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THE ROYAL CITIES OF MOROCCO

Our May 2004 holiday

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Marrakech
  • Meknès
  • Fès
  • Rabat
  • Casablanca
  • Marrakech again
  • Conclusion

  • INTRODUCTION

    “Morocco is like a tree whose roots lie in Africa
    but whose leaves breath in European air”
    .

    "Eyewitness Travel Guide To Morocco"

    This was only our second visit to the continent of Africa - the previous one being to Egypt in October 1999. However, following trips to Andalucia (June 2002) and Istanbul (October 2003), we had developed a love for Islamic architecture and culture. For Roger, this was his 35th country.

    As we have done on several earlier holidays, we travelled with Voyages Jules Verne [click here]. The trip was billed as covering the royal cities of Morocco - that is, the cities which have, at different times in the country's history, been the capital for one of the ruling dynasties. These are Marrakech, Meknès, Fès, and Rabat - but we also took in Casablanca which, although it has never been a capital, is the largest city in Morocco today and and the commercial heart of the country.


    Roger and Vee with our Morocco guide Abdullah

    Morocco is a similar size to France, Italy or Spain. The population is around 30 million.

    Any visitor to Morocco would benefit from a tiny bit of dynastic history and a tiny guide to physical terms.

    In terms of history, it is useful to know that the history of Morocco is characterised by a series of family dynasties which have determined the political, social and architectural features of their age. There have been six main dynasties:

    The Dynasties Of Morocco
    Name Period
    Irissids
    789-926
    Almoravids
    1055-1147
    Almohads
    1147-1248
    Merinids
    1269-1465
    Saadians
    1549-1659
    Alaouites
    1666-present day

    As for physical terms, the following words are worth understanding:

    Some Geographical Terms
    Term Meaning
    medina
    The term is Arabic for town and indicates the orginal Arab part of the city, usually enclosed by walls
    souk
    A market - often specialising in a particular product - in the medina
    mellah
    The original Jewish quarter of a medina
    medersa
    An Islamic school teaching the Koran and religous practice
    kasbah
    A palace or fortress

    MARRAKECH

    On Saturday afternoon , we flew from London's Heathrow airport in a British Airways Airbus A320 operated by GB Airways [click here]. One of the First Class passengers was the veteran rocker Mick Jagger. After a flight of almost three hours, we stopped at Casablanca before making a half-hour hop to Marrakech. Here we were met by our guide for the week, Abdullah Khoussi - a berber wearing a jellaba and an attentive and knowledgeable man who proved to have a delightful sense of humour. We found that we were part of a group of 26 (mostly retired) British holidaymakers. It was a short coach ride to our accommodation in Marrakech: Hotel Atlas [click here].

    The whole of Sunday was spent exploring Marrakech. The city is located in a plain at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains, ordinarily visible to the south and east, but not seen by us because of the prevalent haze. Known as 'the pink city' because of the colour of the local earth used in its construction, this ancient walled city was founded in 1062, making it almost 1,000 years old. Marrakech was once the capital of an empire that stretched from Toledo to Senegal, sitting at the centre of the great caravan routes. Today it is the best known and most visited of Morocco's cities and its population of 1.5 million makes it the country's fourth largest city.

    The weather was initially only mild, but warmed up as the day went on, finishing at 22C (72F). Our first stop was the nearby Menara Gardens which were originally laid out in the 12th century. Today this one-time imperial garden retains the large rectagular basin 180 metres by 150 metres and three metres deep (with carp fish) overlooked by a pavilion and surrounded by olive trees.

    Then we drove over to the Koutoubia Mosque - the word kout means book and the building was originally known as the Booksellers' Mosque. The building was begun in 1162, but restored two years ago so that it looks new. Its most distinguished feature is its tall tower which has two 'sisters' - the Giralda in Seville (which Roger & Vee had seen) and the Hassan Tower in Rabat (which we were about to see). The Koutoubia tower stands 70 metres (230 feet) high and its proportions obey the canons of Almohad architecture: its height equals five times its width. Unfortunately, in Morocco - unlike in Egypt or Turkey where we have viewed the inside of mosques - non-Muslims cannot go inside mosques, so we could only view the Koutoubia from the gardens in front of it.


    The Koutoubia Mosque with in the foreground
    the remains of the original mosque which was uncompleted
    because it was not accurately orientated towards Mecca

    Wandering through a small market - the first of many that we would enjoy in Morocco - we next visited the Saadian Tombs. This complex of mausoleums dates from the Saadian dynasty of the late 16th century. First to be buried here was the Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour and he was followed by more than 60 of his successors and their families. However, some the many British and French tourists seemed more interested in the feral cats which proliferate around the place, including a mother and four tiny kittens.

    At this point, we went over to see the Bahia Palace (the name means 'Palace of the Favourite'). This was built by two grand viziers and completed in 1894. It is an ornate and beautiful complex and here our guide Abdullah explained the five characteristic features of the Moorish design of this and other buildings of Morocco and southern Spain: marble, mosaics, stucco, cedar wood, and green roof tiles.

    After a tasty and plentiful self-service lunch at a restaurant called "Dar Si Aissa", we then spent an exciting afternoon exploring the souks of Marrakech. The souks or markets - scattered along narrow winding streets - are arranged according to the nature of the goods on offer: fabric, carpets, jewellery, slippers, belts, leatherwear, baskets, saddles, brasswork, copper work, blacksmithing. Goods are not just sold in the souks but usually made there, so we saw the dyeing of wool, the cutting of leather, the beating of metal. It was wonderful to explore one Alladin's Cave after another, after another, after another. Apparently there are around 8,000 open-fronted shops in the medina.

    On the north side of the souks is the Ali ben Youssef Mosque which was built in the 12th century and reconstructed in the 19th century. It is the largest and one of the oldest mosques in Marrakech with the largest theological site in the Mahgreb, the next door Medersa, dating from the 14th century and, like the mosque itself, extensively renovated. Although we could not enter the mosque, we were able to explore the medersa which had a capacity for up to 900 students.

    By this stage, the group was ready for a rest and we were taken to a herbalist shop called Herboristerie Avenzdoar. Here we were regaled with the cooking delights of spice after spice and and the healing properties of herb after herb; indeed it seemed that no ailment could not benefit from one or other of the colourful and pungent herbs on offer. Pride of place went to something called ras el hanout, a Moroccan mix of 35 spices which is much used in local cooking. Fortunately Vee did not go crazy as she had done in China in buying lots of lotions and potions which she never used, but here she confined herself to something for her nose. For his part, Roger stripped to the waist and accepted the offer of a neck, shoulder and back massage for 20 dirhams (£1.25).

    Leaving the herbalist shop behind us, we weaved our way through many more souks, left and right, in and out, up and down, until we finally arrived at the beating heart of Marrakech: Jemma el-Fna. The name means Place of the Dead, but the origins of the name are lost in the mists of time, possibly having something to do with this being the place of public executions where the heads of criminals were displayed.

    Today it is the central square of the market place and a veritable open-air theatre. We had a good view from the terrace of the "Café Glacier" before we descended into the square to explore its exotic and noisy delights. All sorts of food is available to take home for cooking or already cooked ready for consumption, including such delicacies as snails and goats heads. There are people to prescribe a herb or potion to cure any ill, paint you with henna, read your fortune from cards, or just tell you a story with pictures. There are traditional musicians, buskers and acrobats of all descriptions. Cobra snakes rear up as their owners pipe music and Vee bravely had her photograph taken with a couple of long, writhing snakes (the owner wanted 200 dirhams but we gave him 50 or £3). The only thing that spoiled the experience was that, if one stood still for a few moments or showed any interest in a performer or tried to take a photograph of a local, immediately one was urged to hand over money.


    Vee with two 'friendly' snakes
    in the Jemma el-Fna

    It had been an colourful and exciting introduction to Morocco and Roger had managed to take almost 50 photographs in just one day.

    MEKNÈS

    After one full day in Marrekech, we were off to the next former capital Meknès, a long journey of 470 kms (294 miles). So we were up at 6 am and the coach left at 7.40 am. The entire journey took place on a single lane road with minimal traffic, but we still trundled along and saw two serious accidents. We travelled through a flat and fertile plain, observing donkies and carts as often as lorries, lots of goats but few cows, and caroub, olive, cedar, almond and eucalyptus trees.

    We had refreshment stops just outside El-Kelaa Des Srarha and near Kasba Tadla and had a photo stop at the Hansali reservoir before reaching Azrou - a berber town of 45,000 named after the rock in the town - at 3.20 pm and halting for a late lunch. Suitably refreshed, we drove the last segment of the journey to Meknès, reaching the Zaki Hotel [click here] at 6 pm. It had been a journey of almost ten and a half hours, of which eight hours was spent actually on the road. As the day had worn on, the weather had became worse with black clouds, then low mist, and finally moderate rain. So it was a pleasure to reach our warm hotel and have a dinner of tradional Moroccan food centred on chicken tajine with olives and pickled lemons flavoured with coriander, cumin and saffron.

    Next morning (Tuesday), Roger developed stomach trouble which is common in this part of the world. It was not as bad as he experienced in Egypt or India, but it was bad enough and continued for the remainder of the trip (as usual Vee was fine).

    Before exploring Meknès, the group was driven north of the city to visit the old Roman town of Volubilis (it is named after the flower morning glory). This metropolis reached its heyday in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when it was a major trading city under the Romans and housed around 20,000 people. It was abandoned by the Romans in the late 4th or early 5th centuries, although people continued to live here until the 18th century. Moulay Ismaïl's masons found it a convenient source of pre-cut marble to use in the construction of Meknès. It then lay largely unnoticed until the French started to excavate it in 1915.

    Our visit proved to be a bizarre experience. It was looking odd from the beginning when we found that the local guide had the strongest accent of any we encountered in Morocco ("Slowly, slowly. Slippy, slippy."). It became really surreal when - here in north Africa in the summer - the heavens opened and, exposed in the old ruins, we were lashed by rain, whipped by wind, and chilled by cold.


    The Triumphal Arch built in 217 AD
    to honour Emperor Caracalla

    As we drove away from the Roman site, we stopped to look up at Moulay Ismaïl. Just east of Volubilis, this hilltop town is named after the religious leader and ruler who is credited with founding the first Moroccan state. It is built on two crags on the slope of the 950 metre (3,000 foot) Jebel Zerhourn hill and looks over the valley of the Oued Khouman.

    Back in Meknès, we sheltered from the rain and cold and had lunch in "Restaurant Bellevue". Fortunately, as we started our tour of the city about 2 pm, the rain stopped and the sun struggled to make an appearance - but it did not last.

    Meknès was founded more than a thousand years ago, but its current structure dates from the end of the 17th century. It was built in 1696 by Sultan Moulay Ismaïl, a contemporary of Louis XIV who ruled the country for 55 years (1672-1727). It was his new capital city, constructed using marble, tile, stucco and rare woods recycled from the El Badi Palace in Marrakech and employing 3,000 enslaved Christians and 30,000 convict labourers. Protected by 16 km (25 miles) of battlements and flanked by towers and bastions, the city was partially demolished by an earthquake and the dynastic capital was relocated to Marrakech.

    First, we visited the old medina area, seeing the Bab el-Khemis (Gate of the Thursday Market) and the beautiful Bab Mansour el-Aleuj (Gate of the Victorious Renegade) and wandering down the traditional narrow streets and past multitudinous stalls. It was weird to be offered for sale brightly-coloured umbrellas, but the weather was so wet that several of our group bought them.


    A colourful display of olives
    in one of the many markets

    Next stop was the Heri es-Sounai (Grainstore Stables) in the area known as the Imperial City. This complex with 29 aisles was built by Moulay Ismaïl to store grain and stable horses. Legend has it that the sultan had 12,000 horses and 1,000 wives, so he obviously did a lot of mounting. The walls of the store are 3 metres (10 feet) thick, but the ceiling collapsed during the earthquake of 1755 and the place was later restored by the French.


    View of the Grainstore Stables

    Then we went to see the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl which houses the tombs of the sultan himself, his wife and son. This was built in the 17th century and remodelled in the 18th and 20th centuries and the building features fine examples of traditional zellij tilework. Finally, we were taken to "Palais Al Ismailia", a storehouse of local crafts including decorative tablecloths. At 4.30 pm, we left the city.

    FÈS

    It only took just over an hour to drive from Meknès to Fès where we checked into the Hotel Zalagh [click here]. Remarkably sited in wedge of a valley, Fès was founded in 789 AD and became the first real capital of Morocco in 809 under Idriss I and Idriss II. The Idrissids were the first of the seven main sultanate dynasties of the country's history. Subsequently Fès was the capital of three of Morocco's great royal dynasties - the Idrissids, the Merenids and the Alaouites - and today it is the spiritual and cultural centre of traditional Morocco with a population swollen to 1.2 million by the droughts of the 1980s.

    The name Fès means 'pickaxe' and legend has it that a golden pickaxe was found there. In fact, Fès consists of three elements: Fès el-Bali, the original 9th century medina, now a UNESCO World Heritage site; Fès el-Jedid, new or white Fès built in 1276; and the 20th century Ville Nouvelle.

    Wednesday dawned for our day in this historic city and we found that it was still raining and would do so all day. However, we were determined to enjoy our time and we had a first-class local guide called Aziz. We started by driving up to a hill on the north of the city to obtain a panoramic overview. Aziz pointed out that, though we could see the whole of the medina, we could see no people and hear no sounds - this would be a total contrast to when we were down there.

    Indeed it was. The medina of Fès is the largest in the world with 9,400 narrow lanes making up a veritable and utterly magical labyrinth. Every type of food and good is on display in multitudinous stores and workshops. Most of the lanes are no wider than one's outstretched arms, so there is no traffic whatsoever, just throngs of people and laden donkeys and mules and bicycles.

    As in Marrakech, the medina is organised (if that is not too strong a word) into souks selling different wares. We paused in Place el-Seffarine which specialises in brassware and silverware. Then we visited the famous Dabbaghine which is the tanning area. As we climbed stone stairs to a terrace for an overview, we were given mint to cover the normally pungent smell, but the weather was so cool that the smell was not a problem for us.

    The sight which awaited us was like nothing any of us had ever seen. Rows of huge vats - some of them used for centuries- filled the square below, as barefoot workers made their way around the top of the containers. The vats themselves are pits of dyes coloured crimson, purple, yellow and orange. Here hides of sheep, goats, cows and camels are soaked in readiness for the leatherworkers. The atmosphere is enhanced by the tanned hides hanging out to dry from terraces surrounded the area.


    The amazing tanning vats

    Moving on, somewhat reluctantly, we next visited an old fondouk, in the past a hostelry for travelling merchants and their beasts of burden. The one we called into was now a makeshift weaving factory run by several generations of the same family and Vee took the oppprtunity to buy two shawls.

    Another sight was the El-Attarine Medersa (the name means the Islamic school of the spice sellers). This was built between 1323-1325 and has been newly renovated. It is considered to be one of the wonders of Moorish architecture. Close by is the Karaouiyine Mosque (named after Kairouan in Tunisia from which many refugees came to this quarter of the city). The mosque was established in 859, making it one of the oldest in the western Muslim world. Unfortunately we could only view it through the arch of the entrance.

    Round the corner, so to speak, we glimpsed the Mausoluem of Moulay Idriss II (like so much here, we could not actually go inside). The narrow streets leading to this shrine are barred at mid height by a wooden beam that is supposed to prevent the passage of beasts of burden, although it had the modern-day effect of forcing Roger to bend right down. Equally brief was our look at el-Nejjarine Fountain outside the fondouk built in the 18th century to provide rest and shelter for traders and recently restored.

    At last, we left the rain and the crowds and took shelter ourselves in a 14th century house converted into a carpet-making co-operative. Here we encountered the routine with which Roger & Vee were so familiar from India and Turkey: the offer of a local drink (in this case, mint tea) and then a fluent, fascinating and rather humorous act involving the display of one beautiful carpet after another. Vee's attention was caught by a huge and stunningly ornate carpet filling one entire wall but, since it cost around £2,000 (not to mention the carpet purchases in India and Turkey), Roger managed to persuade her to forget it.


    The carpet that Vee wanted to buy
    (well, at least we have a photo)

    It was time for lunch and we were certainly ready for it. It was served in "Restaurant Al Fassa", a splendid place which has bellydancing floorshows in the evening. But we had not finished with the old medina. So, after lunch, our first stop was the Palace of dar el-Batha. This was built between 1873 and 1897 and serves now as a museum. To be honest, the ceramic exhibits are unimpressive, but the Andalusian garden was a welcome respite from the noise and bustle of the medina. One more shopping opportunity awaited: a metal crafts shop called "Darsi Othman". Here Vee bought a finely-decorated bronze horse for 1,100 dirhams (just under £70). Our last view of the medina was through the Bab Boujeloud, the very atractive Blue Gate constructed by the French in 1913.

    We had explored the old Fès el-Bali and been enthralled by its heady mix of history and commerce; now we spent a little time in Fès el-Jedid, the so-called new part. The main sight was Dar el-Makhzen, the 14th century royal complex which covers more than 80 hectares (195 acres). In fact, we could only see the main entrance, with its huge and imposing brass doors, on the Place des Alaouites. From here, we drove through the mellah, the former Jewish quarter of the city. The name probably comes from the Arabic word for saline land and this quarter is thought to be the first Jewish enclave in Morocco.

    The last visit of a very full day was to a ceramic factory called "Art Naji" where we saw demonstrations of working with clay and painting of pottery. Roger was willing to buy some tilework (we purchased some lovely work in Istanbul), but there was nothing which appealed to us here. We returned to the hotel after an expedition of some eight and half hours.

    The 'official' bit was over, but some of us were not finished with Fès. That evening, half the group - including Roger & Vee - went out for a terrific time of local entertainmemnt. The venue was called "Palais la Medina" (as the name suggests, it was back in the old city). It was a beautifully-restored building with a slightly raised stage where our group sat on one side up on the stage.

    There were four musicians playing traditional instruments: drums called darbouka, a type of tambourine called bendir, a stringed instrument called kamanja, and a kind of lute. The main show consisted of a group of drummers, followed by a magician, and finally three individual dancers. Roger was invited to join both the first and the second of the dancers and wiggled his hips and flexed his stomach before incorporating some special hand movements borrowed from the film "Pulp Fiction"! The last of the dancers was a belly dancer - she was not in the same class as the four that Roger & Vee saw in Istanbul, but she could move and did exotic things with flaming spits.

    All this would have been enough for a fun evening, but the best was to come. Vee had been led away to experience "a surprise" and reappeared about 20 minutes later together with two other members of the international audience. Vee and a Greek woman had been dressed and made up as Moroccan brides, while a Frenchman had been kitted out as a groom. Vee was hoist aloft in a kind of decorative basket that is used to present the bride at Moroccan weddings and then the three of them danced on the stage. Vee looked marvellous and she absolutely LOVED it ("I feel so special").


    Vee (left) as a Moroccan bride
    with a Frenchman and a Greek woman


    How come that Vee didn't marry Roger in such style?

    RABAT

    On Thursday morning at 9.20 am, we left Fès to travel west to the Atlantic coast to visit the current capital of Rabat, a journey of 198 km (124 miles). It was a pleasant, sunny day as we drove along, passing sellers of such things as asparagus, snails, thyme and juniper berries. We made a coffee stop at the berber town of Khemisset and reached Rabat at 1.15 pm. Here we began with lunch in the "Sardi restaurant" before we made a short tour of the city.

    Excavations have shown that the Romans occupied the area and around 1150 the Almohad dynasty built a small imperial residence here. However, it was the French who moved the capital to Rabat in 1912. Today it is the political, administrative and financial capital of Morocco with a population of 1.23 million.

    For our city tour, we had a local guide whose English accent made him almost incoherent, but we were all impressed to find that he was aged 75. The tour began with a look outside the Royal Palace with its attendant guards in traditional costume.


    One of gates to the Royal Palace

    Next stop was the remarkable Chellah Necropolis. As we entered through the imposing Almohad gate, two black performers played and danced for us (and for money). The very oldest element of this complex is the remains of the Roman settlement of Sala Colonia, but most of the structure dates from the early 14th century when the first Merenid caliph Abou Yacoub Yousef built a mosque (the minaret still stands) and a necropolis for his wife and it subsequently was used to bury him and his successors. The latest occupants of this atmospheric location are the storks who migrate here every spring from the southern Sahara. The stork is Morocco's national bird and here in the necropolis we saw lots and lots of them really close up, occupying nests that were mostly cartwheel-shaped but sometimes tower-shaped.

    From here, we went over to see the Hassan Tower and opposite it the Mausoleum of Mohammed V.


    Vee with an equestrian guard to
    the Hassan Tower and Mohammed V Mausoleum

    The tower is huge: a grandiose minaret 44 metres (144 feet high) which was even higher until the earthquake of 1755. It was intended to stand over a 12th century mosque as a monument to Yacoub al-Mansour. However, he died in 1199, just four years after work began on the building, and his successors were too busy feuding to complete the construction. Today 220 columns stand silently as testimony to the intended mosque.

    The mausoluem is a contemporary structure built by order of the King Hassan II for his father Mohammed V who led the country to independence from the French. It was designed by the Vietnamese architect Vo Toan and constructed of white Italian marble with the help of 400 Moroccan craftsmen. This is one Moroccan building that tourists can enter and the ornate structure houses the tombs of Mohammed V himself, his son Hassan II and Hassan's brother. The whole complex includes a mosque and a museum devoted to the history of the Alaouite dynasty. Before we left, we witnessed the 5 pm ceremony of the lowering of the Moroccan flag - a green, five-pointed star on a blood-red background.

    Last stop was a charming Andalusian garden, located in the Oudaïa Kasbah and laid out in Moorish style at the beginning of the 20th century. Here we sampled the delights of Moroccan pastries, notably something called kaab ghzahl. The name means literally gazelle's horns because the the pastry pieces are crescent-shaped. They are stuffed with almonds, sugar, butter, orange-flower water and gum arabic and they taste gorgeous.

    Driving past the old medina, we found our accommodation for the night: Hotel Oumlil [click here].

    CASABLANCA

    It was Friday, so it must be Casablanca - a relatively short journey 80 kms (50 miles) south-west from Rabat, paralleling the Atlantic coast. However, two things were different: for the only time in Morocco, we travelled on a motorway and, on the last day of our trip, it was bright sunshine.

    In the 7th century, Casablanca was no more than a small berber settlement. It was only in the early part of the 20th century, under the French protectorate, that the location was substantially developed and, since then, growth has been rapid. It is today easily Morocco's largest city (the population is around 4 million) - as well as one of the largest in Africa - and serves as the commercial and industrial hub of the nation.

    It only took us about an hour to reach Casa (as it is often known), but it took us a further half an hour to battle through heavy traffic to the city centre. There was no sign of the famous "Rick's Café" from the 1942 movie because, of course, the whole thing was filmed in Hollywood. Instead, as we edged down the busy Avenue des Forces Armées Royales, we could have been in any one of dozens of large cities around the world. We stopped in the Mohammed V Square, the administrative heart of of Casablanca where one finds the Préfecture, the law courts, and the central post office. However, it was a dull place for tourists with the fountain off and a few whirling pigeons.

    Much more interesting and very much more impressive was the next stop at the Hassan II Mosque. Attractively located overlooking the Atlantic, this is the second largest mosque in the world (after the one at Mecca) with a prayer hall that can accommodate 25,000 people and space for 80,000 more on the esplanade outside. It has one of the world's tallest minarets (200 metres/650 feet) and at night laser beams reach over 30 km (18.5 miles) in the direction of Mecca. The building was designed by Michel Pinseau, decorated by 35,000 craftsmen, and opened in 1993.


    The wonderful Hassan II Mosque

    The Hassan II Mosque is one of the very few religious buildings in Morocco that can be visited by non-Muslims, except on the prayer day of Friday - and of course it was Friday. Only one of our group, who came from Bangladesh, was able to enter the prayer hall with its cedar-panelled dome.

    In a suburb of Casa, we had an early lunch at the Galaxy Hotel, before we made the return back to our original starting point of Marrakech - a journey of 238 kms (149 miles). As we left the city, there were soldiers and policement lining both sides of the road to the airport because of the visit by the American politician William Burns who is Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.

    MARRAKECH AGAIN

    Casablanca to Marrakech is 238 kms (149 miles). As we made our way due south, it was back to a single-lane road and more trundling. We passed through the deep red earth and by the phosphate mines of the Plateau des Beni-Meskine and had a refreshment stop just before Skhour-Rehamna. At 6.30 pm, we were back at the same hotel as a week ago: Hotel Atlas [click here].

    For those that wanted it (and Roger & Vee are always up for everything on these trips), there was one last treat: for 420 dirhams (£26) a head, an evening on the outskirts of Marrakech at a "fantasia" called "Chez Ali".


    Roger and Vee arriving at "Chez Ali"
    with a couple of local friends

    The first part of the evening was a traditional Moroccan meal served in huge, decorated tents. The first course was a Ramadan soup called harira which consists of meat, vegetables, rice and spices; next came a roast lamb dish known as mechoui, cooked in time-honoured fashion in wood ovens; this was followed by coucous royal, a kind of semolina that is the best-known and most ubiquitous of Moroccan foods; and finally there were Moroccan cakes, fruit and mint tea. As we ate, around half a dozen different musical groups sang and danced their way from tent to tent, announcing their arrival with loud warbling ululation.

    The second part of the evening involved everyone leaving their tents and gathering around a huge track for a special show. This began with a belly dancer performing on a raised platform in the centre; then there was a display of equestrian acrobatics; next came the Moroccan speciality of galloping Arabian stallions whose riders simultaneously let off their muskets to ear-splitting effect; and the finale was an Arabic version of the choral piece "O Fortuna" sung to the accompaniment of a firework display. Our guide Abdullah told us: "Some peoplesay that it is touristy - but you're tourists, aren't you?". We certainly thought that it was a fun way to end the holiday.

    The alarm went at 5.30 am (!) on Saturday morning for our return flight home. We had had Mick Jagger on the trip out and we found that we had the entrepreneur Richard Branson on the one back - obviously Marrakech is the 'in' place. And what did we find back in London? - weather of 21C (70F), warmer (and certainly drier) than most of our time in Morocco.

    CONCLUSION

    Morocco is a fascinating country: physically part of north Africa, but culturally very much influenced by the occupation of France from 1912-1956 (all signs are in French as well as Arabic); a monarchy, now under King Mohammed VI, but a fledgling democracy with 15 political parties; profoundly traditional with 3,000 years of history, but drawn to modernism with almost 40% of its population under 15; comprehensively Muslim, but not fundamentalist and genuinely tolerant of different ways of dressing and behaving.

    It is a country to watch.


    One of the fascinating citizens of Morocco

    Links:
    Adventures in Morocco click here
    Moroccan history and culture click here
    Tourism in Morocco click here
    Ian and Wendy's site click here


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