A Week in Morocco

A week in Morocco visiting the souks of Marrakesh, the gorges and Sahara desert and a relaxing couple of days by the beach in Essaouira.


A Week in Morocco

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by nickj on August 22, 2000

Morocco

Sun, surf and sand. Lot's of sand. Lot's of camels too.

After failing to cross into Africa during my European vacation I was determined to return and managed to talk two foolish house mates into accompanying me. I spent twelve days in Marrakech, the High Atlas mountains, the deserts and on the Atlantic coast soaking up the sun.

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Morocco - Part 1

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by nickj on August 22, 2000

Morocco

Sun, surf and sand. Lot's of sand. Lot's of camels too.

After failing to cross into Africa during my European vacation I was determined to return and managed to talk two foolish house mates into accompanying me. I spent twelve days in Marrakech, the High Atlas mountains, the deserts and on the Atlantic coast soaking up the sun.

I flew direct from London to Marrakech on a new British Airways route designed to ferry the pasty white British public to the heart of sunny Morocco.

Stepping off the air conditioned plane into the 35 degree heat of Marrakech's summer was only slightly less of a shock than stepping out of the stuffy and formal British culture into the warm and effusive Arabic culture of Morocco. The Arabs, renowned for their hospitality the world over are truly the most amicable of peoples. They will greet you on the street as if you are an old friend and, for the most part, cordially invite you into their homes or shops to share some mint tea and chat.

But within the velvet glove of their friendly handshake comes the iron fist of 1000 years of trader-culture. The most abiding memory you will have of Morocco will probably be of how everybody, and I mean everybody, tried to sell you a carpet.

Don't get me wrong – I bear them no malice, any of them. All of them, from the shoe shine boy who tried to polish my boots eight times in as many minutes to the Berber who tried to get me to swap my T-shirt for a £2000 carpet were lovely, hospitable and charming. I just wish that, occasionally, they wouldn't bother.

My own experience of Moroccan commerce started with the souks of Marrakech. While, to me, this was a fairly overpowering introduction it is apparently nothing compared to the tactics employed in the frontier port of Tangiers. One group of American students we met had literally been badgered into purchasing carpets by tactics that would have made Saddam Hussein or the Gestapo proud.

In Marrakech they are a little more restrained. They won't actually lay hands upon you but they will use the entire handbook of hard sales tactics in order to bludgeon you into buying some useless trinket. I can only presume that this practice is sustained by hordes of tourists who do in fact find a use for a copper ash tray in the shape of a blowfly, an imitation 14th century flintlock musket or a hand knotted carpet which is only slightly smaller than a football field, took 12 years to make and cost three lives in the process.

And before you convince yourself that you actually got a bargain by buying something at half the price you would have paid for it at home you should consider where it came from. It probably came into the hands of the merchant from a Berber or Touareg tribesman who swapped it for something trivial but valuable, like food. The merchant is therefore making approximately five-thousand percent profit on your hard fought deal. Stick that in your kif-pipe and smoke it.

The souk in the Djemma El Fna in Marrakech does make a fabulous sight though. By day the square is filled with snake charmers, petty merchants, water sellers and a horde of foreign and domestic tourists. Around the edges of the square are a line of stalls from which you can buy freshly squeezed orange juice and various food stuffs roasted over open fires.

By night the food vendors remain but the others are replaced with small groups huddled around the harsh white light of the gas lamp of an acrobat, jugglers or story teller. Men play dice or cards on upturned fruit boxes, beggars roam the crowd seeking gratuities and a steady line of beige Mercedes-taxis ferry more people into the square. From a distance the flickering light of the gas lamps reflects off the rising smoke from the barbecues and combines with the dull, throbbing roar of the crowd to give the place an infernal aspect.

Marrakech is anything but dull.

If, after a time the pace of life in Marrakech palls you can leave the city and head out into the 'country' side which, while not dull, is certainly less populated.

This is exactly what we chose to do on our second night in Marrakech. Aided by a very helpful multilingual woman from the Hotel Ali where we were staying we organised a four day tour into the wilds of Morocco.

A number of companies run independent tours in Morocco which allow you to experience the country in your own time although with not quite the same level of comfort as an organised coach tour. The Hotel Ali gave us access to a number of these and we finally settled on a four day tour south of Marrakech into the mountains, desert and gorges.

The first night of our excursion took us south across the High Atlas to the desert near Zagora. The Atlas is a mountain range to rival any in the world and although most of the peaks are not snow-capped at this time of year they are still magnificent. The highlight of the road over the Atlas comes at Tizni-Tichit the col at 3000m. To either side the bare flanks of the mountains drop towards the valleys below. The peaks of the mountains rise up to another 1000m with the highest being Jebel Toubkal at 4167m.


Morocco - Part 2

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by nickj on August 22, 2000

After the mountains you drop down into a barren and stony plane which extends pretty much to the Mauritanian border interrupted only briefly by the Anti-Atlas a few hundred kilometres to the south. Zagora lies in the middle of this plane, quite close to the border with Mauritania.

At Zagora we traded the minibus for a train of evil smelling and cantankerous camels and headed out into the desert. Desert, in this case, being a comparative term. To Western European eyes the stony landscape with the occasional dune probably resembles a desert but compared to what we were to later encounter on our trip it was relatively hospitable.

That night we camped with our Berber guides, dined with them and slept under the stars. Actually we slept very little, under the stars or otherwise. The Berbers are enthusiastic musicians and strict Muslims. These two factors combine for a particularly raucous night when some of your party smuggle along some vodka to share round the evening camp fire. The supposedly tee-totalling Berbers take to drink like ducks to water and are staggering around banging their drums to a beat only they can hear and generally being exasperatingly congenial. Eventually the last of them staggered off to sleep and we did too, tired from an evenings interactive entertainment and sore from a long ride clutching desperately at the rotund back of a camel with our knees.

However the prolonged agony of a ride back to civilisation atop our 'ships of the desert' awaited and we awoke to a perfunctory breakfast and another long ride back.

The whole experience was rather magical but I won't devote too much attention to it here since it was surpassed by the similar experience we had in the Sahara the following night.

Upon reaching Zagora we clambered aboard the bus with expressions sullen enough to dampen the enthusiasm of our cheerful driver Mohammed.

The drive that day went West along the border towards a little town called Merzouga. Merzouga is a small town with its only attraction being its proximity to Morocco's only Saharan 'erg' or dune. The landscape around Merzouga is as blasted and featureless as the surface of the moon and consists largely of a rolling plane of black volcanic rock. As we picked our way across this plane the driver directed the van behind one of the larger hills and we cruised up the side of it.

As we crested the hill we got our first glimpse of the Sahara. The orange sand of the largest dunes stand about twenty storeys high and tower over the few buildings nearby. The sand simply spills onto the black plane as though some absent minded giant had tipped over his bucket.

From the foot of these dunes we once more set off on camel back this time into the true desert. For an hour we saw nothing but dunes as our guide led us on a circuitous path which followed no apparent route nor markers. Eventually however we crested one more dune and were confronted with a cluster of black Berber tents at the edge of a green oasis. Now the oasis lacked standing water but obviously trapped enough moisture to support the cluster of plants within.

Our guide sent us off to exhaust ourselves climbing the giant dunes nearby and set up to cook us dinner. We clambered up the slippery flank of the nearest dune but only managed a couple of hundred feet before we surrendered in the growing darkness on one of the lesser peaks.

Returning to the camp we clustered around the stove and our guide dished up plates of steaming stew to share. The Berber eat around the fire, a plate of stew is placed in the centre of the circle for the diners to dip thick wads of bread into (with the right hand only!) and everyone shares the food. Desert follows as a plate of melon divide up, again to share. The stew was excellent and the sitting under the pale moon in the midst of the rolling desert contributed not a little to the experience.

After dinner entertainment consisted of a group choral session with one of the African Berbers leading us in local songs set to the beat of his drums. The solo's were a little strangled and pathetic but as long as there were more than three of us it didn't sound too bad.

Later we again slept under the stars which were sadly dimmed by the over-bright full moon which beat down like a frigid sun. Sleep was fitful at best due to this and the active presence of five small kittens around the camp. As we all waned they came alive and seemed to find our inattentiveness intolerable. You could track their approach by the muffled curses which progressed along the line of sleeping figures as they prodded, poked, licked and purred the unfortunate recipient in to wakefulness. I remember at one point waking up to the sound of a noisy expletive and seeing a kitten sail through the air above my head about six feet off the ground. The little critter must have quite enjoyed the experience because not thirty seconds later there was the same muffled expletive and the same kitten flicked passed me again, this time heading up hill.

Unfortunately another long camel trek awaited us and some of the party were reluctant to rise until our guide rolled them out of bed. After an hour on the camels we were able to board a more civilised form of transport and head north out of Merzouga.


Morocco - Part 3

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by nickj on August 24, 2000

From Merzouga we turned west into the Draa valley and the Todra and Dades gorges. The Todra was first, a tight, narrow gorge with sheer sides about 300m tall. A spring at the end of the gorge fuels a little stream which runs down into the plane and two hotels sit, inside the gorge, at the source of the spring.

I was delighted to find that the Todra is excellent climbing country and has been already bolted so that aspiring climbers like me don't need to bring too much gear to climb it. A return trip might be in order with some equipment, a climbing partner and a week or so to explore.

The second gorge the Dades is larger and more well populated. A small town (Boulamne du Dades) extends out of the gorge and into the desert. The gorge is also the home of a number of large and decaying kasbah's (fortress) that make spectacular sights against the knobbly hills of the gorge.

We spent the night in a hotel located in the heart of the gorge and arose in the morning to the traditional breakfast of fresh bread, potent coffee and apricot jam. (While this sounds appetizing enough, it pales after nine or fifteen consecutive breakfasts. This appears to be the only breakfast available in Morocco. From Essaouria to Zagora I didn't see a single thing at brekky except for coffee, bread and apricot jam).

From the gorges it was another long bus ride back over the mountains to Marrakech.

That night in Marrakech the tour group decided to hang together for one final celebratory dinner which didn't include couscous, tagine or brochettes. We finally settled on a pizzeria that was listed in the Lonely Planet as being licensed, a rare and beautiful thing in Morocco. When we arrived however we were informed by a regretful maitre'd that they had lost their liquor license two years ago because someone had finally noticed that they were selling liquor within a stone's throw of the largest mosque in Marrakesh, the Koutoubia. However, one of our party was escorted by a waiter to a seedy basement store where he was able to purchase a case of beer and a bottle of wine so our celebration didn't have to go unmoistened.

The next day we split up with some of us going some north to Fes, Tangiers and Spain and the rest west to the Atlantic coast and the seaside resort of Essaouria. Two of the American girls and the token Frenchman also joined us later in Essaouira.

Essaouira is said to be a fantastic Moroccan town in which you can take a break from Morocco. It certainly is more relaxed and friendly and although a certain amount of hustling still goes on it is positively amicable.

On our last night there we were approached by one street corner hawker who offered to swap anything for our shoes. Carpets, jewellery, other shoes, camels, you name it – it all could be had for a pair of Western style adventure sandals.

The relaxed life style in Essaouira probably comes from its proximity to the sea. While Marrakech was baking in 45° C, Essaouira was a lovely but windy 28° C. The sea also offers the best attractions of Essaouira, seafood and windsurfing.

Essaouira boasts what is reputed to be Morocco's finest restaurant (I doubt it) in the seafood Restataurant du Port, Chez Sam's. We dined their one night on Sea Bass taken from the mornings catch on the wharves no more than 5m away. There are also a host of restaurants slightly less salubrious than Chez Sam's and a fantastic outdoor barbecue market where you can get fish, prawns, calamari and clams caught that day and cooked in front of you. The market costs somewhere between 20dh and 60dh for a meal (£1-4) including salad and bread (the same meal in London would cost me in excess of £40).

Our favourite haunt in Essaouira though was the Café Taros above the main square. The café was quiet, served good coffee and featured a smarmy, wise cracking waiter who's only response when I inquired if he could tell me what the desert du jour was, was 'Oui!'.

We spent four nights in Essaouira before we once again split up and went our separate ways. I was sadly going home and back to work, most of them were staying in Essaouira and Gareth, with only a little effort, had been persuaded to go off to Fes, Meknes and Volubilis with the two American girls.

The main thing Morocco taught me though was how small the world really is. We met various odd people there, including a small brown child who accosted us in the street and demanded to know which suburb of London we came from – it turned out he went to school in Walthamstow, but the oddest was definitely the rastafarian. This skinny brown gentleman snuck up on us in the main square of Essaouira and joined in the conversation. After a while I noticed he was talking with a fairly broad but weird Australian/Moroccan accent and asked him where he picked up the Aussie accent.

'I'm an Australian mate' he replied.

'Yeah right – where are you from ?'

Turns out he was from Perth. He spent two years living in Northbridge, playing football for the Perth Glory and surfing in Margaret River. He ended up in Essaouira for a kite surfing competition.

Now, I'm back at work in smoggy London, riding the packed tube to work and eating frozen dinners. But it's not all bad, no-one has tried to sell me a carpet in the last 72 hours.


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