Getting lost in Morocco

Qatar Happening, January 2015. Original article p110-111.

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 01.56.50Marrakesh and Essaouira: Getting lost in Morocco
The thousand-year-old square at the heart of Marrakesh is covered practical black asphalt these days, but the snakes seem to have no problem charming their way across the paved Djemaa el-Fna. It’s an intriguing place, Marrakesh – even with the new century elbowing in, there is something indisputably ancient about it. Every night the crowds gather around the storytellers in the square, where grilled meats and rich couscous are the grand prize as smoke rises from the market stalls.

The Medina, the old town of Marrakesh, contains the soul of the city. Colourful spices are stacked high and newly tanned leather pokes at your nostrils as you wander through the streets; the fresh orange juice from the square doesn’t taste like any other juice. If you do nothing else in Marrakesh but wander around its deep, sprawling souk, you will be just fine: this is the stuff of fairy tales. Deep into the maze the shops get less glossy, with the whizzing and banging of goods being created on the spot, in the spaces between the display fronts. Pale leather is tanned, dyed fabrics hang overhead, metal is hammered into shape.

Marrakesh is the sort of place you come to experience, not to tick off a list of attractions. But of course, there are plenty of sights worthy of visiting too: the Badi Palace is massive in stature and an oasis of calm in a hectic city. The name means ‘The Incomparable’, a testament to its former glory, but now it all belongs to the storks, with its decaying walls surrounding a tranquil square. The Saardian Tombs is another prize sight; no expense was spared when building this decadent mausoleum. The Berber Art Museum is located in the beautiful Jardin Majorelle, providing insights into the culture of the region’s original inhabitants.

Courtesy of a well-developed train and coach network, visitors can travel around Morocco with ease. Two hours west of Marrakesh is Essaouira, a small coastal town with a distinctly bohemian vibe. Tucked inside white walls that are slowly being eroded by the salty wind, Essaouira means ‘The Beautifully Designed’, and this is no lie. Apparently Jimi Hendrix wrote ‘Castles Made of Sand’ before he came here, but looking at the crumbling castle just off Essaouira beach, you may well choose to believe the myth that the song is indeed about the Borj El-Berod. You’ll get your feet wet, but you can wade out to the sand-covered ruin, which is split down the middle now, and halfway reclaimed by the sea.

Essaouira is a place that encourages you to remain shoeless on the beach, eating berries for breakfast and fruity tagine for dinner. It arrives underneath its flowerpot lid, a few chunks of meat with a few nuts and prunes chucked over the top. Bright yellow couscous is served on the side, no alcohol and asleep by 10pm. The fish market provides a cheap and quick lunch – point to what you want and they will cook it in front of you. Around the ramparts of old Essaouira the waves never stop crashing, covering the expanse of rock below with bright white foam. Keep walking a while longer and you’ll reach beyond the tidy, more touristy part of the city, entering into the area where the locals live. School children squeeze by in the narrow streets where the grannies linger in doorways. The shops are attended by the men, chatting to each other while serving customers. Naked chickens are nailed to walls and eggs are balanced precariously, everything available for a prize.

And no matter where you go, the smell of mint hits you square in the face. Moroccan mint tea may well be the most memorable thing about the country. This isn’t some lazy teabag in tepid water, but a revelation: a fistful of fresh mint leaves gets showed in a glass, hot water is added and a bowl of sugar provided – who’d ever think something so simple could be so wonderful.

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