Always, always Morocco! My husband and I had added this North African country to our travel wishlist many years ago. Somehow it was never the right time. The Gods took pity on us finally, the stars aligned, and this October we finally boarded the flight to Casablanca.
Now, here’s the thing – we signed up with Cosmos to take their guided tour. Some of you may turn up your noses, denouncing us as mere tourists, not Travellers. I was never one to abide by labels. At this stage of our lives, we decided a guided tour would suit us admirably. And it did, so there!
The itinerary included visits to Casablanca, Fez, Rabat, Meknes, Marrakech, and many other gems on the way. We had the distinct pleasure of traversing high mountains, immersing ourselves in Saharaesque grandeur, watching the crashing Atlantic, negotiating winding lanes where indigo-coloured doors led to secretive riads (courtyards). The country offered us a wide panorama of scenery, history and tradition. The people were friendly and welcoming, and we saw a spectrum of ordinary lives being lived in this charming country, whether shopkeepers at the medinas, livestock salesmen, shepherds in the mountains and valleys, or souvenir sellers.
Off we go…
Our trip started off with an overnight stay in Casablanca, though we arrived tired out, in the evening. There was no time to look anywhere but out the window of our room before gratefully falling into bed. Our hotel was in the port area, and we saw tall vessels, looming cranes, containers and the ubiquitous minarets against the grey Atlantic. We also met our fellow travellers, a jolly bunch from all over the world.
In the morning, we drove into Rabat, the nation’s capital which turned out to be a pleasant city. Stopping at the royal palace, we checked out the green and white colour scheme.
Pretty extensive grounds, but no tourists are allowed inside the palace. The site I liked best in Rabat was the Roman Chellah gardens. A sloping site sits above the Bou Regreg river and that’s where the gardens are laid out amid the ruins. You’ve got to imagine the Roman city, of course, since all that magnificence has been lost in the mists of time (and weather!). Luckily, that’s not very difficult because of the atmosphere, and you can easily transport yourself to the days of the Romans, the Phoenicians, and the Carthaginians.
We also stopped at the Kasbah Oudayas, a fascinating historical site with winding streets and old courtyards.
In Meknes, the royal stables and granaries captivated me instantly, and somewhat like a time traveller, I allowed myself to be whisked away on a magic carpet into a past when the city used to be an imperial stronghold. The Heri Es Souani, that is, the King’s stables and granaries, are stunning, with in-built natural air conditioning and cedarwood doors. According to the guide, 12,000 horses could be stabled there, and due to the geometrically laid-out stables, the horses could be seen and attended to easily. Now the thick walls are mossed with age, but you can’t miss the symmetry and power.
Fez and the Fassis
Talk about ancient! Also, the inhabitants of the walled city of Fez are called Fassis. The very air in Fez is redolent of another age, a medieval trek into old Arabia. Though you do see the occasional McDonald’s, or stylish brands of clothing on the streets, reject those and just slip away into the older section, and voila, you’re transported to the 9th century.
It’s true. The medina dates back to the 9th century, and as you wander the narrow labyrinthine lanes, you may as well forget about your phone and the Internet, or air travel, or burgers.
Instead your greedy little heart marvels at the skillfully-made leather goods, handmade kilims and carpets, and the seriously covetable pottery. You gape at the copper lanterns which throw out punctured designs of light. Donkeys, heavily laden with goods, pass you by, and you shrink into the shadows as the owner of the animal smiles with blackened teeth and wishes you with a ‘Salaam Waliekum’.
The donkeys carry everything in the medina, from colour televisions, bolts of fabric, and bags of produce, to consignments of pottery and baked bricks for construction. The scene unfolds like this – you’re gazing wide-eyed at everything around you, and suddenly there’s a shout, ‘Belek, belek’, and you realize it is a warning to move out of the way, so that the donkey can step past you daintily following his path into and beyond the narrow steep lanes.
Everywhere there is hustle yes, but one where a certain polite charm, a willingness to bargain till a satisfactory deal is reached, is evident. Aching feet led me to stand for a few minutes beside a tiny store selling leather goods. The stooped and bearded shop keeper offered me a stool as he stood smoking peaceably, looking at all the bustle of tourists and locals in the medina. Not once did he try to sell me anything, but I was seduced by his merchandise nonetheless, and succumbed.
(To be continued)