Morocco – journey of the senses

Posted by on May 26, 2015 in In print this month | 0 comments

Where Magic Lives

If ever there’s a country that’s a magic carpet ride of evocative culture, romantic cities and incredible landscapes, it’s Morocco. Land of mosaics and snake charmers, heady souks and ancient medinas, sweeping Sahara and wild Atlantic, Morocco has it all.

By Keri Harvey

Marrakech life

Marrakech life

“There are just three things that are not negotiable in Morocco,” says the smiling carpet seller in the medina of Marrakech, “they are stamps, taxes and medicine. Everything else is flexible.” Omar Hassan, rolls out an assortment of soft red carpets one on top of the next. “You have a look while I will make some tea, and then we can negotiate” he says, and disappears at the back of the shop.

Ah, Marrakech. The magical city of faded red walls and winding labyrinth alleyways, horse-drawn carts and steamy souks packed with exotic treasures – all with ‘flexible’ prices. Everything about Marrakech is evocative and the atmosphere is pure romance, fantastical yet completely authentic.

Marrakech radiates out from the Djemaa el-Fna, the central square of the Old City or medina. This is where everyone in the city mingles and meets like colourful threads in an intricate carpet. Here you could be a spectator at an impromptu performance by freelance acrobats or crouching snake charmers, amateur jugglers or traditional musicians. By day the square is something of a microcosm of Morocco, and the surrounding souks are a spider’s web of shops selling everything from herbal aphrodisiacs to leather lanterns. But there are blacksmiths and dyers, carpenters and coppersmiths plying their trade too. The colours and textures are bewitching and completely seductive.

Marrakech Ganawan Musician

Marrakech Ganawan Musician

Omar returns with two tiny gold-rimmed glasses of steaming, sweet, mint tea. “This will help you think clearly,” he smiles, and hands me a glass of tea. “Your carpet should match its purpose,” he says, as he takes a sip of tea, “because they are all woven according to their use; some are for sleeping, others for sitting or eating on and some are even for walking on. So you need to think about your choice carefully.” I choose a ‘sitting’ carpet and after much price negotiation we agree. Omar rolls it up tightly for me.

In the late afternoon, Djemaa el Fna transforms into an open air food market, that is the place to be seen if you’re a local. It sells the finest ‘fast food’ Moroccan style – fresh kebabs, salads and a wide range of traditional cuisine that also includes steamed goat heads and boiled eggs. But there is plenty of choice for all palates, and locals eat and chat deep into the night. It’s abuzz with activity, and after the last call to prayer for the day the pace picks up even more. With the cool of evening Marrakchis have renewed vigour for life and literally pour into the narrow streets. Tomorrow they will do the same, for this is a sociable nation where nobody ever seems to be in a bad mood.

We dine in a street café and lick our lips on a chicken tagine, served with preserved lemon and olives. And after sweet mint tea, we wend our way back to the traditional riad hotel, like sniffer dogs through the alleyways. We pass dozens of hole-in-the-wall shops, and stop to listen to a traditional Gnawan musician strumming his homemade guitar to a hypnotic tune. He nods his head rhythmically and has us captivated.

Marrakech Night Food Market

Marrakech Night Food Market

Marrakech lies at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains. A towering backdrop to the city, they form a formidable barrier between the magnificent sandscape of the Sahara and the plains that run all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. So up and up we go, swaying through mountain passes to the summit. Markers, painted in bands of red and yellow, line the road in the higher reaches to indicate the depth of snow in winter. Yet in the balmy summer it’s difficult to picture snow at all. But then we notice something else that does make sense. The soil on the mountains is cherry red, the same colour as the walls of Marrakech, so the city is red for good reason since it’s built from this very soil. Descending the High Atlas, the earth changes again to stony cream and looks as if it has been scarified from above. All along the way, roadside traders sell traditional hand-painted pottery, semi-precious stones and hand-woven red carpets. Even on a mountaintop, there’s good shopping.

Actually, it’s not that far from Marrakech to the mighty dunes of Merzouga, on the border with Algeria. But journeys in Morocco are never measured in kilometers. It’s time that matters, because trips often traverse mountain ranges or take in gravel stretches. The great dunefield of Erg Chebbi lies before us, ancient and ever changing. Deep into its interior Morocco was once under the ocean, and excavations yield abundant fossils of shells and sea creatures that are over 300 million years old. Moroccans use the marble-like fossil slabs as counter tops and bathroom vanities.

Merzouga Dunes

Merzouga Dunes

En route, Berber children with wild hair and raggedy clothes wave us down to sell fossils, though some are just there to exchange smiles. Wherever you go in Morocco, even in the most rural reaches, everyone is warm-hearted and friendly. Everyone says ‘hello’ or ‘Salam walaykoom’. This warmth of spirit is a classic trait of both Africa and Arabia, so Moroccans have a double dose of it. And all they expect in return is a smile from you.

Arriving in Merzouga as the sun is dipping is a display of sublime outdoor theatre. The soft light bounces off the dunes in a palate of honey hues, dancing on the sand in silent rhythm. Between the powdery dunes, a camel caravan winds its way into the Sahara like a slow train on legs. They’re headed south through the great sand sea, to a destination unknown. “It could be Algeria, Mauritania or even as far as Timbuktu in Mali,” says our guide Rashid. “To Timbuktu is an epic 52 days by camel across the Sahara. But this is no sweat for the Tuaregs. They’re used to it, and trading is their life.”

We lie on our backs on a dune face, and watch the sky grow dark and the first star appear above. Tomorrow we will explore this great sand sea that is constantly changing its mood. But for now we are struck by the complete silence here. It’s so still, so serene, you can hear your thoughts. And right now they are with the camel caravan – navigating just by sun and stars, and surrounded by shifting sand. I trust they remembered their ‘sleeping’ carpets, soft and red.

Sahara House, Merzouga

Sahara House, Merzouga

Travel Info

Currency: Dirham

Weather: ranges from deep snow in the High Atlas in winter to 50°C in the Sahara in summer.

Best time to go: coolest time is October to April (autumn to spring)

Visas: South African passport holders require visa.

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