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  • Writer's pictureDonna Zabel

Moroccan Memories

A beautiful Moroccan model gate is now on my wall. It is a foot tall, with inlaid tiles and intricate, hand-made metalwork trim. In the center are a pair of six-inch doors with handles that open to a charming little mirror. A perfect souvenir of Morocco, a country that initially seems intimidating but easily opens to reveal wonderful sights and experiences.


The gateway to Morocco’s wonders is the unwelcoming, bureaucracy overloaded Casablanca airport that had me questioning why I came. Until I exited the dark building into blinding sunshine and a smiling welcome from Ismail Janani from Morocco Tours. Over the next ten days, Ismail introduced our small group to the many wonders of this amazing country as we roamed over much of Morocco.


In Casablanca we had a review of the famous Hassan II Mosque and once interesting neighborhoods that have lost their charm in the rapid growth of this commercial center. Then on to our first evening in the capitol city Rabat. This thousand-year-old seaside city, one of the four Imperial Cities of Morocco, has seen periods of growth and decline, of occupation and rulership. Ruins of ancient Phoenicians and Romans are not far away. The 12th century saw the ruling caliph challenging the dominance of southern Spain with the planned construction of what would have been the world’s largest mosque. His death brought end to those plans and today the Hassan tower, old walls, and multiple pillars are what remains.



Rabat Medina


As the capitol, Rabat houses the sprawling Royal Palace, a complex of buildings, mosque, manicured grounds, and fountain. The historical library, off limits to ordinary visitors, contain some of Morocco’s most important papers. Of particular importance to our small group of American travelers is the treaty between the fledgling United States and Morocco from 1777. Of all the countries in the world, Morocco was the first to recognize the newly independent nation and remains our oldest ally.




A few hours, but centuries away, tucked in the mountains in the north, is the Blue City Chefchaouen. Even our small van cannot navigate the narrow winding streets, especially in the noisy chaos of the late afternoon as the residents—women in long skirts, men in long traditional robes, scores of children running in between—finish shopping for the evening’s meal or selling the day’s last trinkets to tourists. Exiting the van among the shouting porters hastily piling our bags and pointing the way, the initial impression is sensory confusion. Everywhere you look are centuries old buildings painted robin egg’s blue and adorned with strings of bright oranges or colorful flowers. Guided through the crowded streets our little group is ushered into the calm oasis of our beautifully traditional riad. The vibrant colors blend in harmony that is both stimulating and relaxing. Just like the refreshments offered as we wait on comfortable cushions for our rooms: mint tea and sweet cookies.


As in every traditional riad where I stay, initial trepidation at climbing winding tiled stairs disappears when entering my room, or sometimes rooms. It is a luxury from a different era with beautiful rugs, lofty ceilings, painted carved doors and cabinets.


Downstairs for dinner reveals now quiet and deserted streets, the blue painted walls giving a uniquely calming feeling to the old city. The morning walk through the winding streets past little shops and old residences reveals the city really is blue. The same soothing hue imbues all the buildings to at least five or six feet, then sometimes topped with bright whitewash. Founded in 1471 the city was a haven for both Muslims and Jews evicted from Portugal and Spain, with entrance forbidden to Christians. The blue color supposedly stems from the early Jewish inhabitants who used it as a deterrent to flies and mosquitos that plagued the neighboring cities with the natural brown exterior. I cannot claim any scientific knowledge about the blue paint, but I did not encounter any insects during my delightful stay.


Morocco is the land of surprises. Outside of Tangier’s infamy, any connection to European history is often ignored. Unless you venture along the highways, past orchards of olive trees, through open spaces that eventually lead to the hilltop ruins of Volubilis. 2,000 years ago, this metropolis of 10,000 people was the Roman Empire’s most southern city. Designed partly as a retirement community for Rome’s military elite, remnants of houses include magnificent mosaic tiled floors, and remaining pillars attest to the grand design of a Roman theatre plus a Victory Gate to stoke any retired general’s ego. Plenty of sunshine, abundant olive trees, fertile river plains nearby would make this a retirement community certainly I could enjoy.



Moroccan Gate

From Roman Volubilis the road leads to medieval Meknes. An imperial city with impressive palaces, gardens, fortresses, imposing gates, tiled mosques, and the huge mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. The Bab Mansour gate is considered the most beautiful in all North Africa. The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, one of the few sacred sites open to non-Muslims, boasts incredibly high tiled ceilings, a magnificent sanctuary protecting his remains with priceless clocks from his friend, King Louis XIV adorning all corners of the room. It is said the prolific sultan had five hundred wives and one thousand children. Without a designated heir, war was inevitable, and his long reign ended in civil war between his offspring, with one, Ismail Ibn Sharif, crowned and dethroned multiple times. So much for sibling rivalry.


The roads are long and winding, and our arrival in Fes more than welcome. Disheveled and exhausted from the long drive, our entry into the Faraj Palace was to Moroccan elegance. This breathtakingly beautiful riad has elegantly appointed rooms up staircases that wound around the tiled courtyard with a traditional fountain and trees in all four corners. Like other riads, each room is unique. Mine had a little balcony overlooking a courtyard and pool. A perfect place to relax after a day of sightseeing.


And sightseeing we did the next day. Possibly not as large as the souk in Marrakech, the car-free winding streets are easier to navigate, and the fewer crowds make shopping easier. Maybe too easy. As on my previous trip a dozen years earlier, I did not buy any of the wonderful leather products from the Chiara Tannery, dating from the 11th century, nor a rug, but I did find my model Moroccan gate. Hand applied metalwork on white tiles, with the central doors that open to a little mirror. It is going on a wall where I will see it every day and remember the fascinating and complex city that is Fes.


Away from the city busy metropolis of Casablanca, away from the ancient medinas with heavily laden donkeys delivering supplies to little shops lining the narrow winding streets, away from the ancient mountain villages, is the vast open desert of southern Morocco. From the altitude of cool, Swiss-looking Irfan, in the Middle Atlas Mountains, the road winds toward the desert, through Erford and Marzouki, into the Sahara. In just a few hours the scenery has changed from vast groves of olive trees and green vegetation to sand dunes stretching into the horizon. Millions of years ago there was water—lots of it—as evidenced by the apparently limitless supply of fossils made into everything from little necklaces to tables.


My destination for the night was a desert camp. The “tents” were complete with generous bathrooms and hot showers, delicious meals, and attentive staff. Getting to the camp requires a camel ride, strategically timed to experience the striking sunset of the desert and with camel drivers who are skilled at cell phone photography, I addition to making sure all travelers arrive without falling off the uncomfortable beasts. I would not want my camel ride any other way.


Heading west from the popular desert retreat of the Erg Chebbi dunes, Moroccan scenery again changes dramatically through the High Atlas Mountains, the snow-capped peaks contrasting with the warm drive. The drive is long, the vistas spectacular, the arrival in Boumalen Dades just in time to be rewarded with a spectacular sunset, viewed from the rooftop terrace, drink in hand.


There are reasons trips to Morocco end in Marrakech. It is everything from all parts of Morocco coming together in one non-stop chaotic jumble of traffic and people. Sights, sounds, and smells assault the senses. Honking cars compete for every inch of road space along with heavily laden donkeys and pushcarts displaying lush fruits and vegetables. Crowded sidewalks overflow as friends meet in the little cafes. The air is full of delicious smells as evening meals are being prepared. Arriving from the cool and sparsely populated mountains, it is temporarily overwhelming.


Just when I thought my ears would never stop ringing from the noise of the streets, my bags were collected, and I was ushered into the beautiful oasis of the Sebban Palace riad, my home for three wonderful evenings. Located in the heart of the ancient medina, my oasis was full of lush furniture, tiled floors and intricate chandeliers and decorations, my accommodation a suite of rooms on the top floor complete with a private patio and balcony. Relaxing on my private terrace, I remembered all the wonderful tales of Ali Baba and stories from the Arabian Nights and felt I could be living in a story.


Much as I was tempted to stay in my palatial surroundings, there was the city to explore. My charming guide Hamid obviously wanted me to learn everything about Marrakesh’s complex history, to experience all the wonders of the Morocco’s largest souk, its legendary Jemaa el-Fnaa square complete with snake charmers and hawkers of all manor of goods, and explore the famed Saadian Tombs and the rooms of La Bahia Palace, but his three winter-weary clients were not up to Marrakesh’s 90+ heat and unforgiving sun. Lunch on a terrace overlooking the square was a much-appreciated break. As was returning to my patio oasis after another attempt through the endless bazaar.


I understand why Morocco draws visitors from all over the planet, some returning again and again. This was my second trip, and I left feeling I still have so much more to explore. The hospitality is genuine, the food delicious, the roads and infrastructure excellent, the countryside everything from dramatic mountains to deserts to beaches, the cities vibrant, art and architecture extraordinary, and the history fascinating. I hope to return and see my friend Ismail’s smiling face as he unveils more wonderful treasures of his homeland.




For more information about planning your travel adventures, contact DreamMaker Destinations: dz@dreammaker.org or call 330-689-1920.


 


 

Donna Zabel, owner of DreamMaker Destinations, has been helping travelers turn their travel dreams into travel reality for over 20 years. Having explored all seven continents and about 135 countries, she enjoys sharing her travel tales and encourages everyone to find their own story to tell.

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