Farewell Morocco for Now

By David Cogswell

IsramWorld’s Imperial Cities of Morocco tour visited Casablanca, Meknes and the Atlas Mountains, with overnight stays in Rabat, Fez and Marrakech. The tour puts Marrakech at the climax of the itinerary, to save the best for last, according to Isram’s Spain and Morocco specialist Leslie Warren, who was the tour director on the trip. The fam trip, abbreviated from the shelf product, was six nights: one in Rabat, two in Fez and three in Marrakech. It built toward its final act in Marrakech, the most alluring, colorful and mysterious city in Morocco by most accounts.

That’s not to say the early part of the trip was a low point. There were no low points on the trip. After all, just the thought of flying into the legendary Casablanca was a thrill. All of Morocco was a sensory cornucopia. After two days touring and one night spent in Rabat, we headed for Fez. But before leaving Rabat we stopped at a small, privately held hotel called Villa Mandarine. It was brilliantly colorful, rich in detail, decorated with prints of great paintings as well as original paintings and sculpture, plush antique furniture and finely crafted carpentry. Every room was different. The design and furnishings all bore the mark of individual personality, refinement and experience, with a great deal of care applied to each aspect of its creation and maintenance.

It was hidden within the lush vegetation of its grounds so that from the street there was nothing visible but greenery. But beyond the trees and brightly colored flowers of the garden was the hotel, looking much like a private home, though a large and spread out one with 30 rooms and six suites, a pool, sauna, fitness room, massage, a billiards room, and public spaces that looked like personal libraries and lounges. It was a place you could live, and I would have taken a job in housekeeping there, if they would have me, just to be able to spend a lot of time there. Though the price for Villa Mandarine was higher than Tour Hassan, where we had stayed in Rabat, a week at the villa is still cheaper than a week in Paris or London, according to Leslie.

We drove through farm country, past fields of corn and wheat and made sightseeing stops in Almisa, Moulay Idris and Meknes before arriving in Fez, where we unloaded at the Sofitel Palais Jamai. It was an impressive property built in 1879 in ornate Moorish style, and had once been the home of the Grand Vizir of Jamai.

Fez was Morocco’s first capital, founded in the Eighth Century, and is now said to be Morocco’s spiritual and cultural capital. Be that as it may, its main attraction for many tourists, and certainly one of its most memorable experiences is the souk. For anyone with the shopping bug, the souk is a paradise. The souk is a essentially a shopping district with stores in every space in the buildings along a labyrinth of alleyways. Curtains of slats laid between the buildings overhead create shade and turn the marketplace into an enclosed space. The variety of merchandise on display is mind numbing, and full of surprises to a westerner. It is an endless variety of miscellaneous items, such as foam, chickens (live or butchered), scrap cloth, tapestries, shoes, handbags, scarves, dresses, hookahs, brass lamps, pastries, drums, earrings, knives, even false teeth. You quickly get used to periodically having to jump out of the way of donkeys or mules piled with teetering mounds of goods strapped to their backs and sides are hustled through by their masters yelling, “Attencion! Attencion!” Crashes and bangs cut through the air in an ongoing, irregular rhythm. A lovely, benign chaos pervades the atmosphere.

We had one day traveling to Fez, one day to explore it and visit some local hotels and riads, former private homes converted into dreamy, palace-like inns. And then we were off to Marrakech.

The impressions and new experiences were flying fast, far too many to describe or even enumerate. We experienced many examples of Moroccan cuisine with multiple courses in colorful, exotic restaurants. We took a city tour of Marrakech, through the Jewish quarter, the old city, the markets and many riads. We visited a spice shop with a huge selection of pungent spices and herbs and heard a presenter tell of their medicinal qualities. But for Marrakech, perhaps the most striking, unforgettable experience was the visit to Djemaa el Fna, the main square and marketplace of the medina, the old city. Our Morocco guide, Mohamed Kinik, called it “Marrakech Disney”. There were dozens of restaurants and food stalls and no end of sights and oddities. There was constant activity all around, including acrobats and street theater, musicians, snake charmers, people with chained Barbary apes, dancers, story-tellers, magicians and people who wear eye-catching costumes and make money posing for photographs.

The square had a protocol all its own. Since many of the performers make their money by selling their images in photographs, one must be careful where one points one’s camera. Posing for photos is not always a free service. It was a rather stringent common law for intellectual property.

The itinerary concluded with dinner and a show at Chez Ali, The Marrakech Fantasia. It began with a feast in a huge tent, with many rounds of food brought under huge domed platters, including harira soup, grilled lamb and couscous. Groups of musicians playing different ethnic styles of music strolled around the tables. When dinner was over, a show began in a stadium near the restaurant. It began with mounted camels, followed by daredevil trick horseback riders performing stunts at breakneck speed and a belly dancer lit in colored spotlights on a float in the middle of the stadium. It concluded with a wild fireworks demonstration.

They knew how to put on a show. It certainly gave the sense of getting your money’s worth. The crowd seemed satisfied as the people filed out at its end. On our last day we drove up into the Atlas Mountains and visited a Berber family in a cave-like home, who treated us like honored guests and gave us tea and food. We had a final dinner at the Thai restaurant at the palatial Amanjena Hotel in Marrakech to the music of a Moroccan guitarist who played songs like “Fly Me to the Moon” in a style reminiscent of Segovia.

The trip had been kaleidoscopic, a sensory feast from the beginning, providing more richness of impressions than I could process in real time. It made me understand why Leslie Warren would keep going back to Morocco over and over until this tour, her 25th, and will continue to add to that number for the foreseeable future. Morocco is certainly more than you can take in in a week, and I would agree with Leslie that it’s more than you could fully absorb in a lifetime. -- David Cogswell

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