-made violins which they play with more enthusiasm than expertise, story-tellers who enthrall the crowds with stories of love, and goodness that earns its just rewards and jealousy, revenge, cruelty and greed that invariably leads to dreadful consequences. All this is the show for which Fnaa Square has become famous.
It is wise to enter the Souk, or traditional market in the old city, only with a reliable, authorized tourist guide, for the Souk is a labyrinth easy to enter almost impossibly hard to exit. Here is the very core of Morocco's traditional trades: leatherwork, dyeing, saddle-making, embroidery, tailoring, and then there are the myriad stores selling Moroccan pottery, tile work, metal work and, of course, carpets. These come in all shapes and sizes and price ranges and are often woven by Berber tribes people during the months when fields are fallow and crops already harvested.
Spice sellers offer aromatic and colorful bins of traditional spices as well as walnuts and dates grown in the country's verdant oases. Metalworkers, their ghetto-blasters turned up to maximum cacophony in an attempt to drown out the noise they are making, hammer metal plates into cooking-pot shapes to the rhythm of Western or Arabian pop tunes. And each little area is an almost self-contained unit, with its own mosque, religious school, restaurants and, most importantly, baker. All day long one sees housewives carrying flat trays of freshly-kneaded dough shapes to the baker, returning later in the day to pick up the freshly cooked bread.
"In such tightly packed conditions," says our guide, "it would be highly dangerous for each tiny apartment to have its own oven. So the housewives here prepare the dough and collect the bread -- it's as much of a social ritual than a household chore. The bakers are usually the biggest gossips. If you are coming into a new area and looking for someone who you think lives there, the baker is the best person to ask. It's almost a certainty that he will know your friend, his family, the number of relatives that live with him -- and even his income."
The Mamounia Hotel is, without a doubt, the finest hotel in Morocco. This hotel can only be described in superlatives, and is of the standard of its finest counterparts in Europe. It is a superb resort, and surprisingly good value by international standards. Here one can experience the finest French cuisine to silver-service standard, or be introduced to the delights of authentic Moroccan food in a dining room that could be a backdrop for a movie on the Arabian Nights. The Mamounia is home-away-from-home to heads of state, captains of industry and stars of stage, screen and the arts.
The concierge there will arrange a night at one remarkable restaurant -- Chez Ali. This is a place that almost overpowers the senses. It must have the proverbial cast of thousands!
The welcoming committee in this instance consists of an honor row, the entrance is flanked by Tuareg horsemen on white Moroccan steeds. Once inside, the sights almost overwhelm the senses. You pass a typical upper-crust Moroccan wedding, the bride bedecked with a fabulous, shimmering, jewel-studded satin gown. Then into the courtyard where a whole bevy of dancing troupes, each in the costume of yet another Atlas mountain or Sahara Desert tribe sing, dance and play music to serenade you and make your evening more enjoyable. Once again you are led to luxuriously designed and furnished tents and served a traditional Moroccan meal. But this time the number of groups of musicians that come to your table, sing, dance and perform must have run to around thirty. There are drum groups and instrumental groups, high-pitched vocalists that warble their songs and others that trill or wail them. It seems that musical tastes cover an endless variety in Morocco. After dining comes the parade. All the musicians regroup, forming a singing procession in which they parade past all the diners.
And then the huge floodlit arena in front of the singers becomes the center of attention. Guests are asked to take their place on the seats adjoining the railings. The lights go out and in the distant, shadowy darkness, the shapes of the mounted Berber horsemen become faintly discernible. Then the lights come back on and the horsemanship display commences.
Berbers have the reputation of being some of the world's finest horsemen, and this display alone might be enough to establish such a reputation. Each of the horsemen does one round of the arena with his specialty and each is a master of his art. One rider jumps off the horse on one side while it is at full gallop. His feet barely touch the ground and he jumps up again, clearing the saddle and coming down on the ground on the other side, where the whole episode is repeated.
Another horseman leaps up on to the back of his horse at full speed, spins around, lands on his saddle facing his mount's tail, jumps up again and keeps doing this forward-backward for the whole three or four minutes his horse takes to ride around the vast arena.
For a finale, all the horsemen line up, then charge down the arena, firing their muzzle-loaded rifles into the air and creating large puffs of smoke. It is an evening of spectacular showmanship that no one present will ever forget.
The next day is one for sightseeing. After visiting the famous mosques and lovely rose gardens of Marrakech...the latter get their water from the lakes and aqueducts that are fed by crystal-clear water flowing underground from the melting snows of the nearby Atlas mountains...we jump into our guide's Land Cruiser and head for the hills.
Within twenty minutes, the desert-like terrain surrounding Marrakech has changed into sparse vegetation, then olive groves and, shortly thereafter, verdant green farms as we enter the Ourika Valley that leads to the Mid, and then the High Atlas range. The patchy cloud is high enough to let us see the snow-capped peaks in the distance.
As we climb higher and higher, our guide tells us that, although it is Sunday, he is taking us to the place known as Monday Market. There are three Berber market sites in this valley: one each for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The latter two would be "dead" today, but at the Monday Market, Berbers would be setting up their stalls for the following day.
The dirt track led over a rise and as we came down on the other side, we saw hundreds of pack-donkeys and their owners making the site a hive of activity. Some were setting up tents, others had already completed the task and were busy selling their produce. The plough-seller was offering ploughs made of two pieces of tree branch, the design of which had clearly not changed since biblical days. Food stall owners were fanning the flames of small charcoal fires over which crudely made iron pans held sizzling fish that was being prepared for lunch.
Berber barbers ply their trade: a handful of instruments, a chair and a card-table their only equipment. We pass among the crowd of tradesmen, so busy that they hardly give us more than a perfunctory smile. More donkeys are coming up the road. And one trader, richer than the rest, actually brings his goods to market in a Hi Lux!
We leave, feeling that we have experienced a little glimpse into the "real thing" when it came to Berber lifestyle. Although it was donkeys and not camels that we had seen en masse, we could not help thinking of Ogden Nash's verse on Morocco:
The bus to Marrakech, Morocco, traverses landscapes simply socko/
The agricultural economy suggests the book of Deuteronomy/
The machine has not replaced the mammal/
and everything is done by camel
The other big tourist attraction in Morocco is Fez, a city that is just as fascinating as Marrakech, but considerably less touristic in the sense that it does not have attractions like Fnaa Square or spectacular dinner shows like El Oasis and Chez Ali. It makes up for all this, however, by its more traditional draw-cards, the largest being this city's souk. Located in the inner city, the souk of Fez is even more of a rabbit warren than that of Marrakech.
Streets are so narrow that when -- and it happens quite often -- a donkey is being driven down one of these, everyone has to dive into doorways to ensure not being squished straight into the brickwork by the donkey and his load.
This souk at Fez is enormous! The area of the Medina, the Old City, covers 300 hectares and most of this is taken up by the souk, so large that it contains 250 community districts. Each has its own mosque, hammam (Turkish bath), Islamic school and baker! Right in the center is the Kairouan Mosque. A vast complex big enough to accommodate 15-20,000 worshippers on Fridays.
Non-Moslems are not permitted to enter, but one can get a very good idea of what the place is like inside by looking in the doorways. There is also a women's section in this mosque, in which even Moslem men are not allowed, but it is O.K. to look in through the doorways and everybody seems to do this. The souk sells every conceivable kind of merchandise, we even came across two leopard skins, a particularly sad discovery because leopards are now so rare in Morocco that according to some experts, there are only some hundred or so surviving.
Another, and perhaps the most fascinating, area is the traditional tanning and dyeing section. Even in the Middle Ages, Moroccan leather was the finest that could be bought. Bibles were bound in it throughout Europe, as were other important books. And even after WW II, Bob Hope, in the movie The Road to Morocco, sang "Like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco bound."
Wool dyers, like the leather ones, also thrive in the souk. They are not traders in their own right, but dye fabric to order for the textile merchants and carpet wool for the carpet makers on a commission basis. The colors are marvelous -- so bright that they seem to glow.
Morocco is truly a colorful country. Perhaps the inhabitants have developed this marvelous sense of color to contrast with the general monotony of sand and desert. Whatever the cause, even the women on the street, some with body and head covered so that only their eyes are visible through a narrow slit in their caftan, have these made in the most attractive colors imaginable.
Carpets too, have bright colors that denote, or at least hint at, the tribes that made them. We found very few carpets that matched the quality available in Turkey in the same price range, but they are nevertheless very reasonable and make a great souvenir of your visit to Morocco. Unless you are a real expert, it is advisable to buy only inexpensive rugs and carpets here. The shopkeepers are unbelievably competent at turning on the charm to sell you their wares, thankfully using this instead of the blatant pressure tactics found in many other countries. Nevertheless, take their advice with a grain of salt. The asking prices are usually inflated by 200%, so every item marked up at 100 dollars can more often or not be purchased for $30 after some good nature haggling. Never get nasty or angry about prices. The shopkeepers need to make a living too. And if you are told a carpet is an antique, remember that there are many here who are craftsmen at nothing but making a new item into a 200 year old treasure in less than a week!
Right in the middle of the souk, the Palais de Fes restaurant is one we can recommend. Set atop a large carpet shop, the Palais de Fes and the ancient building in which it is located would make a splendid setting for a spy movie. It is beautifully appointed, lavishly Moroccan, and serves outstanding local dishes. If you visit Fez don't leave the city without dining here first.
As we entered the city that morning we had noticed the gates made of hand-worked brass panels that had been individually embossed and decorated. In the early morning sunlight, the polished brass shone like gold. We called in at 75 Talaa Kebira in the Medina to watch Abderrahman Benlamlih, the son of the craftsman who had created these panels, patiently work at similarly decorated brass, trays, plates and boxes. Artisans hand their skills to their children in this country.
While the inner Medina is the oldest imperial city in Morocco, and has always been a seat of learning and Moroccan culture, the French have built a modern, much more cosmopolitan city outside the ancient walled area.
Here the buildings are much more like those of Marseilles or Nice, with walled courtyards containing lovely gardens and wide, tree-lined streets. The old city however, dates back to into dim history, becoming famous in the 8th Century when King Idriss fled his enemies to settle in what was then a small Berber town, and made it the first Islamic city to be built in Morocco. He then brought in Arabs from the central Maghreb and further populated the city with refugees -- both Moslem and Jewish -- who had escaped from Spain when that country was reconquered by Christian forces.
The Jewish and Moslem communities have lived in peace and harmony ever since, and even during the dark days of the 1950's to 1970's, when the Jewish/Moslem mid-Eastern conflict was at its height, Morocco was a lighthouse of tolerance in a sea of mistrust and hate.
Culture is another high-spot for Fez. In the 9th Century Kairouyne University was a world-leader in such subjects as Medicine and Astronomy, and the tasseled mortar-board hats and black gowns that are seen at every University graduation ceremony in the world originated here. Perhaps the top hotel in Fez today is the Palais Jamai built as a palace in 1879 and converted into a luxury hotel in 1930. Don't miss visiting the Mellah, the Jewish section of Fez, which is located alongside the Royal Palace.
While most of the Jewish community from Fez has migrated to Israel, the architecture of the Jewish quarter, with its overhang of timber balconies, is still very distinctive.
Don't forget to take home some of the lovely blue and white Fez pottery. The best place to see this is the Museum of Moroccan Arts, which has displays of all the popular Moroccan handicrafts. Also don't miss the area known as Moulay Idriss Zaouia which non-Moslems will only be able to see from the outside. The surrounding areas are, however, very interesting if you have the time to explore the small back-streets by foot.
We thoroughly enjoyed two days in Casablanca, though that would probably top it out for a tourist. We found the Sheraton delightfully user-friendly and Ricky's Bar at the Hyatt is another place not to be missed. If you haven't seen the classic ...bordering on a cult movie...Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, fear not! Ricky's has it running non-stop on the bar's video screen, and it's as marvelous as ever. Posters show a sly-looking Peter Lorre and sinister Sidney Greenstreet, as well as all the other characters, and the barman, as well as all the other players on the stage that is Ricky's Bar tries to look authentic too. It is fortunate that few know that the film was made entirely in the Hollywood studios and that none of the actors ever set foot in Casablanca.
And don't forget to get your guide to show you the Anfa Hotel where the allied leaders met for the Casablanca Conference. A little vignette about this is that it was found, after the War, that the German Secret Service had broken the American code and knew that the allied leaders were to meet at Casablanca. However, the Germans came to the conclusion that the coded message had referred to Casa Blanca -- "White House" in English -- and assumed that the meeting was taking place in Washington. Had they realized that it was Morocco, history might have been changed.
Don't miss the old Justice Ministry building, now a District Office. You will see the date 1369 incorporated into the plaster work. But this is not an ancient building -- 1369 in the Arabic calendar equates to 1924 AD This building is one of the most beautiful examples of Islamic architecture that I have ever seen.
Very few people to whom I have spoken and who have visited Tangier on a day trip from Spain have really liked that city. But I really feel that the reason for this is perhaps the bad tour that they have taken, rather than anything being wrong with the city itself. If you are in Tangier, you might like to stay at the Hotel El-Minzah, a venerable old-timer with a great deal of style and ambiance.
And there is much to see in Tangier if you give it a full day or two. Cape Malabata has the splendid lighthouse that shines across the straits towards distant Spain. The town has some truly lovely suburbs and here many expatriates own splendid permanent residences that cost around 10% of their equivalents on the European side of the straits.
Others have holiday homes here. One such splendid residence is the home of Malcolm Forbes, the publishing tycoon. The Forbes' Tangier home, still owned by the family, was the site of some of the late Malcolm's famously lavish parties attended by kings and tycoons. Malcolm Forbes' great love for hot air balloons and Harley Davidsons is well documented, but few know of his third passion: he (at one time) had one of the world's finest collections of toy soldiers. At one time, several rooms had been made into a museum dedicated to the toy soldiers. Glass showcases lined the walls and depicted famous battles, including ones in Africa, that had taken place around the world. This has since been auctioned off and is closed to the public.
There are many other interesting places if you have two weeks in Morocco: Ouzazate, the Cedar Forests around Azrot, Rabat, the Royal Capital, Volubilis, the ancient Roman city that has some of the best mosaics in North Africa, the stunningly beautiful Gorges of Todgha, which should not be missed under any circumstances, and Midelt on the way to Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara.
If, by the way, you have seen the sun rise over a desert in another part of the world, then you might miss the occasion when staying at Erfoud. If you want to see this you will have to take an expensive (US $50), 5 a.m. four-wheel drive trip into the desert. If you don't you are probably smart. This was the only experience we had in Morocco that we would have been quite happy to miss. Berber villages near Erfoud are, however, very interesting and can be visited in more civilized hours.
Morocco is one of the most interesting and rewarding countries for the serious traveler to visit. It has an interesting history, the people are friendly and artistic. This nation is remarkably free of crime and any form of extremism, and is one which, along with Turkey, the Gulf Emirates, Egypt and the Islamic states of Asia, are examples of how tolerant and hospitable a well-run Islamic country can be. If you doubt what I've said, check those friends who have been to Morocco, and ask them what they thought of it. The chances are that, when you hear what they have to say, you'll want to catch the next plane to that country. And if you do, I hope you'll enjoy it as much as we did.
Royal Air Maroc now run regular services from New York to Morocco using the latest Boeing 747 - 400's.
Three times as much film as you think you may possibly use. All the medications you may require. Loose, comfortable cotton clothes and comfortable walking shoes. Also invest in a copy of Morocco, the guide book published by Alfred Knopf. It may be expensive, but it is the best guide book on that country that money can buy. The Lonely Planet guide to Morocco is an excellent backup.
Best time to go
Unless you thrive in very hot temperatures, go between November and March. It may rain occasionally and be cold in the Atlas Mountains, but at least you won't be uncomfortable with heatstroke which is a real possibility around May-June, especially on the Sahara side of the Atlas range.
We've all heard horror stories of people who have gone to Algeria and run into trouble with fundamentalists. You certainly will not have any problem like this in Morocco, which is law-abiding, has real freedom, and has the Sahara as a very effective insulator between the two countries.
US dollars are easily changed or accepted at all hotels.
Watch out for
Pick-pockets are the worst criminals you are likely to encounter in Morocco. I always have velcro strips sewn into the openings on trouser and jacket pockets. This makes them virtually pick-pocket proof. Try opening a velcroed pocket and you will see what I mean.
Agadir Beach Club
Al Madina Palace
Holiday Crowne Plaza
Hotel De Fez
Hotel La Mamounia
Hotel Semiramis Le Meridien
Hotel Pullman Mansour Eddahbi
De La Tour Hassan
Restaurant De L'hotel Sahara
Au Palais Mnebhi
Palais De Fes
Chez Ali (spectacular entertainment)
Le Casher (Kosher)
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.