Part Arab and part African with a french legacy, it’s every part a stern assault on the senses.
Morocco is certainly a vast and varied territory, where Arabic and French are the dominant tongues though a large part of the population are descendants from the ancient Berbers (or Amaziah) and have preserved their own languages and customs. Having only been a united modern nation state since 1956, a decline of powerful dynasties and mighty empires has created a melting pot of tribes,and a multi-faith society.
Morocco’s cities were the obvious draws for me though a 1700km roundtrip was in store to take in the walled cities of Marrakech, Casablanca, Rabat and Fes. Ornate mosques, kasbahs and palaces were common and in Marrakesh and Fez I found medieval alleys of ancient medinas with traders of all sorts amidst the scents of Africa.
Marakesh’s Medina (old city) is now a Unesco World Heritage site having been a trading town since the 11th century and with it’s warren of souks, it is the quintessential Moroccan shopping experience. The souks are like clusters of markets that spread out along the medina’s twisting alleyways north of Djemma El Fna and each of the named souks specialises in one item that’s being made and sold from carpets, leather, babouche slippers, jewellery, to metalware, ceramics, baskets and more.
At Djemaa el-Fna square I had an Indiana Jones moment as I was greeted by conjurers, acrobats, trained monkeys, snake charmers, musicians and storytellers all descending on the marketplace at sunset. When the sun starts setting, find a seat at one of the many food stalls then sit back and enjoy the magic show while enjoying freshly fried calamari, salads and flatbreads with fiery dips or Makouda; little deep-fried potato balls made for dipping in spicy harissa sauce.
Getting out to the smaller towns will enable you to get much closer to Morocco’s distinct culture where cornflower-blue houses sprawl on a fertile hillside in the northern town of Chefchouan, or the once Portuguese fortified coastal town of Essaouira. Roughly 8 hours out of Marakesh is Ouarzate, the town where numerous Hollywood films have been made, some in entirety. At Atlas studios there’s a fake fighter jet from The Jewel of the Nile and an Egyptian temple from the Mummy. Once a garrison town built by the french in the 1920’s, it’s not hard to see why it’s such a favourite with Tinseltown with a gigantic fortress here known as Taourirt Kasbah. Tours are available but plan one for the late afternoon to avoid the scorching temperatures.
Like Marrakesh, the medina of Fez is listed as a UNESCO site and also like Marrakesh it’s a navigational nightmare being one of the largest car-free urban zones in the world. Once the capital of Morocco, the UNESCO listing means the twisting cobblestone paths will not be enlarged or smoothed out in any way and the mosques, bazaars and homes will not change.Google maps and Fez are not friends.
There are however an endless supply of young men and teenage boys offering, in good English, to show you around for a negotiable fee the second you appear confused or dis-oriented. The government has kindly created a system of informational walks around the medina marked by color-coded signs a sense of functionality not unlike a Where’s Waldo book.
In Fez, the practice of turning hides into supple leather has been an economic mainstay since the middle ages and the methods with which it’s done are no different now than then. Toiling over open vats of animal urine and dung, workers dip skins in to treat them before hand-dyeing them in bright yellow,
red and white followed by stomping them under the hot sun to distribute the pigment.
In stark contrast to Marrakesh and Fez, Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, is a Atlantic port with tradition and progressiveness working in perfect tandem. Roman roots and French city planning has borne a city with mid-century elegance and modern touches including a sleek tram system across its center. Unlike the overflowing mazes in other Moroccan cities, Casablanca’s central market is small and manageable while La Corniche, the waterfront boulevard favoured is the favourite of numerous families by day and everyone else at night with a plethora of clubs and lounges to suit all tastes from student-laid-back lounge to rockbands to basement-bar-jazz/funk like La Calèche hidden down
a side street from the Hotel Azur.
The Hassan II Mosque is among Africa’s largest boasting one of the world’s tallest minarets and is one of Morocco’s most striking buildings as well as the only one that permits non-Muslim visitors into its halls.
The end of the week long round-trip journey finally saw me sitting at one of the many cafes reviewing my pictures when over my shoulder I heard the voice of one of my travel companions, looking out onto the square “ I love the colours”.
I put the camera back in the bag. Me too.
Chris Hordern is a London-based travel agent
hell-bent on seeing everything possible before 30