I spent just over a week in Morocco. As time was of the essence I had to choose my destinations carefully. One was chosen for me - Rabat, as it was the reason for coming - a business trip. Having said that, it's a nice enough place and built in a similar fashion to most of the cities of French North Africa, having a modern French town (la nouvelle ville) and an old Arab town (the medina). The French town is planned in a grid and has the usual amenities. The Arab town is far more interesting, having many narrow alleys, all the hustle and bustle, and plenty of handicrafts for sale, admittedly the same as you would get over all North Africa - pretty filigree metal lamps, carpets, brightly glazed pottery, and sheeshas (hubbly bubblies). As it is not primarily a tourist town, however, you won't get hassled.
There are also plenty of little cheap restaurants selling the Moroccan staple - tajine, basically a rather dry stew, often with raisins or prunes - and always very tasty. The name itself comes from the dish it is cooked and served in - a shallow porcelain bowl with a conical top.
For my remaining days, I chose to head for the tourist centre of Marrakesh and the increasingly popular little resort of Essaouria. I was fortunate to get a lift, and so the four-hour drive passed quickly. The landscape was pretty flat and featureless, although it changed appreciably from the green north to the dry south. We stopped off along the way for a meal at a large truck stop lined with many butchers and barbeque stalls. The grilled lamb was excellent and certainly fresh as most stalls displayed live sheep, freshly skinned animals, and hanging carcasses. This was washed down with some tea flavoured with absinthe, a local speciality.
After getting dropped on the outskirts of town, I took a taxi into the centre telling the driver to head for Hotel Ali. Initially I thought the taxi driver was playing silly buggers, as he told me to get out with no Hotel Ali in sight. He pointed me up the road and was off in a cloud of petrol fumes as soon as I had paid him off. Arriving in a strange town at night and having no idea where your hotel is is a bit unnerving, but in this case, the taxi driver couldn't have driven me to the hotel door, as the centre of Marrakesh has been pedestrianised. I found the hotel easily enough, as it is something of a local landmark. Situated pretty much in the centre of things I didn't stray too far away for the next few days.
Marrakesh has been attracting travellers for many years, and even in these first few minutes, I could feel its buzz. For a start, unlike most North African towns, there were plenty of people strolling about at night, and the cafes were teeming. While I was checking in, I was attracted by the aroma of barbeques wafting by on the evening breeze. I dropped my bags off, and within minutes I was at the very heart of Marrakesh - the Place Djemaa el-Fna, a huge square, but teeming with people, smells, and an atmosphere of bygone times. There were groups of people gathered around acrobats performing tricks, monkeys performing more tricks, snake charmers, medicine men, henna artists, and dancers. There was another area identifiable by the huge clouds of smoke issuing from barbeques. On the edges of the square were the cafes filled with observers. I now knew something of why Marrakesh had been attracting people for years - but interestingly there were few tourists.
The next few days I wandered around the labyrinthine passageways which form Marakesh's markets, browsing the goods for sale and escaping the hubbub in some excellent museums housed in former palaces. These museums are well worth a visit, if only for the calm, cool serenity of their open courtyards and the wonderful tiles.
After Marrakesh, I headed by bus to the coast - a four-hour drive to the pretty resort town of Essaouira. Essaouira is definitely on the map, as it is pushing itself as a bit of a resort town. It is quite famous on the windsurfing circuit, and there is also an annual world music festival. There are also plenty of handicraft shops (especially woodwork) and Western-style restaurants. Judging from the window of the local real estate office, foreigners were also being attracted to the local houses. Despite all this, it was still at that perfect stage where it retained an age-old charm and the majority of people got on with their lives as they had for hundreds of years. Only time will tell how fast this will change.
Make sure you check out more descriptions and photos of North Africa and beyond on the website Wanderings Africa.