We landed in Marrakesh on new years eve. On the plane we ran into an old friend of mine – Fia, and her boyfriend Herman. We shared a taxi from the airport to Djeema El Fna and the old city. It is a frenzy of colorful fruit vendors, snake charmers and every imaginable form of transportation criss crossing from every direction. Hotel Cecil was a calm, but freezing cold, oasis in the midst of sellers, hustlers and leather jackets (worn by not a small percentage of Moroccans). From Else’s political engagement with the plight of Western Sahara we have been told that beneath the Djeema El Fna are prison facilities where political prisoners undergo torture. The lively sounds from above are audible to the detainees.
From the square are entrances to the numerous and seemingly endless souqs (covered markets) full of handicrafts, sweets, fabrics and hordes of people. On a casual walk through the Djeema I got jack-in-the-boxed by a snake charmer who managed to place a snake around my neck, but briefly. A moment later the same thing happened again with a different guy. My phobia got the upper hand whereby a paralyzed photo shoot, led to a large payment and a hurried escape. Walking around the small alleys were accompanied by a constant barrage of sales pitching from shop owners to hashish salesmen. A mesmerizing display of colors and frantic activity.
New years eve was spent at Grand Hotel Tazi in the company of Fia and Herman. The sale of alcohol is forbidden within a certain distance from any mosque. Tazi lies on the outskirts of the old city. The place had a casablancaesque feel with a blend of seemingly stranded foreigners and local characters. Tables were decorated with empty beer bottles in compliance with the manual counting that constituted the check at the end of the night. Celebrations were lively as troupes of male and female musicians patrolled the premises.
Out looking for dinner at 2 :00 in the morning we were caught in the middle of an argument. We ‘re standing by the counter to order food when a bottle is suddenly thrown past us into the face of an unsuspecting youth. Blood pours down his face as the culprit and his posse are hyping up the mood for a fight. There is shouting back and forth as more people rush in to see what the commotion is about. The police arrived as we left. This was to be the first of several Moroccan street fights we were to find ourselves in the middle of. The next took place in the alleyway exiting our hotel. A crowd stood cheering at the entrance to the Djeema El Fna. Suddenly a panicked individual tears past us followed by another gentleman with a bottle knife (which he had to hit the wall four times to make). Its hard to speculate the conclusion of the disagreement, but the show moved elsewhere. The third and most dramatic episode took place in Fez. While walking through a narrow souq the dense stream of people suddenly stopped and began filtering to the side. This revealed an individual with a crazed look brandishing an axe and a machete, placed across his chest like a hammer & sickle. We jumped into a nearby store and watch him and his friends (also with machetes) parade around threateningly until the intended victim disappeared into an alleyway with his would be assailants close behind.
We spent days just walking around the maze that is Marrakesh’s sensory overloading markets and alleyways. The skyline is dominated by minarets and satellite dishes as far as the eye can see. Non-Muslims are forbidden to enter all but a handful of mosques in Morocco and occupied Western Sahara. Elegant decoration and mosaics have to be viewed from the outside (much is hidden from sight). The leather tanneries was a highlight whereby young men waded through pools of different chemicals and animal feces in the process of treating leather skins. Opportunist and hustlers stood by offering their services at every turn. The quantity of people and density of crowds seems to increase dramatically right before sunset. We discovered a place rife with turtles and chameleons which became a daily pilgrimage site. The use of Arabic proves a useful icebreaker often leading to goodwill and hospitality. Else has been picking up vocabulary like a parrot. Another interesting sight was the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter. We visited an old synagogue that seemed abandoned by all except a rapidly aging rabbi. The Jewish community emigrated elsewhere and especially to Israel a long time ago. A vast cemetery of unidentifiable slab stones remain to account for a presence spanning back many centuries. From the walls of an old royal castle we could see the snow peaked Atlas mountains. Storks line the walls majestically.
Our stay was concluded with a celebratory farewell to Fia and Herman counting bottles of beer in grand hotel Tazi. The next day we boarded a train for Fez. A relaxing seven hour train ride on Morocco’s small, but efficient rail network.
Outside the walls of the old city we were assailed by a group of porters. Before the taxi driver had been paid our bags were disappearing into the depth of the medina. We were lead downwards through a maze of dimly lit alleyways. The sun had set when we reached our hotel. The porter trio put on an a theatrical act when their services weren’t rewarded more handsomely. The ringleader begins complaining angrily and loud. The others make a display of trying to calm him down. I was familiar with this type of situation from dealing with long distance transport in the Middle East. We showed little interest in these dramatics and he settled for less.
Old city Fez is a dense and sprawling collection of people and houses spread out along the maze of veins stretching from the two large souqs. These are lined with stalls and vendors reaching endlessly into the distance at any given time. The display of colour and smell is mesmerizing. One has to wade through a river of people to get anywhere. The city had been an important capital of knowledge and education for the Islamic world in earlier times. Mosques and madrasas dominate the skyline. Blue signs on walls give an approximation as to where one is heading, but not an exact science. We found it easier to get lost and miraculously find our way back to the hotel each evening. Usually with items we had not planned to buy, but skillfully convinced to do so.
Islamic architecture and colorful mosaics give Fez a distinct look and feel. We spent the days roaming randomly through the historic alleyways and markets. The nights were cold and we froze from the lack of warm clothes. We decided to make a detour on the road to Tangier. We jumped into a shared taxi with two Spanish women and went northwards to Chefchouan, at the foot of the Riff-mountains.
The Riff-mountains are situated on the border with Algeria (which remains closed). This historical lawless area is today the centre of Morocco's vast hashish production. The city of Ketama is the capital of cultivation whilst much is transported onwards through Chefchouan. The majority is headed for European markets, but also to the rest of Morocco. On the road to Chefchouan we stopped at a random roadside cafe where every single customer was rolling or smoking joints. As we have later learned and observed this is a popular pastime among many Moroccans all the way down to the Western Sahara. The sale of hash proved a dominant feature of the tourism as offers were plentiful and foreigners obviously seemed to get stuck there.
The old city of Chefchouan begins at the foot and continues along the sides of two towering mountains. A distinctive characteristic is the fact that the majority of houses are painted in a light blue colour. We found a hotel with an impressive roof top terrace with a panoramic view over the city. The city had a relaxed pace and days were spent wandering the maze of blue houses, shops and eateries. Fresh fruit juice and black Moroccan coffee was plentiful. A good place to read and relax after the hectic atmospheres of Marrakesh and Fez. Each day as the sun set we would sit on the roof and listen to the blare of minarets announcing the call to prayer. A crescendo of noise from every direction that concludes in a sudden silence.
The kasbah (walled garden) had been a prison in colonial times, but now offers a panoramic view over the blue houses and cafes that lie facing the Friday mosque. A religiously adherent man stood at the top of the stairs hoping to bring converts to Islam. Redemption could be found on a certain Internet site. Chefchouan became the start of a project to locate local hip-hop music from our different destinations. It was playing on the street many places and local youths were more than eager to help me. We spent 3-4 days here on a holiday from our holiday.
After a near violent confrontation between our driver and another gentleman we were ready to leave. Packed into a small car with a group of Spaniards we made our way to Tangier. The northernmost point of our trip through Western Africa.
We found a rundown hotel in the Petit Socco of the historical old city. Tangier had been administered as an international zone by European powers until 1956/7. Then followed Moroccan independence. During the international period it had flourished as a hedonistic playground of male prostitutes, alcohol and drugs.Writers like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs either spent time or lived here for most of the 1950’s. «Naked lunch» was written in a Tangier drug haze.
Today the Petit Socco and the old city display a charming deterioration that hints at its former glory. With independence came a clampdown on alcohol and immorality in the medina which signalled the end of the city’s glory days. Colonial buildings line the street in distinct styles of those present: France, Spain, Italy and Germany.
Tangier used to be a destination in itself, but these days many Europeans simply use it as a transit junction for onwards travel. This also rings true for the scores of African migrants on the final frontier towards Europe. This was a place where many had gotten stuck. It coincides with a rising crime wave and a consensus among locals (we spoke to) that these migrants were to blame. We encountered a guy from Nigeria who politely asked us for change. He was eager to make his way to Norway in the hopes of finding work.
A brand new port area was being constructed in a series of moves by the king to redesign Tangier’s image outwards. Behind the port lies a collection of dusty colonial buildings, in sun bleached neglect, leading to the entrance of the old city. An old man (& unofficial tour guide), with a striking resemblance to Ghandi, offered to navigate us through the maze of dark alleyways and historical buildings. He had lived there his whole life and witnessed the city’s historical transitions. We felt charmed by the city’s rich history and architecture coated in grit.
The Petit Socco has a special air of neglect and exhaustion which hangs thick over the old city. At nighttime the badly lit alleyways of the square are filled with hashish dealers. The customers shuffle off into one of the Socco’s cafe’s or balconies. Alcohol is forbidden. We left on a first class train to Rabat, the country’s administrative capital.
Rabat is a congested and polluted city filled with a symphony of blaring car horns. The old city does not boast impressive architecture as little survived the period of colonial administration. Today its a busy network of parallel streets full of shops and street vendors. A great place for baked goods and pirated DVDs. There is nothing there to attract the vast numbers of tourists that visit Morocco annually. Locals seemed genuinely surprised to see us there. The atmosphere was more relaxed and hospitable.
On our way to find Chinese food an officer of the Gendarmes eagerly offered to drive us. We found it, but it was closed. So he drove us to another. He welcomed us warmly to Morocco and went on his way. We walked back to the old city. Only the street sweepers were out by the time we got back to our hotel.
The next day Else woke up with a fever, but till managed to walk around for a bit. Walking along the parallel boulevards leading into the new city one could see a political demonstration outside the parliament building. In addition to many African migrants selling their wares to finance the trip northwards to Europe. The most persistent salesmen were the hordes of shoe shiners. Several seemed to pass by in the course of any given minute.
Although a destination of little interest in itself it was a relaxing place to pass a few days. At this point little did we know that we would be returning in the near future. We reached Casablanca by train after little more than an hour.
Is the financial centre of Morocco. Many rural migrants flock here in the hopes of work and a better quality of life. The result is an enormous strain on society. Social problems have increased dramatically and many are forced into lives of crime to eek out a living.
The city has an almost completely white/greyish colour (hence the name), but looks tired and run down. The contrasts are enormous. The romanticism evoked by the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman film is limited to its name. It was never filmed in Morocco and the name was admittedly chosen for its exotic appeal.
We chose a more expensive hotel this time, but with little evidence of luxury of any sort. We did however find a decent place serving beer and tapas. This necessitated a celebratory dinner with casa beer, the national brand, which stems from the city.
Although the city is gritty and worn down at every turn it has an air of charm similar to that of Tangier. The city is architecturally based on the city of Marseilles and is the largest Moroccan city in terms of inhabitants. It seems to have had a progressive development as very few women wore veils, but more importantly were very visible in the work force. The current king has been credited with implementing changes towards the balance of gender in Moroccan society. Women are equal in education and employment possibilities – no longer expected to remain within the sphere of the home.
The next day we visited the second largest mosque in the world (the first being Mecca). We arrived during Friday prayer and were therefore prevented to enter. This is one of the few mosques were entrance is admitted to non-Muslims. A relatively new mosque, but extensively decorated in colorful mosaics and situated next to a beach. A green laser at the top projects the direction of Mecca onto the night sky. We caught a bus going further south to Essouaira to relax by the seaside and escape the stress of large Moroccan cities.
We arrived in the middle of the night and were instantly surrounded by ladies offering accommodation. We settled on a charming lady who lead us through the darkness into the old city. A myriad of small alleyways spread out like veins from the main souqs. Hashish salesmen were hissing or whispering as we passed. We were delivered at the hotel and she retired for the evening. My Arabic skills surprised the proprietor who smilingly invited us for tea in the morning.
Essouira used to be Morocco’s most important commercial harbour, but was eclipsed by Casablanca following the onset of independence. The city is famous for the string of artists that have graced the city with their presence. This includes Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens. There used to be a large hippie commune in Essouira. This is also the place that inspired Norway’s Torbjorn Egner to write «Kardemommeby».
The streets are full of small shops selling food, music and souvenirs. Restaurants and cafes that line the streets are overflowing with European tourists. We spent time exploring the harbour with its busy fish-market. Fishermen are busy untangling nets and readying their boats. The sky is full of screeching seagulls that swoop down and grab whatever they can from the daily catch. The market is surrounded by a light blue sea and smooth beach as far as the eye can see. In the distance are camels and sand buggies to cater for the needs of tourists. A crumbled castle lies in the area. Some claim this is the inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’s song «Castles made of sand», but unprobable as it was released before he ever visited Morocco.
We spent a long time here – drinking, eating and relaxing. This was the warmest place we had encountered in Morocco so far. Towards the end of our stay we suddenly became aware that Mauritania was no longer offering visas for sale at the border. This meant that we had to travel back to Rabat to apply at the embassy.
We managed the trip in the course of a day. The visa process was straightforward, but time consuming as the immigration official took great care to teach us applicants proper queue etiquette. This was a skill in which only a handful of us already mastered. There were a lot of French tourists traveling overland. We had some beers at the bar opposite the train station and headed back to our first point of entry, Marrakesh.
Marrakesh & the Ourika Valley
We had some time to kill so we employed the services of a taxi driver to take us up into the Ourika valley, in the Atlas mountains. The Atlas mountains is a Berber stronghold. They inhabited this area before the arrival of the Arabs. Reaching the Ourika valley one drives past numerous villages that spill over into the road with activity. In the background are mountains covered in snow.
We reached a small village and were entrusted to a local guide. He led us up a steep gorge until we reached a large waterfall. After some slippery patches of ice we began walking around the side of the mountain. The landscape was dusty and dry, but the view was breathtaking. Good trip, but was left feeling a little bit hustled by mentioned taxi driver.
Back in Marrakesh, we got on a bus and began the long haul southwards to Laayoune, capital of occupied Western Sahara.