MOROCCO: LAND OF MEDINAS, MINARETS AND MYSTERY
Morocco conjures up images of medinas, minarets – and mystery. A land of exotic perfumes, plaintive music, intrigue and romance à la Bogart and Bergman.
Casablanca, the first place on my itinerary isn't any of the above. It is a large commercial metropolis, bland as any other international hub. Traffic flows along broad boulevards and the sidewalks are busy with business-suited executives, camera toting tourists and women in flowing caftans. Nothing special.
Ah, but hang on! I walk into the King Hussein II mosque, and my impressions shift. A blend of Moorish and traditional Moroccan architecture, the mosque boasts extravagantly painted wood ceilings, intricately tiled mosaic walls, and flamboyant chandeliers: the result of seven years' hard work by 10,000 artists, craftsmen and builders. The tour takes about an hour, and I emerge onto a broad terrace, dazzled by more than just the strong sunlight and the view across an intensely blue Atlantic Ocean.
My companions – an all-women group – are mostly from the USA and are new acquaintances to me and to one another. We drive out of Casablanca, make a brief stop in Rabat, where a couple of horse guards stand at the entrance to the Mohammed V mausoleum, the resting place of two Alouite kings.
Then, on to the delightful Kasbah des Oudaias. It is mid-day and the ramparts of the Kasbah rear against a blazing blue sky; the sun is violent, hard, throwing sharp-edged shadows against the stone steps.
Inside the Kasbah, we thread our way through narrow lanes, flanked by blue walls, and I pause to photograph doors framed by bougainvillea creepers and tropical ferns. Cats doze under awnings, a bike rests casually near an open doorway, a small girl at a window smiles tentatively at me as I walk by. The lanes open up to a terrace, its ramparts overlooking an expanse of ocean with the buildings of Rabat, like stacks of children's blocks, in the distance.
Our days are as varied as the surroundings through which we drive: the high Atlas mountains, where the road snakes and curls along barren rocky cliffs their edges falling away vertiginously into deep canyons, or the Sahara at dawn with dunes striped in waves of light and shadow and loping camels silhouetted against the sky like cut-out figures.
One afternoon we make an all too short halt at the spectacular Todra Gorge. The enormous walls of the canyon shadow a little stream and at the far end of the cleft, the rock face is bathed in golden sunlight. Two tribeswomen pose for my camera in exchange for a handful of dirhams.
No Moroccan experience would be complete without sampling its cuisine: succulent spiced lamb or beef garnished with olives and almonds often washed down with mint tea.
Photo 6. Moroccan sweet stall
A cooking class is on the itinerary, but first a shopping trip for fresh vegetables and spices takes us into the souk in Fes, a maze-like market of cobble-stoned aisles where shoppers and vendors haggle at top decibel, where decapitated goats' heads are on display, and roosters perched on baskets crow lustily. We huddle to the side as men pushing carts of who-knows-what under burlap wraps bawl a warning. The scent of oranges mingles with the smell of fish. Later, armed with the spoils of our expedition, we chop, peel, mix, stir and savor the result of our labors, or more truthfully, the creation of our chef-teacher. The chicken in a thick spiced gravy served up on a traditional clay terrine sits in the centre of the table, and using our fingers, we break off tender chunks of meat with pieces of flat bread.
Later in our trip we are hosted to an overnight stay with a Berber family. The accommodation is Spartan, but the welcome is warm. We take part in the everyday tasks of the household, making bread, cooking a meal and watching the procedure involved in properly brewing mint tea.
Photo 13. Mosque exterior – Fes medina
When I return home after a trip, a pastiche of memories flicker by like a slide show in the mind's eye: old walled medinas with their alleyways, secretive and mysterious, the haunting call to prayer from tall minarets; the vitality of the huge Jemaa el Fnaa square in Marrakech, with snake handlers, drummers, acrobats and jugglers playing to the crowds; the clop of horses, magnificent animals drawing carriages filled with tourists, and at nightfall, the smoky smell of kebabs on the grill, and small arrows of fireworks zipping into the night sky. Magnifique!
Photo 19. Emerging from the medina, Marrakech
IF YOU GO:
• Indus Travels has Women Only Tours http://www.indus.travel/women-only-tours and offers the option of waiving the single supplement.
• For general information on their trips go to Indus Travel's Homepage http://www.indus.travel/about-indus-travels
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
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