“Can I have a vodka with orange juice and lots of ice”? Egypt Air, air hostess looks at me with stoically, responding after what seemed an eternity- placing a juice glass sans vodka she says, “Sorry sir but alcohol is not served on this flight”. It seemed like a bad start to an anticipated journey but with the little option left, I settle just for juice. The aircraft is amazingly silent, oblivious to the barren desert that lies beneath its belly. It has been a while since takeoff from Cairo airport and the flirting with the Mediterranean Sea coastline, the plane romances with the ochre and blue hues. Aboard the Egypt Air flight, I take a snooze trying to fight my excitement of what Morocco has to offer.
I awaken in time to see the Atlas Mountains with their snow-smeared peaks, North Africa’s highest mountain range in the distance as the terrain turns green. Atlas mountains stretch across Morocco, Algeria, and Tunis marking a striking contrast and barrier between the arid Sahara and the humming coastline of Morocco.
Close enough, one can see the russet slopes dotted with pines and cedar, the green valley winding past goats and leading to Berber villages.
The last line of the movie Casablanca, spoken by Humphrey Bogart comes to my mind as I tell myself “Rahul, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Seat belt sign comes on as I watch the city of Casablanca taking shape. Earlier in the century as the French were looking to build this city, the architects flew over this very land and had it designed from the air, the first of its kind. Big cities, I avoid like the plague but Casablanca for me has been an image as an unsung jewel of Morocco.
Crisp blue skies and breeze with a nip greet us as we land and soon we are chugging along the road to Rabat. Deciding to begin the journey from Rabat, our central point of stay, it allowed easy access to the Northern end of Meknes and Fez and down south to Marrakesh. Palm-lined roads, lush greenery outside European style houses, the city greets you with its laid back vibe. Driving slowly, the French influences can be seen in abundance but my heart is with the blushing hibiscus bushes as I roll down the window and inhale the heady scent of orange blossom. This capital city of Rabat may be in the shadows of its big brother Casablanca, Morocco but it holds its own elegant charm.
Rabat has a shared heritage, one as the modern capital and the other where its ancient remains are still intact. Dividing the city sightseeing into two parts; we decide to commence our journey with a visit to Marinid Necropolis at Chellah. Gulping the not too hot mint tea, a national beverage and quite like a religious ceremony, we were already racing to reach the 14th century necropolis built by Sultan al- Hassan.
Standing at the entry of the palace, the city noises dims and a peaceful atmosphere prevails. The challah is both a Roman ruin and an Islamic Burial place, both claimed without any bias by the storks whose large nests perch on top of the minarets. It seems like the city has new sentinels guarding its heritage. The bustling trading post on the mouth of the river BouRegreg lies in scattered ruins amidst ageing fruit trees and cats that seem to have found new playgrounds. Time in Chellah stands still.
The Moroccan sun is fast disappearing behind the Palace walls, sinking in the river as we decide to call it a day and sleep early.
It has rained during the night as we traverse the wet lawn with the wheels of the suitcase refusing to roll over. Our guide and Chauffer give us a helping hand as we settle in the minivan, which seems equally eager to discover the historic cities of the African continent.
The drive is a short one and time slips easily. The modern city is left behind as a beautiful landscape opens up its arms, reaching the dark blue sky. The scenario changes quickly from palms and orangetrees to olive farms, undeveloped, grassy and sandy plots as we find ourselves close to the third-largest city of Morocco- Fez is also known as Fes which is not only a spiritual capital but also hold the old world charm as the capital of medieval Morocco. Within a few hours, modernity is replaced with carts laden with oranges and other colourful vegetables and children playing with marbles. The gravel road ends at BorjSud, the southern hills of Fes offering a panoramic view of the city.
As we stretch our legs, vestiges of the fortress in ruins stand yellowed against a greying sky. I walk to the edge of the cliff where a meadow of grazing sheep feasts on the grass uncaring of the cemetery downhill painted in white. On the other side of the hill is the view of Fes el Bali, protected by high walls, the medina imposing with its 9000 unnamed alleys housing 200,000 people. The only sound is of the breeze but I knew that closer to the Medina, it would a world within a world.
Finding ourselves in a “riad”, a traditional Moroccan house, the breeze cuts across the courtyard reminding us that away from the Moroccan sun, it could be cold, a stark contrast just like this country itself. Its already lunch and we are hungry as hell. I love eating and for me, Moroccan food was turning out to be a feast.
My first encounter with tagline is in Fes itself. After having a taste of the dish, I am made aware that tagine is not only a dish but also the name of the utensil, cookware itself. Food cooked in clay utensils retains the natural flavours of the dish. Savouring my lamb tagine with dried prunes and vegetables, I relish the spices that lead to the conquering of nations. Food makes us lazy but we are also mindful of the sunset that does not seem to be that far away.
Spreading a printed map of the city, we opt for some sightseeing spots that were in walking distance. Bab Boujloud, the most famous gate of Fez and entrance to the medina is close by and soon we find ourselves standing under its mighty arch admiring the Arabic-Andalusian design that combines blue and jade zelliges with scroll-shaped cutouts. This was the opening to the heart of the Medina.
The narrow cobbled street spirals downwards with streams of people crawling like ants on a mission. Mules push their way through as vendors wave their hands frantically and beckon you to come close. Old women sitting in the doorways, stalls brewing mint tea, leather skins on the roof, smaller alleys leading to God knows where – the sounds, sights and smell immediately consume us as I realize that I had forgotten to write the name of the gate, one of the twelve, through which we had entered. The feeling that we are already lost comes naturally as we willingly lose ourselves to the crowd. In the land of no directions, no GPS MedersaBouInania building looks at me, inviting me to its beautiful confines.
From the maze of dark passages and stained blue walls, this medersa spellbound me, first with its silence and then with its intricate motifs and designs covering every inch of the building. Built-in 14th century, this place housed students of Theology. Sitting under the green-tiled roofs, I am transported back in time allowing myself rest from the maddening Medina.
Later in the evening, freshly squeezed orange juice rehydrates me. Taking a break from the memories of the Medina, I realize that beyond the overwhelming architecture, it is the Moroccans themselves that make the country so friendly and inviting.
The next day, we travel to the far reaches of Rome. Yes, you read that right. Volubilis, Morocco’s grand Roman city was once a very fertile area and was ruled under descendant of Cleopatra. The rich history of the place fascinates me just as much as the lush green fields at the base of Rif Mountains that slope upwards to meet the deep dark blue sky. Murder, Mosaic and Magnificence can all be found here interwoven in history and draped in intrigue. Roman Emperor Augustus, Caligula, Marcus Aurelius- all ruled this empire, one way or another.
The ruins are small but spectacular. The most notable structure is the House of Orpheus, which is adorned beautiful mosaics, one showing the son of Hercules. My moment of glory is the magnificent triumphal arch dedicated to Emperor Caracalla who is 212 AD offered Roman citizenship so all inhabitants of the Roman Empire.
In the distance, on the other side of Volubilis, one can see the whitewashed town of MoulayIdrisZerhoun, Founder of the Idrdrid dynasty of Morocco in 787. A very small town sitting astride two green hills is the most important Islamic city of Morocco and also the most neglected and not popular with the tourists. Perhaps its lack of popularity and inaccessibility has helped the town retain its quintessential charm. This is even though MoulayIdris demolished parts of the city to build his new palaces in Meknes.
“Between the ruins and the holy city, only a couple miles apart sit two amazing symbols of the importance of the past, and the importance of the present”
Well there it was and time to see what MoulayIdris new places looked like that housed four wives and hundreds of concubines and am not counting his offspring’s. It is said that he admired his contemporary, Louis XIV of France and wanted to make Meknes his version of Versailles.
Meknes is slow during the day with hardly any tourists, which meant good news. The town is almost sleepy, quiet with white walls and pastel streets. Remnants of fortifications and The King’s tomb sit at the heart of the city along with the strange attraction of a vast old prison. An unwarranted tour by a young guy who cannot speak English insists on showing how the Christians were hanged, chained and tortured before the kill. When he realizes that we will not be giving him a bakshish he parts with a grunt leaving us in the cool and ochre confines of the underground prison.
The souks in Meknes Medina almost circle the Great Mosque- colourful and vibrant they are noisy and full of the unexpected. Picking up some blue pottery things, I make a quick exit to walk over to the gate of Bab- al Mansour. It is almost impossible to take any photographs with tens of selfie sticks and camera lovers obstructing the view of this beautiful structure made in the 18th century.
Tucking in the Museum of Moroccan Art (Dar Jamai), jaw-dropping treasures enclosed in this small space are a true marvel. Belonging to minsters of Moulay, one can see the opulence in the intricate decoration, art deco on wood and the Andalusian garden housing many fruit trees. The courtyard is shady and peaceful with the bokeh of orange cast by its fruit trees.
Meknes Ville nouvelle is like one crazy circus as we find the contrast with the quiet Medina a few kilometres away The Mediterranean boulevards and cafes are alive, locals playing music, food all around, sparking lights – every seat seems to have been taken and all cafes looked packed. Struggling to find a place, we wander around, lost to the noise and endless sights of street food.
Finding a table at a French restaurant seems to be a lucky straw. Not being able to make much sense of the dishes, we leave the ordering to a young waitress who babbled in French and all I could say was NO Parlez-vousFrancias. Struggling to make sense, I show her a dish on an adjacent table and suddenly a smile formed on her lips. I did not know what to make of the change in her behaviour. Vegetables with chickpea and two pieces of lamb sit before me smiling and ready to be devoured. Sumptuous and tasty to the hilt, it seemed like a perfect day to end in Meknes.
Meknes to Marrakesh is a huge contrast. This is where the cultural confluence of Africa, Europe and the Middle East meet. The city of Maghreb founded almost 1000 year ago. Sitting on the edge of the Sahara desert, the pink pise palaces with the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the backdrop; Marrakesh comes across as a city steeped in tradition and yet layered with modernity. Pulling myself from the van, I find myself at the souk and after having taken the headlong challenge of Fez, the adventures of navigating the heady tangle of shops seems easy. Freshly dyed wool in riots of orange and reds make an attractive collage, wooden carts crammed with blue pottery tiles and brass lanterns thrown everywhere as I take a pause standing under a shop in the slanted shadows under a bamboo roof.
The gardens of Marrakesh steal my heart. From the 800-year-old Agdal, this place is also referred to as the Versailles of Islam to the little sister of Agdal, the Menera, similar in design but small in area. The Badi palace is a lively square with its solitary palm tree casting in the shadows of the water tank. At the heart of the complex lie the ruins of Sultan Mansour’s home with pavilions and sunken gardens.
But if there was a place which took my breath away was the Bahia Palace. Aptly titled Bahia, pronounced as ba-ha-ha, meaning brilliance in Arabic, was built by Abu ‘Bou’ Ahmed, a slave who went on to become a vizier. Constructed on a 2-acre plot boasting of 150 rooms including a section for the harem, the palace has an abundance of stained glass, hand-carvedd huge wooden doors and mosaic tile. The pandemonium caused by the overzealous tourists wanting a perfect selfie and their noise is amplified by the courtyard design.
The crowded lanes of Medina, an old part of Marrakesh offer little respite from the noise. Portable radios blaring music, buzzing scooters and the hawkers doing their best to get to you, the beguiling interplays continue.
The only heaven of tranquillity available, or so it seemed is JardinMajorell, window to a secret garden. The place is located on a quiet side street in the upscale neighbourhood of Guéliz. I step into a small but intimate courtyard with a fountain. Majorelle took almost 40 years to plant about 135 species of plants turning this property in an enchanting landscape. Creating his version of blue trademarked as bleu Majorelle, he painted his building with his color.
Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent made Morocco his second home and bought this property after Jardin’s death where own ashes lie scattered in the rose garden.
This was the fastest week that I have ever lived and yet one with immense memories. The last evening of my stay in Morocco draws close at the famous Rick’s Café in Casablanca. Tired and overwhelmed, I put my head in the tiny cup of coffee and let my swirling mind rest from the overdose of history, architecture and Morocco itself. Brassy saxophone from Glenn Miller plays and a beautiful Ingrid Bergman flirts with Bogart on a widescreen screen playing in an endless loop with subtitles. The lounge felt intimate and somewhat glamorous.
In the somber mood of leaving behind a great country and its people, the jostle and bustle of people, their warmth and to being lost under the blue sky – Morocco was more than a country and people, it was an experience itself.
I travel back just as a legendary traveller, Ibn Battuta did in 1326, from North Africa to Cairo. My regret that we did not meet in Tangier but am sure somewhere our footsteps will cross.
Till we meet again, Au Revoir!