Leisure & Travel

Marvels of Mysterious Morocco

The favoured holiday destination of europeans, particularly high-end french tourists, morocco offers vibrant arab and berber culture, colourful souks, medieval medinas and sun-soaked beaches. Kalpana Rangan reports

A visit to Morocco will confirm that North Africa is not all desert, dunes, camels and oases. On the contrary, this exotic country is the favoured holiday destination of Europeans, particularly high-end French tourists, who flock there to unveil its mysteries. With its vibrant Arab and Berber culture, colourful souks, medieval medinas and beautiful women — a heady cocktail — it guarantees a perfect holiday. So, a recent nine-day sojourn confined to Morocco provided surprises galore. With a good dose of African joie de vivre, it offered one of the most exciting holidays this writer has ever experienced.

Also known in Arabic as ‘al-Maghrib’ and officially referred to as the Kingdom of Morocco (pop. 33 million), the country is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. Bordering with Mauritania to the south, Algeria to the east and the coastal Mediterranean Spanish North African territories of Ceuta and Melilla in the north, Morocco is separated from Gibraltar in Europe by the narrow eponymous strait and has two coastlines — the long, sandy North Atlantic and the shorter, more cliffy Mediterranean.

Far from being a sandy desert, a significant proportion of the 446,500 sq. km territory of this kingdom is mountainous. The Atlas Mountains dominate the central and southern terrain of the country and the Rift Mountains loom large in the north. Most Moroccans are either Arabised Berbers (99 percent) or ethnic Berbers, and practice liberal Sunni Islam. The medium of communication is Moroccan Berber or variants. However, most middle class Moroccans speak fluent French.

Given its strategic location as the African nation nearest to Europe, throughout its history, Morocco has attracted foreign invaders including Arab rulers keen to access the Mediterranean. In its recorded history spanning 12 centuries — from the time it was founded by the Idrisid dynasty of Saudi Arabia as the first Islamic autonomous nation of the Arab world until 1956, when it wrested political independence from France and Spain — Morocco was shaped by the confl-uence of numerous Islamic and European cultures.

Casablanca. Morocco’s port and bustling business capital, Casablanca (5.5 million) is its most Franco-phone city featuring elegant Parisian boulevards and culture in general. Most of its buildings in New Town — a combination of Hispano-Mauresque and Art Deco styles — and its Corniche reminiscent of the Champs-de-Elysees in Paris were designed by the French architect Henry Post. Unsurprisingly, French-style cafes line the boulevards of Casablanca and most buildings, restaurants and shops sport French names. If you speak French you’ll feel perfectly at home in Casablanca!

The usual starting point of visitors to Morocco, Casablanca was once the independent kingdom of Anfa, estab-lished by a Berber chieftain in the 7th century. By the 14th century, under the Merinids dynasty, it matured into a port city, attracting the attention of Portu-guese merchant adventurers and colonists who destroyed the town and built a military fortress on its ruins in 1515. The Portuguese named the town Casa Blanca (White House). In 1755, an earthquake destroyed most of the city prompting European colonists (Portu-guese and French) to abandon the area completely. But Sultan Mohammed ben Abdullah (1756-1790) stepped into the breach to reconstruct the city with the help of Spaniards, and named it Casablanca. In the early 20th century following the decline of Iberian power, France emerged as the dominant power in North Africa and colonised Morocco and neighbouring Algeria, transforming Casablanca into one of the largest artificial ports worldwide.

On a crisp and lovely morning, we started our tour of Casablanca with a drive to the Corniche, a thriving resort area lined with fine sea-food restaurants, bars and nightclubs, lapped by the waters of the Atlantic. The day was spent walking on the cobbled pathways and admiring the natural beauty of the city and its architectural highlights, while enjoying a slice of its cultural ethos. Offshore is the mystical shrine of Sidi Abderrahman accessible only during low tide. Well worth a visit are the Makhama du Pacha, a classic Hispanic-Moorish building comprising 60 ornate rooms with delicately carved wooden ceilings, wrought-iron railings and magnificently tiled floors, and Reve de mon oeil, a gallery of modern welded sculptures from across the country.

On the shores of the Atlantic is the breathtaking King Hassan II mosque, inaugurated in August 1993. Faith melded with craftsmanship to create this architectural marvel, built almost entirely with contributions from local Moro-ccans. Designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, it is the seventh largest mosque in the world with its minaret, the world’s tallest, rising to a height of 210 metres. Built in sparkling marble inlaid with coloured glass and precious stones, its magnificent prayer hall has a glass floor and a retractable electronic roof. It can host 25,000 believers and a spacious courtyard can accommodate another 80,000.

Rabat. Sited on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the river Bou Regreg, Rabat (pop. 2 million) — literally “fortified city” — is the administrative capital of Morocco and the official residence of the monarch. The pride of Rabat is Kasbah des Oudaias, an ancient fortified city overlooking the ocean. Its main gate, Bab Oudaia, is the most impressive in the country, and atop the Kasbah are traditional restaurants where you can enjoy mint tea and Arabian snacks even as you soak in the landscape of Rabat-Sale (twin cities). Other attractions of Rabat are the mausoleum of Moham-mad V (King Hassan’s father) show-casing Moroccan craftsmanship, the unfinished Hassan towers, and Chellah, an old city with beautiful ruins. A unique sight peculiar only to Rabat are minarets and electric poles crowned with large nests of white storks. They’re a popular tourist attraction.

Meknes. To get a feel of oriental Morocco, a visit to the other royal cities of Meknes and Fez is essential. On most package tours, Meknes (pop. 985,000) is the next stop after Rabat. An impressive city built in Spanish Moorish style, it is surrounded by high walls with huge, sturdy gates. Passing through the walled city with its ramparts rising to 15 metres, one can understand why it was a military settlement during the time of the Almoravids, who founded the city. It became a capital city during the reign of the legendary Sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727), who united the warring tribes of the kingdom.

Inside the walled city are mosques, Koranic schools, stables, water reserv-oirs and impressive gardens. It is a good idea to take a stroll through the city exploring its rich heritage and splendid monuments. The palace gates are ornamental, embellished with inlay work and gold borders. Just across the palace is the medina with pyramid roof tops. Impressive from outside, the inside is a maze of souks vying for attention and it is enjoyable to shop for trinkets, curios, traditional kaftans and leather slippers.

Fez. From Meknes to get to Fez (pop. 946,800), the medieval capital of Morocco, one has to traverse the Middle Atlas Mountains. On either side of the road are eye-catching views of tall palm trees, olive orchards, native flora and fauna and flowing streams. Rich in biodiversity, the Middle Atlas mountain range offers camping, trekking and skiing opportunities. At the end of the one-hour drive is the ancient capital of Fez which offers glimpses of high Islamic civilisation. While in Fez, admire the lavish artistry of the religious college and visit the Merenid tombs and Quarrouyine library. Wander through its ancient medina, with its narrow alleys and teeming souks offering the finest handicrafts. The tanneries in the souks, with huge vats for dyeing and skins hanging in all directions are eminently camera-worthy.

Moulay Idriss. Thirty km north of Meknes is Moulay Idriss, a pilgrimage site as sacred to Moroccans as Mecca. With houses and mosques piled around two rocky outcrops, it was developed in the 18th century by Sultan Moulay Ismail, using materials from the nearby Roman town of Volubilis.

Volubilis. In 24 AD, Volubilis was the Roman kingdom of Mauretania Tingitana. The entire region prospered as the Romans produced abundant olive oil. Its majestic ruins go back to the third century. One can pass though archways and pillared hallways and admire the stylised designs of the ancient Romans. The stunning floor mosaics of its heritage buildings are still intact, despite the passage of time.

Marakkech. With its name originating from the Berber words mur(n)akush meaning ‘Land of God’, Marakkech (pop. 90,000) sited near the foothills of the Atlas Mountains is the pulsating heart of Morocco. As modern and chic as it is charming, with a foot in its medieval past, Marakkech is the most memorable in the Moroccan experience. It’s a well-developed city studded with heritage buildings in earthen red, two-lane roads interspersed with flower beds on road dividers, comfortable footpaths, landscaped parks and gardens, good transport and posh hotels.

The medina and the highly atmosp-heric Djeema el Fna square conjure up an exotic medieval setting in the evenings. As the sun sets, Marakkech’s street entertainers seize the vast square. We negotiated the crowds, taking in the provocative sights and sounds of a medley of dancers, musicians, jugglers, snake-charmers, tattooists and shady entertainers. The food stalls tantalise with any and everything from goat’s head soup to fried testicles. Indeed, the buzz in the square is nothing if not hypnotic.

Late in the evening, a trip to the end of the town to witness a cultural show and enjoy an authentic Moroccan dinner is highly recommended. If you miss the show, you would have missed an integral slice of Moroccan history. Dashing horsemen with lances, colourfully attired Berber women dance the night away as soulful singers and belly dancers keep you enthralled during dinner.

Berber Village. Before you leave Marrakech, be sure you don’t miss the opportunity to visit a traditional Berber village in the High Atlas valley. As you drive through blue hills and waterfalls and negotiate footbridges over streams, stop to savour harira (soup) and tajine (a meat stew). Local snacks are aplenty and for shoppers, carpets and metalwork, coral and amber jewellery are abundant.

Hotels. With an estimated annual inflow of 4.2 million visitors, the tourism industry of Morocco is well-developed. Hotel accommodation ranges from youth hostels and riads (country inns) to modern five-star hotels at prices varying from US $30-300 per night.

Climate and weather. Spring and autumn is the best time to visit Morocco. During April-June and September-November, the weather is ideal.

General. Liquor and excellent beer is freely availabe except during the month of Ramazan. Western beachwear is acceptable and commonplace.