I've just returned from travels in Morocco. It is the first time I've been somewhere and returned exhausted and baffled by the experience. We hoped to travel by train all the way from Manchester to Tangier by train and boat, and continue on train around Morocco. However, we only managed to make it as far as Paris, where French train strikes prevented us continuing on to Madrid, where we hoped to head through the picturesque Spanish landscape (as a Spanish friend of mine had described it) to Gibraltar to see the exquisite Islamic architecture and sail across to Tangier, the 'city of dreams'.
Overcoming the disappointment, we booked a flight directly from one French romantic city to another, once French romantic city, Casablanca. We then made our way by train to Rabat, a city I became much more entranced by than Casablanca. Maybe it was the warm welcome in a police station with offers of delicious home cooked food, the Eid celebrations and the beautifully decorated and peaceful riad we stayed at. The heat was blistering, and sometimes caused us to drink tea in shaded courtyards, the mosques were a peaceful escape from the bustle of the traffic and Medinas. A friendly, eager museum worker talked me through artifacts on display at the archaeological museum where there were only one other couple visiting. My favourite site was the Kasbah, and its winding brightly blue and white painted streets inside that led up to a view of the sea and the city.
Two storks nest, thought to bring good luck and success according to Moroccan suspicion, atop of a tower at some 13th century ruins.
A train journey from Rabat to Fes, despite the uncomfortable heat due to lack of air conditioning, was highlighted by the company of cute and playful Moroccan kids who loved the attention and abundance of kisses, and playing with my sparkly bracelet!
Fes didn't meet my expectations either. By friends I had been told it was more magical and less touristy than Marrakesh, which it was but much more touristy than Rabat. I did enjoy the walk up to the hill overlooking the Medina and the hills to the other side. I experienced my first antique shop filled with beautiful old Berber and Islamic textiles, pots, wood work, jewellery and brass. The owner was helpful and not pushy or persistent like so many of the sellers in the many souk stalls. He was excited on hearing that I was a textile researcher, and I promised to return when I had the money to buy an authentic Berber textile piece.
Having a spare night between hotels booked in Fes and Marrakesh, we though we'd stop over halfway in the hills. However after a windy bus journey sat next to a boy being sick, arriving in Beni Melal to find it was much bigger, busier and stressful than the small mountain town we were expecting, not finding any guides to accompany us to the mountains and exhausted by the heat, we jumped in a grand taxi all the way to Marrakesh. We were frustrated to find the road was completely straight all the way after we had wasted money on booking a bus ticket for the next day, and a hotel checking in.
But we arrived in Marrakesh relieved and welcomed by friendly staff at a peaceful, riad with a lush green garden and lots of singing birds.
We managed to experience the countryside by heading to the vallee d'Ourika in the Toubkal national park on the edge of the high atlas. The break from hustle and bustle was very welcomed, and it was refreshing to meet a guide who did not cheat us out of money, and just loved showing people the beautiful valley that was his home.Time in Marrakesh was spent wandering aimlessly yet again round the Medina, visiting the artisan ensemble which sold very similar wares to those in the souks, but at a cheaper fixed price and in the piece of a courtyarded hideaway, visiting the tropical Jardin Majorelle, being forced to buy leather goods after a visit to the tanneries, which we did not even plan on doing, but after getting lost thought a kind man was helping us out, but was actually trying to make money, like many others in this city.
The djeema al fna was what made Marrakesh stand out from the other cities because I had never experienced anything like it. A vast open square, that is dead in the daytime but gradually comes to life at night, with water sellers, entertainers of all sorts, a mass outdoor restaurant, and stall upon stall of orange juice, cake sellers, dried fruit and henna painters. I was fascinated. As soon as you step into the depths of the musicians and magicians and the crowds watching in the depths of the dark un-lit square, it's like you are carried away into another world.
At the same time the mass, dark open space opens opportunity for hashish dealers, sleazy men seeking to relieve their sexual needs through hassling the hoards of western female tourists, and of course the opportunity for pick pockets is endless. I clutched onto my bag, warned off any dodgy looking men, and was ready with an aggressive Arabic phrase should any of them try anything, and immersed myself into the repetitive sound of drums and singing.
The whole time I was searching for storytellers after reading Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights and becoming fascinated with the Moroccan and Arabic tradition of symbolic stories that have been passed down through the centuries. I thought there must be few if no story tellers left after only coming across musicians and conjurers, (the musicians might also have been telling stories but it was too difficult to grasp what they were singing about). However we finally discovered a large group surrounding one man who seemed to be part telling, part acting out a tale. Having an Arabic speaking companion was useful for this, (as it was during many other occasions on the trip). Although we couldn't stay long enough to catch the full story, as we were right at the back of a lot of people, strangely all who were men, which gave me more reason not to hang around!