Morocco: Where history and colour collide

2017-01-15 06:56 - Kate Turkington
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There are few places as richly rewarding for a visitor as Morocco. Kate Turkington headed for Marrakech, and from there into the Sahara desert.

Faint streaks of dawn are appearing in the Sahara sky as I talk to a camel called Bob Marley, who’s lying in the sand beside me and definitely not listening. He’s watching the rest of his mates as they disappear over the undulating sand sea, making for the high dunes in order to catch the sunrise. On their backs are my mates – a long, long way from Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. The sun slowly appears over the horizon – sensationally beautiful – and it’s yet another wow moment in Morocco.

Bob Marley bares his long teeth in what might just be a smile.

A feast for the eyes

Morocco is a marvellous destination. Think deserts, towering mountains, rocky gorges that block out the sky, centuries-old mud villages that blend almost invisibly into red mountain backgrounds, souks or open-air markets where fresh food, carpets, silverware, traditional medicines and potions, and baubles, bangles and beads are traded as they have been for hundreds of years. Imagine Berber kasbahs, great fortresses of high walls, once Salt Road strongholds, that still today enclose tiny alleys, narrow streets, ancient doors and windows, minuscule shops, public fountains, and robed men and women going about their lives.

And everywhere, whether it’s the soaring snowcapped mountains of the High Atlas, the ancient cedar forests in the Middle Atlas region, the whitewashed seaside towns or fertile oases, mosques or minarets, once-mighty Roman cities or maze-like medinas, you will be drenched in colour. Landscapes and people dazzle the eye. Look! There’s an orange-turbaned desert guide or red-robed woman; here’s a blue city where everything is painted in a vibrant palette of dozens of different blues; over there is a tortoiseshell cat curled up comfortably on a traditionally patterned handmade orange rug.

Welcome to Marrakech

My journey starts in Marrakech. The very name conjures up romantic images. In the daytime, the main square of Jemaa el Fna is abuzz with vendors, snake charmers, drummers, flute and trumpet players, locals, shoppers, and tourists. Elegant (if a bit weatherworn) horse-drawn carriages offer mini excursions into the souks, bazaars and walled medina. At night, the square becomes a foodie’s paradise. Dozens of stalls mushroom out of the cobbles, offering salad, bean soups, Moroccan-style fresh fish and frites (remember that Morocco was once a French protectorate), kebabs, dates, nuts, olives and sweetmeats. Fresh mint tea washes down our lentil soup and lemon crépes.

Remember, too, that Morocco is a Muslim country, albeit a very relaxed one, so if you need a tipple, take along your own bottle of whiskey or whatever. There is local wine but it’s not particularly palatable.

Apart from Marrakech’s historic places such as the splendid 16th century Saadian Tombs or Bahia Palace, be sure to visit the Jardin Majorelle, where French artist Jacques Majorelle built one of the most charming gardens in the world. Painted blue, blue, blue, it’s home to exotic plants and rare species from all over the world, and has a fine Berber museum showcasing the extraordinary creativity of North Africa’s oldest people, and a poignant memorial to French couturier Yves Saint-Laurent, who bought the garden in 1980. Browse the gift shop if you have very deep pockets.

Into the desert

From Marrakech, we drive to the whitewashed seaside town of Essaouira (pronounced: Swa-ra). Two of our group try horse riding along the far-stretching sands; most of us wander through the souks enclosed behind the ancient walls of the medina and shop. One of the most memorable things about Morocco is that nearly everything is handmade; forget “Made in China”. The silver jewellery, the oils and perfumes, the carpets and furniture, and the colourful clothing are being made as you watch. We stop at a women’s cooperative where the precious Argan oil is extracted by hand from Argan nuts. It’s claimed to restore youth and beauty and to cure everything from warts, to allergies and heartburn. (Of course, we all bought some!)

The next day we follow the old Salt Road camel caravan route to the Sahara and the Unesco World Heritage Site of Aït Benhaddou. You may not recognise the name, but if you’ve seen Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia or Jesus of Nazareth, or watched Game of Thrones, you’ll feel right at home. It’s authentic and not built for making movies. This village of clustered Berber kasbahs has stood here for generations. We climb to the top; a steep, quite hazardous stumble over rocky pathways, up crumbling steps through narrow labyrinths, and on our way down cross perilously over the stepping stones of the wide river below.

Ancient and blue cities

Next we drive through gorges, green valleys and more towering mountains to the ancient city of Fez. Inside the high medieval walls of the medina, we discover a complexity of more tiny alleyways and narrow streets – donkeys have right of way – where bakers, cloth dyers, tanners, potters, copper beaters, silversmiths and craftspeople of all kinds ply their trade in tiny shops in tiny medieval grottoes.

In the north, we all fall in love with the blue city of Chefchaouen, where Moorish, Spanish and Moroccan architectures rub shoulders. One of my companions remarks that it’s “like stepping into Hogwarts”. The modern world is instantly forgotten as you browse the stalls, pavement displays, weavers at their looms and city ramparts. We dine high on the roof of our riad (local hotel) and watch another spectacular sunset paint golden the high walls of the town.

Don’t ask me about Moroccan highlights. There are just too many (although the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, with its tessellated pavements, triumphal arch and aqueduct set high on a plateau overlooking olive groves and wheat fields is one of my favourites, as was the night in the Sahara desert camp).

You’ll just have to go and see for yourself – and give my regards to Bob Marley.

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