A royal retreat

Morocco has architecture, beaches, great food, and rich culture...and an old-world charm that touches your heart

Morocco seemed mystical. The Moors of Morocco are legendary. Who wouldn’t have heard of Shakespearian Othello, the dark Moor valiantly wooing the fair Desdemona? I was curious to unfold the treasures the country held.

Surely, Morocco has a mystery around it. A North African country, it is a land of high mountains and valleys, deserts and sea fronts. Tales of Morocco brought to the eyes beautiful veiled women and dark, tough men riding camels and horses. The cities too had romantic names. The name Casablanca was alluring perhaps because of the popular Hollywood movie of the same name. Rabat, Meknes, Fes and Marrakech also have a magical ring to their names.

Morocco is a country that surprises tourists wanting to explore its treasures. It is a modern country with an oriental touch. It has natural marvels, heritage stone structures, plush complexes, ancient fort walls and medinas—what more could a holiday maker ask for?

We flew down to Casablanca, which nestles along the North Atlantic coast, to start our royal tour of the country. The first interesting information we got was that Morocco is a land of colours with one colour dominating each city. The colour for Casablanca, the commercial capital of Morocco, is white. Meandering through its streets, you will notice white buildings and residential complexes all along the way. That is the reason why the Portuguese named it as ‘Casa Branca’ and the Spanish changed it to ‘Casablanca’ meaning ‘white house’ [blanca means white, casa means house].

Casablanca is a pleasant city of old and new. An important ancient port, it was envied by many dynasties, right from the Almoravids of the 10th century to the more recent Portuguese, Spanish and French. The French have left their indelible stamp on its buildings, beaches, restaurants and culture. Wherever you go in this city, you will be greeted in French and are sure to get a warm response from the city dwellers if you speak French. Walking along the footpaths, you will notice the locals enjoying coffee at roadside cafes even as ‘petit’ taxis ply on the road.

All this will remind you of Champs Elysees of Paris, more so, when you take a leisurely stroll on the beautifully laid pathways of La Cornice. With palm lined trees, road side kiosks and restaurants overlooking the sandy beaches and frothing waters of the Atlantic Ocean, you definitely get a feeling of being in France. This scenic seafront is also buzzing with activity in the evenings. The locals can be seen enjoying their breezy sunset walk, the hawkers selling their wares, the tourists enjoying their ice creams and the restaurants doing brisk business serving tea and snacks to patrons.

From here you can gaze with wonder at the Hasan II mosque—the architectural marvel of Casablanca and the second largest mosque in the world. Thousands of tourists visit the holy place daily to admire its screen work and enamel colouring. It is as majestic on the outside as it is on the inside. With a green and cream combination, it has the highest minaret in the world rising to a height of 270ft. Visitors to the mosque can have a beautiful view of the Atlantic and the scene opposite with the tall 42m high El Hank light house catching your eye.

To get familiar with the architecture of the place, take a guided tour inside. The prayer hall has a gigantic glass floor on which 25,000 devotees can offer their prayers at a time. The spacious courtyard outside can accommodate another 80,000 worshippers. Do take a walk through the pillared verandah that takes you to the library and Koranic school. There are so many things to do in the mosque that spending even a few hours may seem insufficient.

Casablanca has many green zones that match admirably with the white structures of the city. The most visited park in the city is ‘Parc de La Ligue Arabe.’ With heritage buildings and swaying palms all around, it is the choice destination for many walkers.

From Casablanca, head to Rabat. Set in the middle of Morocco’s coastline, Rabat is the administrative capital of Morocco and official residence of the King. A walk through the streets of the city will make its dominating colour— green—evident to you. The city does not hold as many attractions as the other cities. One place you shouldn’t miss here is the Kasbah of the Oudaias, the old city with sturdy fort walls built in the 11th century. It is interesting to climb its narrow winding steps flanked by shops and houses. Try the rooftop restaurant overlooking the beach to taste Moroccon tea served by stewards dressed in their traditional best.

Other places to visit in the city are the Mausoleum of Mohammad V, who was the architect of the unfinished Hasan Towers opposite it. He had played a key role in Morocco’s independence. The Mausoleum is an impressive white and green structure. Inside it, the artistic chandeliers light up the coloured mosaics and stained glass decorations.

The pulse of Morocco can be felt in the royal cities of Meknes, Fez and Marrakech—cities that have served as the Capital of the Kingdom at some point. Here you will find ornamental palaces with huge gates, long winding fortresses and vibrant bazaars. Driving from Casablanca through the Atlas mountains is a tourist’s delight.

Meknes, once the capital of Sultan Moulay Ismail, has magnificent gates that are considered to be the best preserved in the Islamic world. With sturdy sandstone walls and beautifully crafted embellishments they are heritage structures. The Kasbah or the fortress guarding the palace are interesting to explore. Visit the mosque, the stables and the courtyard to get a glimpse of the lifestyles of the Sultans. Take a walk from the water reservoir to the beautiful garden dotted with date palms to take in the surroundings at leisure. When you have soaked in the royal feeling, head to its colourful bazaars to shop for curios and enamel or bidri [silver inlay on black base] work.

Fez reminds you of ancient Morocco. To reach this oriental city from Meknes, you pass through the Middle Atlas mountains and touch Volubilis, the ancient Roman capital that is now in ruins. Stop at Volubilis, which faces the holy town of Moulay Idris, to understand Roman civilisation. Volubilis will also give you a hint of the turbulent history of Morocco till the 4th century. Wandering through its dilapidated courtyards, market places, pillared homes, libraries and assembly halls, it is easy to be transported to a bygone era of Kings, courtiers and their lavish lifestyles.

Fez is one of the oldest and largest medieval cities in the world and its colour is blue. Tourists flock to this cultural capital of Morocco to admire its fine ornamental palaces, age old madrasas, masjids and medinas. The Fez palace has exquisitely carved doors with gold and blue enamel work. The medieval medina, a UNESCO world heritage site, is an interesting place to visit. With tiny shops, houses, Koranic schools and open-air tanneries, the Fez Bazaar is the best place to shop for blue pottery, leather handbags, embroidered kurtis and dry fruits. Only be sure to stick to your tour group, lest you may lose your way in the meandering haze of narrow lanes.

If you want to discover an old-world Arab town with its myriad activities, walk through the bylanes of this bazaar. You will pass donkeys carrying loads and wheel carts driven by locals. The shopkeepers on either side of the lane will call out loud to you to buy their spices, dates, sweets and curios. Walking past the shops you may arrive at a tannery. The hitch is that you may have to climb up to the terrace to get a clear view of the leather processing and may have to bear with the foul smell.

Down below is the showroom that has handbags, wall hangings and clutch purses displayed in vibrant colours. The brassware shop further down the lane has a stunning display of plates, bowls and vases. In the potter’s shop, you will get a chance to witness the complete pot making process—from the rolling of clay to moulding, colouring and heating. In any shop you visit here, you will first be offered Moroccon mint tea, even before you make your choice. Nights in Fez are as interesting as the days. At night, restaurants in Fez come alive with special shows that give you a taste of the best of Moroccon folk music, belly dancing and food.

Then, it’s time to head to Marrakech, which is red. Contrasting with the pinkish red hue of its buildings, are its beautiful gardens like the one in Minara with reflecting pools and olive orchards. The tall minaret of Koutoubia mosque looms over the city’s landscape. It’s a pleasure to stroll through the broad footpaths of the city admiring the beautiful flower beds.

The Djeema El Fna public square of Marrakech is a window to the sights and smell of Morocco. It comes alive in the evenings with tempting food stalls, henna painters, story-tellers and traditional dancers. The Marrakech market just behind is a shopper’s delight especially for those interested in buying Berber jewellery, enchantingly created with silver and semi-precious stones. But you need to use your bargaining skills to get the right price.

To learn about Berber customs and experience the hospitality of the locals, visit a Berber village near Marrakech. The breathtaking mountain scenery will add to the pleasure of your visit. Marrakech is a city of surprises and it is a rewarding experience to be here before bidding goodbye to Morocco.

Fact file

Location: North Africa

Capital: Rabat

Currency: Moroccon Dirham. [1 USD = DH 9 approx]

To reach: Flights ply from Delhi and Mumbai to Casablanca via Gulf ports. From Casablanca you can reach other cities by road.

Best season: October – December and March – May

Carry: Good walking shoes, sunscreen lotion, camera, cotton clothes and light woollens for High Atlas.

Shop for: Carpets, blue pottery, silk scarves, leather handbags, enamel work, dry fruits, ceramics, jewellery.

This was first published in the February 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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